In the ongoing war for our attention, books are losing. Badly.
That’s not new. It’s well-known that most people prefer TV shows to tomes. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has been tracking how Americans spend their free time since 2003 and, on average, we spend more than two hours each day watching TV — and only 19 minutes reading.
So to get modern readers’ attention, some publishers are taking a cue from Charles Dickens and releasing their books in installments. A company called Serial Box is leading the charge by blending 19th century serial publishing with 21st century TV script writing.
Here’s how it works: Serial Box releases what it has dubbed an “episode” of each book every week for 10 to 16 weeks, or a “season.” Each episode, in ebook or audiobook form, is 40 minutes long.
In an interview with NPR, Serial Box founder Molly Barton explained, “We’re not just chopping up novels and sending out chapters.” The company uses a team of writers to flesh out a season. Each episode can be read as a standalone vignette or readers can keep pace weekly to see the bigger picture.
It’s a novel idea to get people reading more, well, novels.
But it also seems unlikely to lure serious TV junkies away from the screen. In 2014, Pew Research Center found that nearly a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single book during that year.
Don’t panic yet for the fate of literature. Pew also found that, on average, Americans read 11 books a year. That means those who do regularly read, don’t just nibble at books — they devour them. And all these statistics on the American reader have been fairly consistent since the rise of smartphones and Netflix. Readers are fairly set in their habits — which could present Serial Box with a problem as it tries to lure new consumers.
See, Serial Box wants to be the “HBO of books.” You’ve heard of binge-watching? Serial Box is aiming for binge-reading. The business model strikes us as more akin to cable TV than video streaming giants, though. TV devotees can binge-watch a series because entire seasons of shows are available at once. Serial Box subscribers have to wait a week for the next 40-minute installment.
For the reading faithful, that wait could throw a cramp in their nightly book fix. For the newly indoctrinated, it could keep them from slipping into the story.
The serials that Serial Box has available so far are filled with magic, politics and crime, which could hook fans of well-loved TV series such as “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards.” Yet serials run the same risk that all works of art created by multiple people over a long period of time do: a lack of consistency.
Don’t get us wrong: Anything that gets more people reading is A-OK with us. We admire this approachable, one-bit-at-a-time tactic. It could be a godsend for a niche market of readers.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the best method for binge-reading is the same today as it was in Dickens’ day: a good, old-fashioned book.
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