How Serial Box is disrupting traditional book publishing

If you traveled back in time 100 years and perused your average newsstand, you’d find dozens of magazines that published serialized fiction. Millions of subscribers eagerly awaited new installments from their favorite authors, and a serialized story in a high circulation magazine could launch a new writer’s career.

But by the turn of the century, serialized fiction was all but gone. Or at least it was in written and audio form. TV shows, on the other hand, began to adopt complex, serialized narratives, and by 2015 these kinds of shows were dominating both online and offline discussion. That’s the same year a new app called Serial Box launched.

Serial Box operates a lot like a TV studio. Its stories are delivered in weekly installments. Each series is written by a collaborative writers room. The most successful series will often continue for multiple seasons. There’s only one major difference: instead of producing TV shows, Serial Box publishes text and audio stories that could be read or listened to in the same way you consume a novel.

I recently interviewed co-founder Molly Barton about Serial Box’s origin story, how the company produces new series, and why she’s pursuing adaptations outside of the Serial Box app.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Molly and her co-founder came up with the idea for Serial Box

Molly wasn’t a publishing novice when she helped launch the startup in 2015. Previously, she’d been global digital director at Penguin Random House. She focused specifically on growing the company’s ebook and digital audiobook sales. “I had developed a pretty clear hunch that people's behavior was changing with smartphones. They expected that content should be delivered flexibly so it’s easy to consume on mobile devices. And I was watching the rise of television in terms of cultural influence and podcasts in terms of consumption, and it felt like that the session-based experience is so fantastic for people, the ability to dip into an episode and sample it. I was really interested in putting the agency back in the reader’s hand, rather than dumping a huge digital file on them all at once. And so I experimented with serialization while I was at Penguin Random House. We created this experiment where we took a few writers who were really interested in digital experimentation and asked them to write novels that were structured to be read a couple chapters at a time and then released those week by week. Those experiments were really successful and kind of confirmed my hunch.”

Molly began to imagine an app that specialized in this kind of serialization, and while discussing the idea with others, she heard about Julian Yap, an Obama administration lawyer who had a similar idea. “We co-founded the company in 2015 and began to develop our first few projects. We spent that first couple of years with a little bit of support from family and friends, but forgoing any salary of any kind. By the time we went to external investors, we'd developed and released five series.”

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How Serial Box develops series

Serial Box has an interesting approach to content creation. It borrows techniques from TV writing, where a room full of writers will map out a series’ story arc and then assign writing roles. “We bring together somewhere between two to five writers who have complimentary skills. And we employ one of them as the lead writer who you could say is almost like the show runner. What we love about the writer's room format is it draws on the strengths of each of the writers in the room and you get the most out of the collective. You might have someone in the room who's much stronger with plotting, somebody who's really excellent at dialogue.”

Over the past few years, Serial Box has developed dozens of series, many of which have been renewed across multiple seasons. Users pay per episode or for a whole season upfront, and customers are given both the text and audio recording for each episode. “Typically we drop a few episodes the first day that a season is releasing and then we follow up week after week with new episodes. We want the content to be as flexible as possible, whether you're walking your dog or you've got your phone propped up on the window sill while you're doing your dishes, we want you to be able to keep listening or reading.”

How Serial Box is adapting its IP

What’s especially innovative about the company is that it packages its IP and sells it on other channels outside its app. It also forms partnerships with outside media companies to develop series for Serial Box. “We have released a few series that are based around characters we'd licensed from Marvel. We were really excited that they were willing to entrust us with those characters who are so beloved; [Marvel] understood the serialized storytelling model because it's so familiar to them with comics. And so the idea of having serialized e-book and audiobook stories around Marvel characters was interesting to them. We also work on extending storylines that are no longer on TV. So Orphan Black was a really beloved show with one of the most dedicated fan bases. It went for five years, and it had a very concrete ending, but there was still palpable longing from that audience for more. So we partnered with the IP holder and brought in the star of the show to jump forward in time and tell a new story with some of those characters from the TV series. And that's been really successful for us as a strategy because we're tapping into existing fan bases who are hungry for high quality storytelling with the characters that they love.”

Serial Box also works with traditional book publishers. “Big Five publishers have approached us about acquiring print rights to our works. And so in a few cases, we've done those deals and have a physical edition out in the market, which is great. We've sold translation rights to 20 different countries to our works. We've distributed a few shows in podcast channels. So we definitely want it to be widely available in as many formats as possible.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.