Narrowly defined, a cliffhanger is a climax cracked in half: the bomb ticks, the screen goes black. A lady wriggles on train tracks—will anyone save her? Italics on a black screen: “To be continued . . .” More broadly, it’s any strong dose of “What happens next?,” the question that hovers in the black space between episodes. In the digital age, that gap is an accordion: it might be a week or eight months; it may arrive at the end of an episode or as a season finale or in the second before a click on “next.” Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying—when, as the cinema-studies scholar Scott Higgins puts it, “curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction.”Long before Nussbaum's piece crime writer Mickey Spillane put it even more succinctly:
“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”There is a lot of talk about hybrid authors, those authors making the most of the fluctuating landscape by trying different release methods for their work. Eric Beetner seems to be making the most of this with a traditionally released title, co-authored titles, titles released through a small e-publisher, a self published limited edition title, a release with a primarily app based publisher, and others. His latest release, The Year I Died Seven Times, utilizes yet another method, it is a serial.
Serial's aren't new to the e-publishing landscape, but The Year I Died Seven Times is tweaking the formula a bit. Typically, in ebook serials, the reader pays an upfront price which covers the entirety of the book, and updates come through when the new sections are available. Beetner, and publisher Beat to a Pulp, are using a pay as you go system which is more akin to a piece of fiction coming out in consecutive issues of a magazine. Playboy released Denis Johnson's novel Nobody Move over four issues, betting that readers would be hooked enough to keep buying them. Beetner and BtaP are also betting that the reader will be so hooked by the end of each installment that they will pay for the next. (You can get more information on the title, and its release methodology, at Beetner's blog).
I'm all for trying new ways to publish in this changing landscape, and I've bought and read the first installment (more on that below). The only real criticism I have comes when I look at the numbers. There will be seven installments each released at a cost of $1.49. So the total cost of this book (length unknown at this time) will be $10.43. That price point scares me if I'm being honest. I, as a reader, can't help but wonder if a cheaper omnibus release, will be coming out later on, and if so, should I wait for that.
I also find myself wondering if there is a correlation between reading and binge watching a show. Consumers of media seem, increasingly, to want it all now. To spend a weekend watching The Wire for example, and less likely to want the episodes of a show parsed out. I wonder if one of the appeals of reading is that the whole story is available, all at one time, for the reader to consume at their own speed. Which means if the narrative is pulling you along, you can stay up late into the night finishing it. I stated a possible criticism above, now I'll state a possible fear (fear because I'm a fan of Beetner's fiction). That any narrative goodwill or curiosity built up will be dissipated by the time the next installment comes out.
I plan on interviewing Beetner abut this book for an upcoming post here at Do Some Damage if he's game. So if I'm wrong about any of this I'll give him all the space he needs to set me straight.
Now, on to the book. The Year I Died Seven Times is a fast paced story with enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged until the end. I do want to read the rest and only wish I could have kept going. My only nit to pick is that one of the reveals in the book is based on the first person narrator simply forgetting to tell the readers something about himself until it was convenient for the narrative to do so for maximum effect. It's a cheap trick that writers should avoid in general in my opinion. I think this first installment is worth the price and readers should check it out. All I can do is recommend it and the rest is up to Beetner.