By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
2018: ‘Our Coming-Out Year’
The three-year-old publishing startup Serial Box is announcing today (February 21) a new $1.65 million seed investment that has the potential to fast-track its content into television and film development. The financing is earmarked initially for the company’s “reading/listening mobile platform,” which is bundling ebook and audio content.
Serial Box is the creation of Molly Barton, the former global digital director for Penguin Random House, who in 2015 co-founded Serial Box with attorney Julian Yap. The company produces mostly original, serialized stories written by teams of writers and releases them weekly in written and audio form. During a three-month season, each week’s episode is a 30-minute read or an hour-long listen. Readers/listeners pay US$1.59 week by week or $18 in advance for a whole season (10 to 13 episodes).
The funding is led by Boat Rocker Media, which includes among its productions, the BBC America series Orphan Black, from its Temple Street division. Also participating in this round of funding is Richard Sarnoff, the former co-chair of Bertelsmann and board member of Audible.
“This is our coming-out year,” Barton tells Publishing Perspectives in a conversation from her office in New York City. “And we were really happy when NPR [the States’ National Public Radio] called us ‘the HBO of reading’ because that kind of premium quality that runs across a number of different genres is what we’re going for.
“We’re not trying to be ‘the Netflix for books’ or ‘the YouTube for books’ because being paralyzed by choice is one of the biggest problems that readers have. There’s so much, as many as 50,000 books a year in the US alone. What can you spend time on?”
Working against over-production, a kind of controlled-growth approach by Barton and Yap, is now bearing fruit in what looks like an excellent fit of funding and collaborative potential.
Boat Rocker CRO Michel Pratte describes Serial Box as a “top tier publishing studio” in the making. The association means that Barton’s teams of writers are producing season-long stories in an episodic format that’s perfectly suited to the kind of screen production Boat Rocker does.
In a prepared statement, Pratte is quoted, saying, “Serialization has proven to be a powerful storytelling engine in television, podcasts and in comic books, but it has yet to be properly leveraged in modern-day publishing.
“We see a big opportunity for Serial Box to be a top tier publishing studio of original serial entertainment and look forward to collaborating with their team as they continue to build their platform for readers and listeners.”
Serialization: ‘Going Back Out to Your Audience’
Barton is careful to “meet the market where it is now,” as she puts it, wary of virtual-reality experiments that can get far out ahead of the consumer base and conscious of the shutdown in November, for example, of Germany’s oolipo. In that case, the production of the project’s interactive stories was so slow and expensive that the startup seems to have been unable to sustain itself and, as we reported, its parent Bastei Lübbe listed “an unplanned write-down” of some €3 million (US$3.5 million) in the process.
“When I was working for the US company” at Penguin “prior to my global role, I went to 22 financial meetings per month, tracking the performance of all the different imprints. And of course one of the smack-your-forehead obvious things I saw was that every time an author sells a second book, their first book sells more copies. Every third book, their first and second books sell more copies.
“What publishers were doing then, was trying to publish more books per year by their most successful franchise authors, producing two books per year instead of one, or three books instead of two. That’s really hard unless you have multiple writers working under a pseudonym because you just can’t go at that speed and maintain any kind of quality.
“So I started looking at what the music industry was doing with delivery. Many of the artists were un-bundling the album and doing five releases of big singles in a year, which gives the same effect but maintains quality. You can go back out to your audience and back out to your audience, and keep your relationship between artist and fan more vibrant and alive” because of these frequent presentations of new material.
“I ran some experiments with a couple of romance writers at Penguin, saying, ‘Let’s have you write a novel that’s purposely and quite consciously meant to be read two chapters at a time. And we’ll release them over a few months, then bind them up and publish them as traditional books. And they were really successful, like four and five times what they’d done previously. Those experiments made me think about serialization.
“We see a big opportunity for Serial Box to be a top tier publishing studio of original serial entertainment and look forward to collaborating with their team.”Michel Pratte
“Then I was also watching as ebooks had started to slow their growth, and audio was beginning to pick up and narrative podcasts were becoming a big thing.
“So it was those observations of the market and experiments that led to Serial Box, where one of the big propositions is that you can switch back and forth between listening and reading and we save your place. Of course, you can do this on Amazon with Kindle and Audible if you pay for both formats. Here, at Serial Box, the price is more reasonable” because audio and ebook are bundled.
Speaking for today’s media release, Sarnoff focuses on the audio element, saying, “Bundling ebook and audio makes natural sense for readers in 2018.”
And another investor, the Swedish executive of Word Audio Publishing Mattias Lundgren says, “Audio is the fastest growing sector within the $125 billion global book market and I’m very happy it’s a key part of Serial Box’s strategy. Serial Box’s latest audio series illustrate their focus on delivering an immersive audio experience with ambient sound, original music, and sound effects.”
As for the episodic structure of the work, Barton says, “It just works better for people’s lives. Like a TV show or a podcast, you know how long it’s going to take. It takes about 25 minutes to read an episode” of a story from Serial Box “and the average commute is about 22 minutes. So it’s very much prescribed for commute entertainment.”
Content Creation: Writers in Teams
Episodic serialization “just works better for people’s lives. Like a TV show or a podcast, you know how long it’s going to take.”Molly Barton
In using teams of writers, each project “has a lead writer similar to a showrunner in television,” Barton says, “and we bring them together to plan out the season. When we release a series, we have that entire season drafted but we leave a bit of it unlocked because on social media we’re listening to responses from readers. And in some cases, we’ll make changes based on how people are reacting to the story.”
There are almost 10 series with at least a season each on the Serial Box site now. Two more are listed as coming.
One upcoming piece of possible interest to many is Belgravia, the Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) Its first episode, “The Eve of the Battle of Waterloo,” is due out Thursday (February 22). Belgravia originally was published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicholson in London in 2016 and released with enormous fanfare at London Book Fair as visual and audio app.
Another piece, already running in its first 12-episode season, is 1776, a “month by month immersive historical account” of the American Revolution in its first year. It’s produced in collaboration with the Associated Press, and its audio track, narrated by Robin Miles, includes among its guest voices the actor Chris Jackson of the Hamilton cast.
Numbers: ‘What Allows Me To Sleep Soundly’
“We’ve found really wonderful, amazing investors who surprise me every day how much I value them as colleagues.”Molly Barton
While some would worry that the range of genres Serial Box produces could make it hard to draw return subscribers—or that in an age of binge-watching television series, the idea of waiting for a new episode’s release might drive off the impatient—Barton says she’s been buoyed up by the sustained growth the company has seen.
“What allows me to sleep soundly,” she tells Publishing Perspectives, “is that even on the most dormant, quiet day of the year when we don’t have any press and we don’t have any new series, we’re still picking up new people. There’s steady growth all the time.”
In fact, Barton reports “average order value increasing steadily in the last six months.” She says the most loyal users respond well to the ability to move back and forth between audio and reading.
“And when we do get some attention, there’s a huge spike,” as when Buzzfeed on December 30 named Serial Box No. 4 of Seventeen iPhone Apps You Need To Have on Your Phone in 2018, after Giphy, Venmo and Pocket. The Android app is coming in March, Barton says. The company’s tech chief is Eric Rosenfeld, formerly with Amazon’s comiXology.
With a mention like the Buzzfeed nod, she says, “We can get 10,000 downloads in a couple of days. Our monthly reach, between our newsletter and social media,” she says, “is half-a-million people.”
In terms of challenges, Barton says, it’s been hard to identify the right sort of investors. Many don’t understand content or have had bad experiences with publishing related startups, she says, and Serial Box sometimes gets lumped in with apps that don’t really align well with what the company is doing. “Like text-message-based apps,” she says. “Those aren’t like us, they’re usually user-generated content apps.”
And when you see such outfits “raising more money than they’re ever going to be worth,” she says—not least because they have no firm business model—it takes clear-eyed investors to recognize that Serial Box is “a premium content play with customers paying nearly $20 for a series.”
“This content lends itself well to other media,” she says, “because of the episodic structure.” And leveraging that advantage is what she’s all about now with her new investor-partnership in place with Boat Rocker, Sarnoff, Lundgren, and others.
“I’m happy to say we’ve found really wonderful, amazing investors,” Molly Barton says, “who surprise me every day how much I value them as colleagues.”
Below is the Serial Box app “how it works” video.
Molly Barton is a speaker in the PubTechConnect conference on March 6 in New York City, and will talk with Hooked’s Prerna Gupta about “Mobile Fiction, New Ways.” The program for that event is here.