You Never Know

My younger daughter caught an infectious disease from her group of theater friends. The disease is called “A Game of Thrones.” You may have heard of this designer contagion created by George R. R. Martin. She binge-watched the first four seasons a couple of weeks ago and I tried to catch some of it with her, but it was too violent for me. Yeah, I know; I’m the guy who watches Reservoir Dogs — the uncut version — a couple of times a year and eats Sonic hamburgers during Sons of Anarchy, but A Game of Thrones is way too over the top for me. I want to talk a bit about it, however, because Thrones didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did its author.

George R. R. Martin began his career as a science fiction, fantasy and horror author in the mid-1970s, writing short stories, and very good ones they were, and still are. His novella “Sandkings” remains a classic of the genre, surviving as such notwithstanding a truly wretched adaptation in 1996 for the revived edition of The Outer Limits. It was full-length novels that paid the bills, however, so Martin went that route as well. His first, DYING OF THE LIGHT, remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. I even painstakingly hunted down his telephone number — this, in the mid-1970s, before the internet — and spent ten minutes or so telling him just that. He was somewhat speechless, given that the book never quite acquired the commercial success it deserved, but was quite gracious nonetheless. Since then, we didn’t exactly, uh, stay in touch, but he had some ups and downs. “Down” took place in 1983 when his fourth novel, THE ARMAGEDDON RAG, unexpectedly tanked (even though it remains in print to this day). He took to writing television screenplays and continued to write short stories, and even midwifed a multi-author series called Wild Cards which continues to be published. Martin still had a book or two in him however, and some ten years after writing his last novel conceived a series which he titled A Song of Ice and Fire, with the first novel being the now world-famous A GAME OF THRONES, which was ultimately published in 1996. You know, or at least know of, the rest. The television series which has grown out of it has actually caused some people to return to the literary source material, so there is this snake-swallow-tail effect going on, the kind that we authors love most, especially when they happen to us.

I might be wrong, but I doubt that when Martin sat down and began writing A GAME OF THRONES that he envisioned a success even remotely similar to what has occurred. One hopes, realistically, for benevolent notoriety at least, and a living — hopefully a comfortable one — at most. But your name on the cover of Rolling Stone? That’s living large.

There is a lesson here for everyone. If you have an idea inside of you that’s screaming to get out, don’t let your inner gatekeeper hold it prisoner. Get it out there, even if you think that no one will ever regard it with the same wonder that you do. Share. And if you’ve amassed one or a score of rejection slips, try for that score plus one. And two. And three. You may never see your writing adapted for film, but I doubt that Martin thought it would happen, either. I mean, his career was over in 1983. Right? You never know. Maybe in twenty years, someone’s daughter will be binge-watching video adaptations of your work, and might actually read the source material — your book —as well. You never know.

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?