Charles Dickens wrote The Old Curiosity Shop between March 1840 and November 1841. It was published as he wrote it – in a series of 88 weekly instalments that appeared in the journal Master Humphrey’s Clock, entirely written and edited by Dickens.
In London, the journal sold 100,000 copies per week to a public that was addicted to the tale that Dickens was spinning. Meanwhile, when the story reached America, it produced the same effect: a crowd of Curiosity Shop readers once gathered at the docks in New York and shouted at a ship arriving from Britain: “Is Little Nell dead?”
Such was the hold that Dickens had on the popular imagination. And it was a hold exerted through his mastery of the serial form: Dickens knew how to hook readers from the start and keep them coming back for more. But for decades – ever since the arrival of cheap paperbacks in the 1930s – the literary serial form has been in abeyance – how many of us have ever read a novel in serialised form?
Now, all that is about to change. Last week, Tim Waterstone, the founder of the highly successful UK high-street book chain Waterstones, announced the launch of a digital serialised fiction platform, Read Petite (www.readpetite.com). Billed as the “Spotify for books”, Read Petite will offer readers access to short stories and serialisations for a monthly subscription fee of about £5 (Dh28) a month. Waterstone is apparently particularly excited by the prospect of reviving the serialised fiction culture that existed when Dickens was writing.
But Read Petite isn’t the only start-up to recognise the potential for new forms of publishing offered by the digital age. Plympton (www.plympton.com) is an American start-up founded by the former New York Times journalist Jennifer 8 Lee and the novelist Yael Goldstein Love. They call Plympton a “literary studio” and their stated aim is to revive “serialised fiction for the digital age”.
And there’s a third player in the push towards digital, serialised fiction: a big one. And Plympton has already partnered with it – Amazon Kindle Serials programme (www.amazon.com/kindleserials), which allows Kindle users to purchase a curated selection of titles that are delivered in serialised instalments.
The Plympton serials – including Hacker Mom, about a suburban wife who leads a double life as an online freedom fighter – are just the kind of heavily plotted fiction written to get readers hooked.
So could digital culture really bring about the re-emergence of serialised fiction? A 19th-century phenomenon, revived by 21st-century technology? It sounds far-fetched.
But while a coterie of traditionalists bemoan the rise of online culture and the decline of old-fashioned literary culture, a key insight is overlooked: what with emails, texts, social media and online news, adults today probably read far more than their counterparts did 20 years ago. The devices we carry with us every day – phones and tablets – have transformed the way we communicate and now they’re offering publishers the perfect opportunity to transform the way we read, too. Got a spare few minutes? Why not read another chapter of the current serial on your smartphone?
And one fact certainly hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens, and never will. However they’re delivered – on paper, website or touch screen – we all love a great story.
David Mattin is lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com
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