10 min read

Serial Box's Transformation

Happy Friday: I hope that you've had a good week. For a brief moment, it was spring here in Vermont, but outside my window, the landscape has been covered in a thin layer of snow. I'm ready for winter to be over, but at least it's pretty, and it's helpful to know that it won't be sticking around for much longer.

I've got a couple of deadlines I'm working to hit and some other things to work on this week but at least I've got some good books to read, and a kitten to play with.

Speaking of:

White and tan kitten!
Image: Andrew Liptak

Cinnamon is adjusting well to his life here. Merlin and Arthur are still not *thrilled*, but they're dealing. This little guy (aka Sir Smol) has taken to following the two of them, trying to get them to play, and is bold enough to steal Arthur's food while he's eating. Merlin's smacked him around a couple of times, but he genuinely seems interested in playing with him, rather than eating him. He's been spending his days snoozing in my office, when he isn't crawling all over me. He's got a loud purr and has been trilling to himself as he explores his new surroundings.

This week: publishing startup Serial Box has announced some big changes, I've got an update on the migration, and the usual roundup of books and articles that I've been reading this week.


Subscriptions

Update on the subscription front: I'm largely settled in with Ghost as a platform for this newsletter: thank you to everyone who's followed along across the move. While this is a largely positive move over, I've run into a couple of speed bumps when it comes to momentum for growing this newsletter: the migration nuked the subscriber list and the two or so weeks it took to get up and running again makes me feel like I've lost some vital momentum. It's a bit frustrating.

I've reached out to paid subscribers: essentially, there was an error while migrating over subscriptions, and that had the unfortunate effect of canceling one's subscriptions. I've been speaking with Ghost's support (they've been really excellent), and they've told me that they can't get them reactivated, and the best way to get them back is to encourage subscribers to resubscribe. If you fall into that boat, please get in touch: I'm working to figure out the best way to prorate subscriptions you, should you wish to continue that membership. I think what I'll end up doing is dumping everyone into a spreadsheet and comp folks, and manually turn those on and off. I'll be in touch with updates there.

In the meantime, if you'd like to subscribe, I'll point folks here: this page outline the benefits of going so, and it'll help me climb out of the hole. I've got quite a bit coming up this month.


This week in SF/F

An iPad displays The Vela in Realm's app
Image: Andrew Liptak

Serial Box rebrands itself

Not an April Fool's joke, it would seem: print/audio content studio Serial Box has a new name: it's rebranded itself as Realm and is essentially transforming itself into a fiction-focused podcast studio. It's an interesting development from an interesting company, and it tracks with the direction that the industry has headed — a subscription-based library, while adopting some more familiar terms, all of which are geared towards bringing in more listeners and readers.

Back in 2015, Serial Box launched with an ambitious mission: tell high-quality stories on the web or on your phone. Rather than focus on short stories or novels, they adopted an intriguing product: "Serials" — a novel-length work that's told in discrete installments, much like a television show.

Those Serials were the product of a team of writers in a writers' room, who'd put together a season (roughly the length of a novel), with each episode about 40 minutes in length. You'd listen on their website or through their neat app, which allowed subscribers to both read or listen to each installment, allowing one to fairly seamlessly switch between the two. For a short while, they partnered with Saga Press to release print editions of their works, but that fizzled out — I hear that they just didn't sell all that well.

And, the company attracted some of the genre's excellent writers, folks like Becky Chambers, Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, Fran Wilde, and more, who produced some interesting stories like The Vela, Ninth Step Station, and The Witch that Came In From The Cold. In recent years, the company's also been aggressively licensing work: they've picked up the rights to adapt characters for Marvel, DC, and Orphan Black.

Out of the gate, the company sold their products like they were discrete units: books on a bookshelf. That isn't a huge surprise, given that the company was co-founded and led by CEO Molly Barton, who came out of the bookselling industry (she previously worked at Penguin Random House). If you wanted to read any of their products, you'd have to buy each episode or season directly, and they'd get added to your library. Sometimes, they'd sell a bundle of "Serials", and you could stock up on several at a time.

The company's held that model for a number of years, but it's always seemed to me that were trying to forge a weird new category, one that had overlap from podcasts and novels alike, without really taking advantage of the infrastructure that both relied on (podcast feeds and bookstores). While I've enjoyed some of their stories, I don't think they've really made a huge splash with any of them, and my suspicion here is that part of the reason was visibility. "Serials" and Serial Box were a bit hard to describe: was it a publisher? Did they make audiobooks? Podcasts? That sort of uncertainty probably didn't help to attract new customers.

Now, they're adopting a new model and are embracing podcasts, which seems like a more straightforward product: the company has launched a new subscription model, one that allows them — for $30 annually, and $3.99 a monthly — to dip into their larger library of content, ad-free. (One big exception there is that this doesn't seem to include their Marvel and DC shows. You'll still have to buy them outright, and I'm guessing that comes down to how they've contracted with those IP holders to sell them.)

The other big change is that some of their shows will now be free on podcast platforms: Ctrl-Alt-Destroy, Machina, Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, and a handful of others are available at the moment, but it's just a sliver of their larger catalog.

Will it be successful? Time will tell, but it's an evolution that feels like a natural one to me, and one that could work to their advantage. I've described their work as podcasts in the past, if anything, because that was easier than trying trying to describe their model literally. And putting some of their content up as podcasts should help introduce their model to new listeners, some of who'll hopefully convert over to paying subscribers. But, there's also a lot of competition from other studios: they're certainly not the only company that's devoted to audio fiction.

There's also the sticky nature of premium podcasts. For years, the podcast industry has been a largely free and open ecosystem thing, but there's been a handful of companies that have launched with exclusive and high-quality catalogs that you'll have to subscribe to access, with the promise that you don't have to listen to those annoying ads for Hello Fresh or whatever mattress company is operating this week. Luminary is one notable example that comes to mind, and I believe that Apple's working on something.

But there's a bit of a resistance within the industry for that experience, given its history and development. Someone recently described the podcasting world as the Wild West, so there's certainly lots of space to experiment and figure things out.

Fortunately, it does seem like Realm will be retaining one key feature that sets it apart from other podcast studios: you can still read the stories in the app while you listen, which isn't really something that most podcasts do. The company tells me that it'll continue to be a feature for the "Realm Unlimited" members and there aren't plans to phase it out.

This is good: while some podcasts release transcripts of their episodes, it's not really a universal thing. I've personally found it to be useful: there are times when I feel like reading, and times when I feel like listening: I do this frequently when I've got a book that I'm working through: I'll frequently pick up the audiobook along with the print edition, and I've found that makes for an interesting experience.

Ultimately, Realm has a lot going for it: it's got a huge back catalog of original content, a growing cast of high-profile narrators, and a solid app to consume it all in. Hopefully, this move will help them bring in a new, larger audience of listeners.


A stack of books sitting on a desk
Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently Reading

This week's completed book was James Hibberd's Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series. It's an oral history of the making of the series, and I went into it hoping that it would shed a bit of light into a couple of things: the appeal of the series, and some insight into the making of the final season. It doesn't have a whole lot on the commentary/fan side, but it does make some interesting points about the nature of adaptations and the relationship between the series and the novels.

Watching the final season, I wish they'd made plenty of different choices (chief amongst them, take on Cersei first, then hit the White Walkers, rather than the other way around), but this does at least explain how they ended up charting their finale without guidance from the as-of-yet-unwritten books. I'll have more to say about it a bit later this month, as we're coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the series' debut. I do think that the reaction to the final season will become less hostile as time goes on, but we'll see.

I've got a stack that I'm working through at the moment: Network Effect by Martha Wells is pretty much the one that I'm working through the quickest, but I'm also making my way through chapters of 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis and Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction by Michelle Nijhuis. Also on that list are True Believer by Abraham Riesman and Star Wars: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule

The next priorities are Jeff VanderMeer's Hummingbird Salamander and Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace, both of which I've been eagerly awaiting. After that, I've got a bunch of the books from April that I'm hoping to get to, like The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes, The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers, Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells, and The Effort by Claire Holroyd.


Further Reading

  • April Books. In case you missed it yesterday: I released my monthly SF/F book roundup. April is a packed month, with new books from Jeff VanderMeer, Becky Chambers, and Martha Wells hitting stores. My poor to read list.
  • Fighting over Trans policies. There's been a bit of a fight brewing over the last couple of weeks over some moderation policies with one of the bigger Star Wars Wikis, Wookiepedia. Mods there have been fighting over a new policy change over names and dead-naming. Previously, the policy was to keep a creator's credited name on a work, even if they transitioned to another gender identity and changed their name. That's understandably a problem for Trans creators, and some mods were aggressively against it, and it was put up for a vote. James Whitbrook over on io9 has a good overview of the situation. The parent company of Wookipedia has stepped in to say that the new policy will stand. Good.
  • Illustrating The Book of the New Sun. The Folio Society released a handsome edition of Gene Wolfe's classic series, The Book of the New Sun. I'm generally a fan of their work, and this is a very pretty collection. I spoke with illustrator Sam Weber about how he approached the artwork for this one.
  • Kenobi! Lucasfilm revealed the cast for its upcoming Star Wars miniseries, Kenobi. There are some great names on the list, and I'm interested to see how this turns out, especially given that we'll see some familiar faces, like Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader), Joel Edgerton (Owen Lars), and Bonnie Picesse (Beru Lars). I'm guessing that we'll see an eight-year-old Luke Skywalker as well, although that wasn't announced. I really hope that we'll see Hondo Ohnaka pop up somewhere.
  • Talking with Ted Chiang. Ted Chiang is probably one of the best SF/F writers working out there right now, and Ezra Kline has an excellent interview with him over on his podcast with The New York Times.
  • There's lithium in them hills. Maddie Stone is a good friend and former colleague from when I was at io9, and like me, she's shifted her newsletter, The Science of Fiction, over to Ghost. Her latest issue is about how a couple of science fiction projects have been using a similar maguffin, lithium mining, and she sheds some good insight into the science behind that.
  • Wagon Train to the Arctic. I've got a new essay in the latest issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, Wagon Train to the Arctic, about how science fiction draws a lot of its attitude, influence, and tropes from western pulps, rather than more realistic science. Going to space, essentially, is less like the US's westward expansion and more like an expedition to the poles. It's a bit of a companion to my piece in Pando from November, Tech CEOs should stop using Science Fiction as a blueprint for humanity’s future in space.
Genre literature often plays a role in shaping the perceptions of how we view the universe and our place in it—to the point where the use of bad science can misinform viewers and readers. The genre’s earliest authors drew on the stories of exploration for which they were already attuned: the expansion into the American West, focusing on the thrill of adventure, because it made for salable stories. Stories are important tools when it comes to approaching the future, and fully understanding the depth of the roots of those stories is equally important when using them as a rationale for moving forward.
  • Who's who in movie credits. One of the things that I've always wondered about was why you might see someone credited in a TV show or movie as "appearing as [character name]. 2017 video from YouTube channel Filmmaker IQ provides a good overview for who everyone in the credits are.

That's all for this week. Thanks for reading! Let me know what you've been up to, what you've been reading, and so forth. (And if you can, go get vaccinated.)

Have a good weekend,

Andrew

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more