Friday, June 7, 2013

Good Points and Downsides to Rapid Series Releasing and Studying Algorithms

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
In my post on Monday, I took a look at the phenomenon of binge-viewing or marathon consumption in entertainment.  As I mentioned in the post, Netflix is enjoying some success with its experiment with its original series, House of Cards, in which it released the entire season of thirteen episodes on the same day for viewers to watch at their own pace.
I think there are some real possibilities and perhaps a glimpse at how reader consumption might operate in the future.  I’ve noticed that readers will frequently email me or ask me via Facebook when my next traditionally-published book will release (often asking me why I can’t write faster.) :)  Production for traditionally-published books takes a year.  They don’t ask me that question for my Myrtle Clover series, which is now self-published.   

I think there are both pros and cons to rapid book release (and, also, studying data to help us plan books or series...I touched a bit on algorithms in my Monday post). 

New life to old series.  Arrested Development, which developed a cult following, was canceled by the Fox network and picked up by Netflix. This delighted fans, who’d missed the show.  Netflix, again, is providing the entire new season at once.
For us, this could mean that an old series, rejected sequels, or our backlist could enjoy new life and attract new readers with its instant, in-full, availability.  Naturally, we can also write new books in a discontinued series (even without this rapid release method)…I’ve done that with my Myrtle Clover series which Midnight Ink pulled the plug on in 2010.
It's not as necessary to artificially insert cliffhangers: writers can integrate a more natural storyline:  
“Not reliant on cliffhangers at the end of each episode to compel the viewer to return the following week, these episodes end when the internal logic of the narrative dictates they do, rather than through traditional patterns of serialized storytelling that hark back to Charles Dickens. Shocking moments are scattered throughout individual episodes, rather than being reliant on a build-up of tension in the final minutes.
Or…alternatively, in publishing…we can stick in huge cliffhangers at the end of our books without worry about reader irritation…because the next book is already available for purchase.  Common knowledge has previously been that writers run the risk of upsetting readers by putting cliffhangers at the ends of books, knowing that they’ll have to wait upwards of a year for the next installment of a continuing-storyline series.
In some ways, books are better-suited to marathon consumption than television is…because of the manner in which books are shared with friends.  In a Gwen Ifill interview for PBS Newshour, Ifill brings up the fact that television used to be more of a shared/water cooler-type experience for viewers.  She asks Brian Grazer, chairman of Imagine Entertainment (which produces Arrested Development):  When you're binge-watching, Brian, you don't have a chance to say, did you see what happened last night? Is isn't that a risk for the way we communicate as a people at the water cooler the next day?”  His answer: “…I think excitement, curiosity and the explosive nature of how conversations work can still be applied, because you can say, I just saw five episodes of Arrested Development. You might not be doing it on the water cooler the next day. You're going to be doing it on all your social media.
Books, obviously, aren’t shared with our friends the same way…not as frequently in real time (although, who knows—with the advent of social media, we could host book clubs inside of digital books in ongoing open forums.)  Yes, we do read books simultaneously with our friends sometimes—book clubs and some Goodreads boards come to mind.  But I think just as much excitement/word-of-mouth could be built by telling a friend that you’ve just finished an entire series in a marathon reading session.
There are some potential downsides to both quick production/release and studying data to make creative decisions.
“By offering all 13 episodes at the same time, Netflix risks undermining its own strategy. Few will acknowledge the time necessary to launch the second season of House of Cards, or another go-around of Arrested Development episodes, and may instead express the same frustration that plagues weekly serialized dramas, that plaintive cry of the unfulfilled when faced with the lack of instant gratification: “Why do I have to wait so long?”
“… But one of Netflix’s greatest assets are its proprietary algorithms—which suggest, based on precise ratings and viewing history, what else you might want to watch—and that may be just the thing to tide over the hungry.”
Retailers like Amazon also offer the avid reader similar alternatives to our books. 
What if your quickly-released series is a dud?  Arrested Development was a good bet for Netflix.  It was a show that became a cult hit, but it was canceled by a network.  Your formerly-successful backlist might be considered a sure thing.  But what if the original Netflix series, House of Cards, hadn’t been a hit?  Think of how much time and energy and money was invested in it.  What if you write four or five books, release them in rapid fire or even simultaneously, and the books don’t resonate with readers?  Do you tweak what you can (book description, cover…even title and story) and see what happens?  Do you move on?  It’s a large investment of time. In publishing your backlist, there’s less of a time investment to lose (although you’ll still have the investment in covers, formatting, etc…the books had previously been well-edited with many books that have been traditionally-published.)
Quality control.  If you turn off readers with one book, they’re unlikely to keep buying the next in the series.  Quality control—attention to detail in editing…but really in all aspects of the book from cover design to interior formatting—is always important. But it’s even more so if you’re trying to lure readers to read the other three or four books in your series.
Stress and working with tough self-imposed deadlines. The need for real discipline.  Deadlines are tough enough when we get them from a publisher.  We have to really have some discipline and focus when we’re meeting our own deadlines and trying to write a string of books…whether we’re releasing them in rapid succession or not.
How calculating and how completely bottom-line-focused can we be and retain a creative edge (and enjoyment in our process and writing)?  Writers, clearly, have got to think like small business owners in the digital age.  But at what point are we sacrificing our own need for creative originality if we're studying algorithms/data/sales, and writing/producing for a demanding consumer market?
What are your thoughts on this marathon-style consumption and what it might mean for books and other forms of entertainment in the future?  Do you see it catching on in publishing (traditionally a very slow-paced industry?)