A new syndication model: Shya Scanlon's Forecast 42 Project
Could Shya Scanlon, a 33 year-old with a recent MFA from Brown, have come up with a new workable online publishing model? Not that anybody is making any money off his innovative Forecast 42 Project. But he's taken old-style novel serialization -- remembered best as the way Charles Dickens published his work -- and melded it with contemporary online reading patterns and capacities. He's arranged for his futuristic novel "Forecast" to be serialized online -- not just in one place, but across 42 different websites, including the always-interesting Kottke.org and literary journals Redivider and Monkeybicycle. The project, which launched in July and has a new section go live online every Monday and Thursday, will continue well into the fall.
When I asked him if he saw a potential in the multiple-website serialization model, he replied, "Wouldn't it be interesting to have a network of journals which dedicated some area of their site to some kind of ongoing novel serialization project?" Yes, wouldn't it? But I'm getting ahead of myself. First I asked about where the project came from.
Jacket Copy: Did you have an agent when you wrote "Forecast"? Did you try to find a publisher before deciding to serialize it?
Shya Scanlon: My agent, Erin Hosier, and I met while in New York before I went to grad school, but it wasn't until I'd written a few books that she offered to take me on. In fact, though she had wonderful things to say about "Forecast," she offered representation for a different book, "Uno Che," another novel from a thematic trilogy that includes "Forecast."
Though I was not yet with Erin when I completed "Forecast," I did shop it around to a handful of other agents, and while the feedback I got was usually pretty positive, they all had a similar message: "Forecast" simply isn't commercially viable. I struggled with this a bit, but before too long shelved it and moved on. In retrospect, I could certainly have tried going after independent presses more. I think I sent it to two, but there are several out there publishing work similar in tone or content to "Forecast." Anyway, three books later, it feels both astonishing a little scary to find new life and opportunity for the book. Something like a resurrection.
JC: When did you decide to try serializing the novel on the Web? Where did the idea of serializing across multiple websites come from?
SS: About three months ago, I somehow got the notion that if I didn't pull "Forecast" out of the "drawer" and do something with it, the manuscript might be lost forever (I'm prone to such dramatic thinking). At the time, I'd just launched my blog and thought that perhaps serializing it there might be worth considering. The idea went through several manifestations -- including one where Opium Magazine would serialize it on their site -- but due to lack of energy or funds, none but hosting it on my own site seemed truly doable.
And then I lost patience and put the whole thing up at once. Once it was up, I approached a few editors about running excerpts on their Web sites, and linking to my blog, in an effort to drive some traffic and downloads. People were actually really kind in agreeing to do this, and it seemed to work, but it also seemed increasingly insufficient. I'd watch my little traffic counter limp along at one or two hits per day and daydream about how I could up the ante. Ultimately, the idea for serializing it across multiple sites came from many places at once. I'd thought it but not said it out loud, perhaps because it felt, I don't know, a little arrogant somehow. But then my girlfriend, Erin Flaherty, floated the idea, and so too did Steven Seighman, the editor of Monkeybicycle. I guess it was just in the air.
When social networking sites actually work... after the jump.
JC: How did you choose the websites?
SS:I began by choosing some websites whose editors I knew, or knew of, but frankly mostly it has been the other way around: the websites chose me. I made a number of posts on Facebook about the project, and the interest just started trickling in. As more people signed on, and I posted about their involvement, I think more people began to take the project seriously, and see the networking potential of it. Many were people I'd had some contact with in the past, either via submitting work to their journals, or meeting them at events and so on. But then people I did not know and would never have thought to ask emailed me out of the blue, like Jason Kottke (of kottke.org). I think people are either interested in the spirit of the idea, or hip to the fact that everyone involved stands to benefit from the shared attention and traffic this could generate. Or both. And maybe there are a few who like the work.
JC: How do you think being on multiple websites will affect how the book is read? Do you think readers will follow it from one site to the next?
SS: My hope is that, yes, people will follow the progression of the serialization from site to site. They will also be linked to my site, where a master schedule will show them the current status of the serialization, and provide links to all the chapters that have gone live, so if they encounter the project midway, they can catch up if they choose to.
I really have no idea how it will affect their reading, per se. How different is it to taking a book you're reading along with you on a trip? You read it in many different locations, with different distractions. In the end, you get through it by focusing on the language, which does not change.
Also, my hope is that, if they follow the book, they'll also be exposed to a lot of interesting content on the participating sites that they may not have encountered otherwise. There's probably a lot of overlap in the audience for several of the sites involved, but it's not complete, so I think serializing this way, at least theoretically, has the potential to link audiences together, essentially "crowd sourcing" the thing. I've just now had the idea that perhaps I should encourage people to add a Digg button to the chapter pages. Huh.
Anyway, at the end of the serialization, the entire book will be up and available.
JC: What’s been the biggest challenge for you in the process of setting this up?
SS:I'd say the biggest challenge has been simply keeping track of everything. With 42 editors/bloggers to consider, it can get a little overwhelming. Also, some of them have stated certain criteria at the outset, like chapter length (a few only do short things), or date (such as 1st of the month), to correspond with existing style and publishing cycle standards they want to uphold. Another difficult thing was to convince people that they had to sign on to the project without knowing which chapter they'd get. They just had to trust me. I say this was difficult, but maybe just for me, psychologically. People have actually been enormously helpful and understanding Some people have been so excited about the project that they've gone out of their way to try and enlist other people they know. An LA local named Andrew Dugas is such a person. Still, I've been plagued a bit by the suspicion that I'm asking too much.
JC: Would you recommend web serialization to other writers?
SS: I would definitely recommend web serialization to other writers and editors. In fact, I'm kind of hoping that participating editors will have a good enough experience with this project that they'll keep a channel open to further serialization projects. Wouldn't it be interesting to have a network of journals that dedicated some area of their site to some kind of ongoing novel serialization project? It could be designed so that people would understand that it was part of this larger thing, and it could be edited either by the participating editors, or by a third party who works with them. I don't know. At any rate, it takes time and dedication on the part of the writer, and not all writers are incredibly adept at self-promotion (though it seems more and more are willing to try), but it's been a rewarding process for me.
JC: Do you also hope to see "Forecast" in print someday?
SS: My single-minded goal for "Forecast" at this point is to get it read. However that can happen is great. Short of self-publishing through Lulu.com or something, I'm taking it just about as far as I can. If someone else wants to step in and take it further, that's great! I know reading 105k words on screen, serialized or not, is a lot to ask. But as I said earlier, people seem to think it's a difficult book in some ways, and that's not going to change. That said, some people have expressed interest in seeing it in print. A few months ago, a small press/journal in Tucson called Spork created two beautiful hand-bound copies of it, one for me and one for the editor.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo courtesy Shya Scanlon