Is “Binge-Reading” the New “Binge-Watching”? (I Sure Hope Not)


Earlier this week, the Times reported on the latest bit of book-publishing folly, in which book publishers are now going to chase Netflix addicts with the promise that multi-book fantasy epics will now be published in relatively quick succession. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to ignore the angry-George-R.-R.-Martin-fan phenomenon, insofar as it’s not really clear that Martin will ever finish the trilogy it is taking him longer and longer to write new books for. Other than people being sort of angry on the internet about it, I’m not quite sure what skin it is off the publishing industry’s nose if Martin’s fanbase grows more rabid with every month they wait for a new Game of Thrones book, but you know, this entire scheme doesn’t feel like something actual book publishers brought up. It sounds like something a marketing department of a large “entertainment conglomerate” did.

This is not something only commercial publishers are interested in, though. No less than Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (known as one of the highest of the high-end book publishing houses) is joining in. An editor there, Sean McDonald, is quoted as follows, regarding a trilogy whose three installments he’ll publish just months apart in 2014:

I think people are more aware of series storytelling, and there is this sense of impatience, or maybe a fear of frustration. We wanted to make sure people knew that there were answers to these questions.

Hm. McDonald does hit on something there, though I think it’s the raw, exposed nerve ending I still have from the last few seasons of Lost. It’s in television, I think, where this problem of loose plot ends never getting resolved actually lives. People make great pilots and then lose interest in their own damn plots. And yes, it’s no fun for consumers, none at all. But I still keep watching new pilots, and new television shows. I’m just not convinced that anyone picking up one of these books is at all thinking about whether they will eventually get answers. Perhaps more importantly, I’m not convinced that the promise that they will have to read three more books to get those answers is exactly, for most people, a selling point.

Getting people into long epics is a tough thing. I’m not really clear, after years of observing the publishing industry, what makes something a hit, the kind of thing so compulsively readable that people can’t help themselves. I’m not sure, either, that readers would describe the pleasure of one of (for example) Martin’s unputdownable tomes that way. The kind of trance that reading induces is qualitatively different from the experience of sitting down and watching 12 hours of television. This is true even if the television is really good, I think. It just uses a different part of your brain.

I’m aware that in a way I’m just quibbling with a label, with marketing, by saying I don’t think that “binge reading” is silly. But I just really, really don’t think this is a viable business model for imaginative work. Practically speaking, writing a “binge read” would mean writing entire epics on spec, all at once, before selling them. It also means that the slow accumulation of fans that something like Game of Thrones enjoyed would be a thing of the past. I don’t know: there’s just something about this whole idea that strikes me as the product of an industry feeling like the culture is accelerating away from it. But I don’t think it needs to worry this much! I really don’t. Perhaps that makes me a starry-eyed optimist.