Rolling into the 19th century, printing had become so ubiquitous of an enterprise in Europe that publishers were faced with a unique problem: there’s just too much stuff to read out there. As printing costs plummeted, many publishers attempted to cash in on the emerging middle class by providing them with publications and books at cheaper and cheaper prices. Eventually, this race to the bottom had the unintended side effect of hampering profits for publishers, as consumers got used to paying less for works of writing, but not necessarily buying more print to make up for it. For desperate publishers, their problem was remedied by a format that changed the course of literary history: the serial.
When wielded by the right writer, serialization was a potent tool that allowed periodicals to retain enough readers to turn a profit, and elevate writers into stardom. Charles Dickens is considered by many to be a master of the serial, even if he was gaming the system by intentionally writing overly wordy stories to get paid more. Alexandre Dumas cranked out the sprawling epic The Count of Monte Cristo in a serialized format. As time went on serialized works became more and more commonplace, eventually lending itself to new forms of entertainment like radio plays and television shows. Serialization is so saturated into our media in the West, that we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about it.
In the past decade, electronic publishing as enabled writers to experiment with serialization again. Andy Weir, author of the bestseller The Martian, initially published his novel in a serialized format on his website. Many writers on the Kindle marketplace are dabbling in serials, and some are making quite a bit of money doing it. It was only a matter of time before publishers began to pay attention to serialization as a legitimate distribution model, and they are dipping their toes with Normal, the latest novel from comic book writer Warren Ellis. The four volume novel is plagued by small problems sour the whole experience, but I found myself thinking more and more about how major publishers are utilizing serial formats, and whether or not they are successful at it.
The scenario that Ellis works with is genuinely compelling. In a world beset by strife and conflict, the analysis of what our future holds becomes a lucrative business for the intellectual elite. Typically, these thinkers are divided into two groups: the “foresight strategists,” who work in non-profit and governmental sectors to develop solutions to potential problems, and the “strategic forecasters,” who work for corporate interests and security firms to shelter the rich from civil strife. Both of these groups are not presented as mystical soothsayers, but advanced data journalists who sort through the noise of our data-saturated world to isolate relevant trends. Because of the pessimistic nature of this work, both groups suffer from “abyss gaze,” extreme mental distress brought about by thinking constantly about how humanity will be snuffed out. As a result, foresight strategists and strategic forecasters alike are sent to Normal Head, a treatment center isolated in the dense forests of Oregon.
This stellar premise is unfortunately confined to the blurbs on the back of the book, as Ellis doesn’t actually spend a lot of time explicitly mentioning these details. Normally, this type of thing wouldn’t ruffle my feathers, but the great set-up is wasted on a story that doesn’t actually spend time fleshing out the world around it. Instead, the gumshoe narrative bops around to loosely connected dialogue beats that seemingly exist to ask the reader “HEY DOES THIS REMIND YOU OF ANYTHING??” (For example, the patients at Normal Head drink ‘Buoylent,’ an alternative to Soylent that improves mood management and doesn’t taste “like drinking a hobo’s sperm.”) In a genre that hinges on bleeding edge ripped-from-the-headlines references, Ellis’s are particularly clumsy and unnecessary. Topping everything, the narrative is underdeveloped and uninteresting, squashing any creative thrust that could keep readers engaged (this is only remedied by the criminally short length of the novel). Honestly, the problems I had with this novel seem to stretch out in a million different directions, so much so that I wouldn’t be shocked if this was an unfinished manuscript that was gussied up to be marketed as a sort of complete novel.
Arguably, the most unique thing about Normal is its release format. Rather than releasing the novel in a single volume, Warren Ellis has elected to release it as four Kindle Singles over the course of four weeks, effectively dividing the novel into bite-sized quarters. Initially, I thought this was an interesting experiment in serialization in our modern era that I was surprised that other major authors haven’t taken advantage of. Sure, independent and self-publishing has been up on this trend for years, but when an established author or publisher does it, it seems like a risky creative choice that the author made in interest of enhancing the work (or a marketing bullet point, at the very least). Unfortunately, this release doesn’t seem to benefit the novel too much. The book clocks in at a measly 120 pages on the Kindle (the paperback will be 160 pages when it’s released in November, somehow), making each of the four weekly volumes about 30 pages each. For a book that someone can leisurely read in a day, this chunking seems largely unnecessary. Additionally, the narrative isn’t adapted at all to make use of the weeklong breaks between volumes, with the first three chunks ending on limp cliffhangers that were hastily pushed aside by the time the next volume came out. So why exactly was the novel divided up this way?
Speaking as a cynic, I blame marketing. In my opinion, if this book were released as a complete text, it would have been easily lost in the sea of every other spec-fic novel being released nowadays (especially with the level of recency that oozes from pore of this book). However, dividing the book into four pieces allows the marketers (and readers) to keep talking about it long past the shelf life of a standard novel. A book that I probably would’ve read in an afternoon now becomes a four-week event that leads to Not A Whole Lot. Marketers get five guaranteed opportunities to push out press releases about the book (one for each volume and one for the paperback release). They also get more space on digital marketplaces designed for singular releases as they are promoting four different products. They even priced each individual volume at $2 to make it more attractive for readers.
It seems like it adds up, from a business perspective, but it’s hard to tell if it will produce gains for Ellis and his publishers. As of the time of writing, each volume of Normal is barely sitting in the top 10,000 paid books on Kindle, despite generally positive reviews. I mean, the strategy for keeping people talking about the book certainly works, as I am writing about a novel that I probably couldn’t have dredged up 500 words on if it was released in a more traditional format. But I feel like I would have been less miffed about the novel as a whole if the creatively pointless serialization wasn’t just an attempt to drum up hype for a novel that just simply isn’t there.
Normal by Warren Ellis, FSG Originals, MSRP $13.00