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 (because what bookworm doesn’t love a pun?) 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 e-book or audiobook form, is 40 minutes long. That’s a little less than the average American’s commute time to and from work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, and, coincidentally, the same length as your typical hourlong TV show sans the commercial breaks.
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 — not unlike a TV program.
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, the Pew Research Center found that nearly a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single book during that year. No paperbacks. No Nooks. No books on tape.
Don’t panic yet for the fate of literature. Pew also found that, on average, Americans read 11 books per year. That means those who do regularly read, don’t just nibble at books — they devour them. And all of these statistics on the American reader have been fairly consistent since the rise of smartphones and Netflix. It’s not as if we’re witnessing the slow death of the bibliophile. 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 like HBO and Netflix, though. TV devotees can binge-watch a series on Netflix 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.
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.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE