Does your mother read e-books? Quite possibly. But do you? And how about your friends? In the past few years, it has become apparent that e-books aren’t quite ‘the future’ in the way they were once thought to be. In 2011, when Amazon sold more e-books than print copies, the conventional wisdom said that the Kindle and its contemporaries would sound the death knell for print, seen as an obstinate holdover from a bygone era. Contrary to expectations, the market for e-books, which peaked in 2014, has been on a steady downward spiral ever since: in 2016, sales fell by 17%, reaching their lowest level since their promising debut. In 2015, Young Adult e-books plummeted 44%. Furthermore, according to Pew Research, e-reader ownership fell from 32% of U.S. adults to 19% between early 2014 and late 2015.
Young people have fallen out of love with books, e-books, and e-readers, but they have not fallen out of love with stories. This demographic is best reached via the medium they are most comfortable with, through stories that capture a technologically conditioned attention span. With a rapidly expanding portion of everyday life now cast through smartphone screens, a wave of technologically savvy solutions like Netflix, Spotify, and Snapchat have made entertainment and communication cheaper, more compact, and more accessible than ever before. In order to thrive, fiction must follow suit. This is why the e-reader is now sometimes considered ‘the next iPod’ — a one-time trailblazer ushered into obsolescence by the phone and the tablet.
The Second Coming of Serialized Fiction
Nearly 60% of people who enjoy e-books now use their smartphones to read stories at least some of the time. This is up from 24 percent just a couple of years ago. There is also a rapidly growing category of literature read and distributed on phones, marking a departure from the e-book form. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are now using their phones to read web fiction serials.
The mobile-first tendencies of East Asian countries, most notably China, resulted in smartphone fiction serials becoming a huge phenomenon. The Boston Consulting Group estimated that around 90% of web browsing in China is conducted on mobile phones—because of the early and pervasive influence smartphones enjoyed, e-readers never really took off in this part of the world, so people jumped straight into online fiction serials on their smartphones.
In 2014, the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) estimated that China had 293 million readers of serialized online fiction, more than 40% of total internet users in the country. In a matter of few years, this number has increased by 330 million, according to Forbes Asia, whose coverage of this phenomenon is illuminating:
“To Yuwei Pan, a regular fix of Chinese novels on her smartphone makes her daily commute a pleasure. But these aren’t just normal stories. Chinese e-books are often serialized; readers wait for the latest chapters of a story, much like viewers catch up with the newest episodes of ‘Game of Thrones.’
They also provide an interactive reading experience, where readers and writers can discuss and co-develop the plot.” — Forbes Asia
According to Wei Cui, the former CEO of the country’s biggest online literature website Qidian, “The smartphone/mobile app is the ideal carrier for serialized fiction, since I know nearly 90% of sales for qidian.com were conveyed via handset.” Zhang Wei, one of the most popular online serial fiction authors in China, earned a staggering $16.8 million in 2015 through mobile micropayments and intellectual property rights, and cites serialization as one of the foundations of his success. Mr. Wei notes that “China’s model — in which fans read daily updates of online novels — has not been replicated in any other country.” Given that China is a few years ahead of the West in its embrace of mobile technology, it is prescient to suggest that the time is now ripe for the English speaking world to implement this model of fiction.
Narrative is a key component of the human experience that can be traced back to pre-literate societies that relied on oral communication. It is therefore acutely susceptible to social, cultural and technological changes. The Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to serialization the first time around, drastically altered patterns of human behavior just as the Digital Revolution is doing today. The rise of the printing press facilitated broad new methods of distribution, which allowed the serialized novel to flourish, as first evidenced by the success of Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers. Digital culture expert Frank Rose even goes so far as to argue that the serial composition of his work allowed him to crowdsource his stories:
“The really remarkable thing about Dickens was the way he communed with his readers. An unanticipated result of this was that when books were published over a period of 19 or 20 months, readers had a chance to have their say with the author while the novel was still being written. And Dickens relished this. He took note of their comments and suggestions, and he loved interacting with them on the lecture circuit as well. One of his biographers described it as ‘a sense of immediate audience participation.” — Frank Rose, author of the The Art of Immersion
Given the magnitude of changes taking place today, a return to serialization seems to be the perfect way to adapt literature for a fickle modern attention span that thrives on easy availability and instant gratification. An uncanny, organic revival of dime novels and pulp fiction magazines is now taking place on Chinese smartphones. The Chinese literary superstar Mr. Wei agrees, and seems to have appropriated Dickens’ idea of engagement with readers: “With online literature, you can publish your installments as soon as you finish them and discuss them with readers very quickly… With online writing, you only need a few thousand characters to start off your book and to show your readers what you’re writing.”
Content Follows Form: “Mobile Fiction”
Though we in the English-speaking world are still quite a way behind Asia, the gap is not as wide as it may seem. There have already been bestsellers and Hollywood blockbusters that originated as serials with web-based delivery. Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the highest-selling books of all time, began as an online serial on fanfiction.net, which led to a serial on E.L. James’ own website. Furthermore, The Martian by Andy Weir — adapted for the big screen by Ridley Scott — was also originally published online as a serial. Weir released the book chapter by chapter on his website, soliciting feedback from his readers along the way. One of the reasons the science in the novel is so accurate is that he gave experts the chance to weigh in with corrections on early drafts.
Both Andy Weir and E.L. James launched hugely successful careers in traditional publishing and Hollywood on the back of their online serial fiction popularity. But they are exceptions. Why? Most successful serial fiction ‘doesn’t work’ when printed on the pages of a traditional book (or e-book), just as you wouldn’t go watch shorter television shows in the cinema.
The prose style of “mobile fiction” tends to be more colloquial and direct, and the story structure is fragmented like a season of a television show. Rather than release in one go, mobile fiction writers serialize their stories in regular ‘updates,’ in the way that “Breaking Bad” is broken into episodes rather than watched whole. It draws you in, making you want to know what happens in the next episode (and if you’re reading it through an app, a push notification will let you know when it is out, building up your excitement). You also get to experience that collective moment so often lacking in this on-demand, anytime anywhere era we live in: the chapter comes out, you devour it, and you immediately share your reaction with others who were reading at the same time.
Given this inevitable trend towards smartphone reading, publishers and writers now need to produce content optimized for the smartphone reading experience. In her Cambridge lecture, author and Professor Kate Pullinger says she believes “being able to write for multiple digital platforms will become increasingly vital for authors.” It can be tempting for writers to keep publishing e-books and selling via Amazon, or try to snag a deal with a traditional publisher for print sales, but the recent history of fiction in East Asia suggests that the well-crafted serial could be a far more lucrative pursuit.
“I think serial narratives have their own power,” says Neil Gaiman, whose novel American Gods is being adapted to critical acclaim for Starz. “It’s something that comics exploit, that Dickens would exploit, that J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter. If you serialize a story then make people wait for the next thing, there is a level of investment which is enormous.” Web fiction that relies on episodic iteration can arguably maintain the interest of readers far better than an e-book. It can complement print fiction instead of replacing it by serving as an ‘anytime, anywhere’ alternative that slots seamlessly into modern life. It is relatively rare to encounter someone watching a movie on the subway, but YouTube videos are a readily available equivalent. Broken into 10-minute chunks, fiction can serve as the perfect panacea for hastening a commute or a boring lecture.
This new format of dissemination will present authors with new challenges and allow for fiction itself to evolve as they tailor their narratives to the medium, just as Netflix’s binge-ready content makes the most of its all-at-once method of delivery. In spite of the low level of commitment it demands, serialized fiction can still draw readers into its world and trigger a familiar rush when a push notification informs them that a new chapter has just been released.
A Netflix for Web Fiction?
Moving forward, the challenge for fiction lies in cultivating and conditioning a new generation of readers, one that spends a great deal of time in short bursts on mobile devices.
So what’s a writer to do? For the serial format, there hasn’t really been a viable way to monetize the way one can with a full e-book on the Kindle store. There are online serial platforms, but they are mostly community-driven websites like fanfiction.net, archiveofourown.org, and Wattpad, where a huge portion of the content is fanfiction that cannot be sold. To date, there is no fully fledged publishing ecosystem that encapsulates the production, consumption, and purchase of mobile fiction.
For the new mobile medium, the modus operandi of the publishing industry needs to be reconfigured. The film and music industries have been forced to adapt their approach to mobile by the emergence of Netflix and Spotify, which have raised the bar for mobile content by providing content and access that are tailored to the medium. Publishing appears far more resistant to change — e-book services in the vein of iBooks and Kindle merely make regular print content available for digital access, which ultimately leads to an experience that is essentially the same as buying a book. This is no longer enough: companies like Netflix and Spotify have been successful not just because of the access they provide, but also the value they add. Both platforms have adapted masterfully to the natures of their customers: Netflix through original content and an embrace of binge-watching culture, and Spotify through excellent curation and powerful music-discovery algorithms. This clear need for increased engagement with the mobile platform is compounded by the fact that the publishing industry in the United States is valued at about $30bn per year, double the music industry.
In China, online serial platforms are very much a part of the publishing infrastructure — they are distributed through a huge system that allows web fiction to generate staggering revenue. A ‘freemium’ web fiction platform called QiDian was developed by videogame giant Shanda, and now boasts hundreds of millions of members. The company has now been acquired by Chinese media giant Tencent and has recently filed for an IPO. QiDian solicits micropayments from readers through mobile applications in the same way as games like Candy Crush. Readers are able to ‘unlock’ the latest chapter of a serial immediately if they pay, or read for free if they are willing to wait a week.
Writers get paid for their serials — meaning they can devote more time to their craft, thereby producing higher-quality work. QiDian and its competitors have even created a class of web fiction multi-millionaires. These top online writers are known as “platinum authors” or zhigaoshen (the Supreme God) class of writers.
Like Netflix and Spotify, QiDian has been able to redefine the relationship between artist, distributor, and consumer for the mobile era. Until now, there has been no viable equivalent to this Chinese phenomenon for the English language.
That’s why we decided to create one.