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Meet a new kind of book, designed for the age of Peak TV

Here’s what it looks like when you write a book as if it’s a TV show.

A figure watches a TV built from books Javier Zarracina/Vox Media
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Some time ago, I found myself in need of a vacation read. I am a book critic, so this was an easily solved problem: I perused the enormous pile of books on my desk that had been sent to me by publishers, found a galley that didn’t look too dark or esoteric, and set out for the beach with it. Bookburners, it was called.

Many pages later, I put down the book in a state of profound confusion. I wasn’t confused by the plot, which was deeply readable: It was the story of a black ops team working on behalf of the Vatican to exorcise demons from books, and it followed the team all over the world as they traveled to one beautiful city after another to kick demon butt.

Nor was I confused by the writing, which was zippy and fun, if oddly variable from chapter to chapter.

But I couldn’t make heads or tails of the structure.

Each chapter of Bookburners was a discrete unit, with its own three-act structure and a clear ending, but I couldn’t call the book a series of vignettes, exactly; there was too much of a through-line for that. There was a twist toward the end that arrived earlier than it would have in a traditional novel; it felt like the twist that typically comes four episodes before the end of a 22-episode season of television. (Think Tara dying and Willow turning evil in the 19th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, as opposed to the big reveal that traditionally comes in the penultimate chapter of every Harry Potter book.) In fact, the whole thing felt kind of like a TV show, just in text form.

But it was a book! Why, I wondered, would you structure a book like a season of television? It made no sense! The flow was disrupted; Bookburners felt like a story that did not want to be swallowed whole but rather read in discrete bites, one after another. I couldn’t lie on the beach and lose myself in it because it actively did not want me to do so.

Then I looked up Bookburners online, and everything became clear.

Bookburners was one of the first works published by Serial Box, a service that aims to become the HBO of serialized fiction; I was reading a novel/TV show hybrid, a book that was designed to read like a season of television. Its very existence displayed a major reversal of how we’ve traditionally thought about these two media: TV once aspired to be called “novelistic,” but now, in an age in which TV is increasingly described as “better than books,” here was a book built to act like a TV show.

“I need to understand everything about this,” I thought to myself, and made some calls to Serial Box.

Over a series of conversations, I was introduced to a new way of thinking about written narrative fiction that pulls heavily from the way we think about TV in 2018, and that seeks to lend the ever-endangered medium of the book some of TV’s bright Golden Age sheen. Here’s how you try to create a new kind of written fiction for the age of Peak TV.

Turning chapters into episodes, and narrative arcs into seasons

Bookburners season 3 Serial Box

Serial Box’s serials are built roughly on the TV show model. Like most TV shows, each title has a writers’ room, with one or two showrunners leading the charge. The showrunners develop a bible that contains all of the necessary information and backstory for the world and the characters, and the writers’ room works together to break down each “season” into episodic chunks that are helmed by individual writers.

Every week, Serial Box publishes a chapter-length episode for its active serials. (Just like a TV show, each serial goes on hiatus for part of the year.) You can buy chapters on their own ($1.99 each), buy a season pass that gives you access to one season of a specific serial ($16.99 to $22.99 depending on the length of the season), or subscribe to a whole serial ($1.59 per episode no matter how many seasons or episodes are ultimately produced). You can read episodes via the Serial Box app, on the Serial Box website, or download them to one of your own devices.

Each episode is designed to take 40 minutes to read, so that you can finish one during the average two-way commute. Once a “season” of any given story is complete, after 10 to 16 episodes, it’s bound together into a book, the way an arc of a comic book is bound together and sold as a graphic novel. In the case of Bookburners, the bound version of season one was what had ended up in my galley pile.

The challenges and benefits of trading the singular author for a collaborative writing team

Tremontaine Serial Box

Serial Box was founded by Julian Yap, a former lawyer for the Department of Justice, and Molly Barton, who used to oversee Penguin Random House’s global e-book strategy. It emerged in part out of a desire to problem-solve for writers.

For Barton, serialized fiction seemed like the best solution to a very basic problem she encountered again and again among authors she worked with: “One of the ways popular authors outgrow their following is having trouble consistently coming back with new books on a regular schedule,” she told me over the phone. “But it’s hard to write great fiction on a regular schedule.”

With serialized fiction written by a TV-style writers’ room, the requirement to produce great fiction gets delegated. It becomes easier to put everything together. “You each write about 30,000 to 40,000 words [over a season], and altogether you end up with a book of about 120,000 words,” explains Bookburners showrunner Max Gladstone.

For readers, the pitch is that Serial Box marries the best of two media: “Serial Box brings everything that’s awesome about TV (easily digestible episodes, team-written, new content every week) to what was already cool about books (well-crafted stories, talented authors, enjoyable anywhere),” promises the website.

“I was aware that for many people, reading a book can feel rather slow and daunting compared to other media forms at this point. It’s harder to fit into your life,” says Barton. “Let’s go back to the Dickens model. Let’s be Shonda Rhimes for books, and harness the power of telling a little bit of the story each week, and really take pleasure in consuming the story bit and bit, and being able to switch seamlessly from reading to audio.” (Serial Box also publishes its serials in audiobook form.)

But there’s a danger that the television-style writers’ room that makes Serial Box an attractive sell to writers might dilute the sell to readers; namely, that books come with distinctive voices from authors they already know and love.

In a Serial Box serial, each episode is written by a different author, and the author’s narrative voice is responsible for everything: not just the dialogue, but also details about what the world and the clothes look like and what the reader can “see” — details that, onscreen, would be handled by set dressers and costumers and directors. Serialized books don’t have the same crew around from week to week providing a consistent aesthetic, the way that TV shows do; in effect, you are getting not just a new writer but also a new director and art department and actors and editors every single episode.

So to keep a serial from getting jarringly inconsistent each week, the writers’ room has to develop a voice. But to keep the voice compelling, each writer has to maintain a certain amount of individuality.

“There’s a balance to be struck there, always,” says Gladstone. “On the one hand, you probably don’t want one episode of a series to feel like it was written by Virginia Woolf and another episode to feel like it was written by Joyce Carol Oates. But if you have two authors who have markedly different styles, there’s enormous artistic potential in how the two voices talk to each other.”

“In the end we decided: Try to sound as much alike as possible, but don’t go crazy,” says Ellen Kushner, author of the beloved Riverside series of novels and the showrunner for Tremontaine, a Serial Box prequel to her Riverside books.

She says she spent a lot of the first season of Tremontaine revising each chapter to make the voice consistent (“The secret sauce is me,” she admits), but now that Tremontaine is four seasons in, she finds that her team has developed a house voice that it can maintain on its own.

In the serial world, structure dictates voice

The ideal balance between authorial voices depends on what episodic structure any given serial wants to take on. One like Tremontaine is almost purely novelistic in its sensibility and voices — it sprawls like a TV season, but you can binge-read it like a particularly long fantasy epic. In part, that’s because it is Kushner’s brainchild. “I don’t really watch TV,” she says. “I don’t know that aesthetic.”

Kushner brought in other writers to function as her “TV brain,” but the idea of structuring each chapter like an episode of television was foreign to her. Instead, she turned to the model of the short story. “When I wrote episode 1x01, it was great!” she says. “Everyone came back and was like, ‘This is the first chapter of a novel.’ And I was like, ‘So?’ And they were like, ‘Where is the tension?’ So each episode,” she concludes, “has to be treated as a genuine short story.”

That’s part of why the Tremontaine writers’ room had to develop a consistent voice under Kushner’s supervision: There isn’t much space, in a series of connected short stories, for the narrator’s voice to veer around.

But Bookburners is what Gladstone describes as “a monster-of-the-week serial” in the mode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files, “where every week there’s some core supernatural issue to be resolved.” Within the monster-of-the-week format, there’s more leeway to swing between tones and voices from episode to episode.

Gladstone’s other serial, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, has more of a prestige drama structure, like Breaking Bad: “There’s forward momentum,” Gladstone says, “but each episode will raise and answer its own questions.” Thus, the voice needs to be tighter and more consistent.

Tremontaine is now entering its fourth and final season, and Bookburners is in its fourth. In the meantime, Serial Box has begun to branch out into nonfiction with serials like 1776, a collaboration with the Associated Press. It currently has 16 serials in total, all of which are actively publishing or soon will be.

The overall approach seems a lot more logical and reasonable to me now than it did when I opened up the first season of Bookbinders without any idea of what I was looking at and tried to read it like a novel — but I also haven’t been able to read most of Serial Box’s serials all in one go. They seem to resist binge-reading.

But if the company is successful in its goal to become the HBO of serialized fiction, if serials become the go-to thing people read on their commutes and lunch breaks and at night before they fall asleep — if they are successful at flooding the market in five or 10 years, will the structure of that Bookburners galley still feel so intuitively strange to me? Or will it simply feel like the way we read now, and perhaps the way we will read for years in the future?

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Bookburners was in its third season. It’s in its fourth.

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