Books on the Installment Plan

Books published by installment are not new. Charles Dickens is generally credited with beginning, or at least popularizing the practice. Genre novels appeared in serial form in magazines such as Colliersand in science fiction and mystery magazines regularly in the 1940s, sometimes in abridged form, sometimes completely.  More recently, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe was published in twenty-odd installments — in Rolling Stone, of all places — before it appeared in book form. Michael Connelly and Colin Harrison,  among others, have published short novels in Sunday newspaper magazines. The attraction for the reader is easy to see: be the first on your block to read the forthcoming novel, by your favorite author, before it’s actually published in book form, even if it is in installments.
So it was that a couple of mornings ago I flicked on my Kindle and learned from My Precious that Amazon has revived the serial novel for the electronic age. We are now in the era of serial e-books. Make a selection from list of e-books published under one of Amazon’s imprints, lay down (or should that be transmit?) a couple of bucks and you immediately receive the first installment which consists of about forty pages. That price also includes the rest of the book, released in six monthly installments. Late to the party? Not to worry. Plunk down your two dollars at any point along the way and you get all of the installments published to date and the future ones as they are released.
I tried to talk myself out of it. I failed. First argument:  Why bother? I would forget what happened from month to month.  I quit reading comic books twelve years ago, after a half-century of four-color fandom, because I could no longer remember from month to month what had happened in the previous month’s issue.  X-Men, to name but one example, had with all of its alternative time-lines and such had become incomprehensible. Rebuttal: that isn’t a problem with the Amazon serials. The next installment will be solidly fused with the presently published ones on Your Precious and if I can’t remember who did what to who, as the limerick goes, I can just do a search on the character’s name and bring my poor addled memory right up to snuff. Second argument:  I already have a couple of hundred books on my Kindle that I will probably never read. Why throw another one (or two. Or three.) on there?  Rebuttal: righto. But, I told myself, I can read forty pages or so while in the drive-through line at Sonic. I might be intimated from starting a six-hundred page book, but forty pages? No problem. Third argument…well, I didn’t have a third argument. I saw that Andrew Peterson, an extremely talented author, all-around good guy, and member of the F.O.S.J. (Friends of Sweet Joseph) has a novel titled OPTION TO KILL among the serial e-books. I bought that one. There is also a brand-new traditional western,  THE CIRCUIT RIDER, by Dani Amore, which looked so good that I could not resist.  Actually each and all of the books which comprise this inaugural launch seem to have something to recommend them. And, of course, Amazon’s sample feature is in place, in case you’re unfamiliar with the author or otherwise on the fence about purchasing a particular book.

Is this a gimmick that is going to fail? Or does it have a place in the market? I feel that anything different — if not necessarily new — which gets people buying and reading books, and gets money in the author’s pocket, is worth a shot.  How do you readers think about it? And while we’re on the topic, think about this: what if Amazon opened this up to other publishers and offered an either/or deal for the reader? Let’s say that one of your favorite authors has a novel dropping next Tuesday. Suppose you had the choice between buying and receiving the entire e-book at its full price, or paying a fraction of that full price (fifty percent or less) and receiving the book on the installment plan, at several dozen pages a month over the course of six months? Would you go for it, delaying gratification to save a few bucks? And authors…what do you have to say about any of this? DO you have a problem with your novel being divided up? Or does it sound good to you as well, as a way of drumming up interest? 

The Butterfly Effect

One of the leading stories this week concerned the passing of Ray Bradbury. This is noteworthy considering that in the 1940s Bradbury was to a great extent consigned to the pulp magazines. I’d wear a legacy such as that like a badge of honor now, but back then it was anything but. So-called “serious” or “literary” authors did not frequent those types of publications. Bradbury kept plugging away and by the mid-1960s his novels and short stories were being studied in university courses. If you wanted to break a friend into the science-fiction genre, you did so by steering him over to the paperback section of a drug store and thrusting FAHRENHEIT 451 (“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that. Did he write that?”) or THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES or THE ILLUSTRATED MAN into their hands. Bradbury has seen his work go from pulps to hardcover to paperbacks to yes, e-books. News comes that there is going to be a huge roll-out of his work in digital form, sooner rather than later. A few things were available at the time of this death; a sticking point that had kept more from being available had nothing to do with adversity to the technology; Bradbury simply did not want the libraries to be bypassed. Indeed, word comes down that in accordance with The Man’s wishes e-book versions will be available for lending from your local library as well.
Most folks talk about FAHRENHEIT 451 when they mention Bradbury. I’m going to talk about four short stories that have stuck in my mind for over fifty years. Every time we get a gullywasher around here, when the rain pours and pours for more than a day or so, I think of “The Long Rain” a gem of Bradbury’s from 1950. First published in a wonderful little periodical titled Planet Stories, the tale deals with three earthmen who are stranded on Venus in the midst of the torrential rains which at that time everyone thought enveloped the planet. A classic. “The Small Assassin” is one of the darkest stories that Bradbury, or anyone, ever wrote. I missed its original publication in 1946 in the pages of Dime Mystery(love that title) by a few years but I am sure it caused a stir. Read this story about a baby who may or may not be homicidal and see what you think about toys left on the stairs and pretty things. “Way in the Middle of the Air” was published in  Other Worlds in 1950 and became a part of the canon of  The Martian Chronicles. It was social commentary disguised as science fiction, telling the tale of the day that all of the black folks left the country and emigrated to Mars, and the surprising reaction from some quarters. While I have never forgotten this story since  the day that I read it, it, I had particular cause to recall it several years ago, during one of a series of visits to New Orleans.  I was staying on the east side of the city at that time and, purely by happenstance, went for two days without seeing a Caucasian face. It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps all of the white folks had left the country and I had somehow missed the memo. The story was still so vivid in my mind, some forty-odd years on, that I expected to see the rocket departing when I looked up in the sky. The most haunting of Bradbury’s stories for me personally, however, remains 1952’s “The Sound of Thunder.” It has been heavily anthologized, but first appeared in Collier’sin 1952. I as a rule don’t care for time travel stories, but this one is quite different,  a cautionary tale about the importance of following directions and staying on the path. The term “butterfly effect” was indirectly coined as a result of this story. If you haven’t read it, do so and see why.
Now it is your turn. What is your favorite Ray Bradbury novel, collection, or short story? Do you recall when you first read a Bradbury work? How did it affect you? And if you have never read any of Bradbury’s works, we’d like to know that, too.