SALT LAKE CITY — In the age of Netflix, binge-watching is replacing serialized television shows at an astonishing rate. As it relates to literature, serialization is more a term associated with the writings of Charles Dickens in the 1800s than a real possibility today.
However, one publisher is simultaneously thrilling fans and lining pocketbooks by experimenting with no-cost serialization.
One of Tor’s most prominent writers today is Brandon Sanderson — a BYU graduate and Utah resident who is one of the rising stars in fantasy and science fiction literature. Fans of his Stormlight Archive series have been waiting more than three years for the third book titled “Oathbringer.”
Tor recognizes the challenge of requiring readers to wait for long periods of time in between books and has taken active measures to keep Sanderson’s fan base involved — and satisfied.
Every Tuesday, Tor publishes three chapters from "Oathbringer" online at no cost at tor.com. It has provided these chapters for the last two months and will continue to do so until the book is published on Nov. 14.
Despite the apparent novelty, this is far from Tor’s first venture in giving away free books.
“We’ve been doing similar things since we started Tor.com,” wrote Irene Gallo, associate publisher of Tor Books, in an email interview for this article. “Before we launched Tor.com, in 2008, we spent a lot of time giving away eBooks Sanderson was included in that run-up.”
Gallo continued, “Sanderson’s considerable fan base means that people are willing — in fact, hungry — to get as much information as early as possible.”
In a very real sense, providing free serialized chapters is a gift from Tor to its readers. Gallo refered to it as “a big block party for the book,” in which readers are able to debate what has happened and theorize what it means and what might happen next.
For example, the official Brandon Sanderson fan site, 17th Shard, has more than 250 active discussions about the serialized chapters of "Oathbringer." The Tor.com comments section also includes hundreds of comments for each segment of serialized content. In many ways, these venues serve as virtual water coolers around which fans from all over the world can gather and discuss Sanderson’s latest chapters.
While Tor provides these free gifts to its readers, it does not set aside the necessity to make money. Rather, the publishing house looks at serialization — including free serialization — as an important tool in remaining financially viable.
“Obviously,” wrote Gallo, “these excerpts get people excited and invested in the book. The serialization reignites the energy and momentum surrounding The Stormlight Archive between volumes.”
In addition to retaining readers already familiar with Sanderson’s work, Tor’s approach is also designed to secure new readers for books published long ago.
“There’s also enough time that readers who are new to the series can get wind of the excitement around the books and decide to start from the beginning,” Gallo explained.
Tor certainly has the option of requiring readers to pay for this serialized content, but purposefully elects to provide the content at no cost.
“People aren’t unwilling to pay for content,” Gallo said, “but there is so much available for free that it’s not unreasonable for them to ask to sample the product.”
Tor’s decision to serialize significant amounts of material at no cost makes readers happy and financially benefits the publisher. By providing free discussion forums online, Tor also strengthens its bottom line while giving readers more enriching experiences — both in terms of quantity and quality.
Ultimately, no amount of marketing innovation can compensate for shoddy content, and Tor is not afraid to place large bets on its authors.
“We believe in letting the book sell itself,” Gallo said.
Chapters of Sanderson’s "Oathbringer" are published online every Tuesday on Tor.com. "Oathbringer" will be available in full for purchase Nov. 14.