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The Pigeonhole: Serialising a Novel

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney

By Sarah Ream

The Pigeonhole is a made-for-mobile digital book club. Its books are delivered in instalments straight to a reader’s virtual bookshelf on The Pigeonhole website or iOS app. Here, The Pigeonhole’s commissioning editor Sarah Ream talks about the challenges and joys of serialising a novel.

Though I never imagined I’d work in a tech start-up, I’m now a year into my role as commissioning editor at The Pigeonhole, a made-for-mobile digital book club. I started my career in traditional publishing, and when I took a job in 2008 as an editor of a poetry website, I assumed it would be a temporary break from print. Even back then, despite happily editing poetry online, I didn’t give digital books much thought – I only found out what a Kindle was years after I should have done, and I didn’t read a book on a smartphone until 2012. (For the record, it was a PDF of an ineffectual how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep book; no nifty app involved. There was no nifty app to be had.)

When I began at The Pigeonhole, I naively thought that there wouldn’t be much contrast between print and digital publishing in terms of commissioning, developing and editing books. Surely it was just the end format that differed?

But I soon learnt that approaches differ from the outset when editing books for a mobile readership. The Pigeonhole strives to curate dynamic, real-time, collective reading experiences. Synchronising readers by drip-feeding them a book is key to this; we serialise all our books in instalments (which we call staves) that are delivered straight to our readers’ phones, tablets or laptops via our app or website. We let readers to talk to each other – and the author – via an in-text comments function, and we also pepper the text with mixed-media extra content (think interviews with the author, artwork, videos, links and playlists). So we don’t simply judge the success of a title on how many subscribers it attracts; we also care deeply about how readers interact with it.

When deciding which titles to serialise, and how to serialise them, I give careful consideration to how a book will be read. It’s not just about whether the book is good or not – will serialisation actually benefit the text and its readers? Are there natural stave breaks or cliffhangers to build tension? Will the book spark discussion? Is the author keen to chat to readers? What extra content will best enhance the text? How long should the staves be and how often should readers receive them? Dickens’ readers may have been willing to wait for monthly instalments of The Pickwick Papers, but we’ve seen that daily staves – particularly for novels – are more likely to spur conversation and lead to higher completion rates than staves delivered weekly. Yet that doesn’t mean that readers only want swift, easy reads: we’ve had swathes of people committing a month to reading hefty titles such as Moby-Dick and Middlemarch in short daily instalments.

One of the thrills of my job is working with other publishers to serialise their books on our platform. It’s a fantastic way for them to find a new readership for their authors, breathe new life into a backlist title or boost the buzz around the launch of a print edition. We particularly love helping to launch debut authors, so we’re very excited about our upcoming serialisation of The Sacred Combe, Thomas Maloney’s first novel, which was published in hardcover by Scribe UK in May. The publishers’ pitch hooked me – the story centres around Samuel Browne, a young Londoner who, after his wife leaves him, finds a strange job advert tucked inside a volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and soon takes up a post in the library of a remote manor house, Combe Hall. There he is tasked with a seemingly hopeless and rather nebulous quest, and he begins to uncover the secrets and troubled family history of the Hall’s residents.

The novel is a gift of a book for The Pigeonhole. It divides elegantly into twelve, well-paced staves – each around twenty minutes’ worth of reading, with plenty of revealed mysteries and the odd cliffhanger. It also lends itself wonderfully to speculation and discussion. Jim Perrin has called the book ‘a bibliophile’s delight’, and it is, with gorgeous descriptions of old books and frequent nods to other literature. (The title itself is taken from John Fowles’ Daniel Martin.) When I first read the book, I noticed a number of these allusions and quotations – some obvious, others embedded more quietly, and I particularly loved the parallels with J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (a copy of it appears in the book, in fact). But I was sure I was missing other references, and I was excited by the idea of having multiple readers enjoying the book together, noting sections that reminded them of other books, discussing the twists and turns of the plot and having the author weighing in on their thoughts.

If the book was a gift, so was the author; within a day or two of meeting Thomas Maloney, he had sent me over a long list of suggested extras that were spot-on. Without giving too much away, they range from sketches through to snippets of birdsong, from photographs that inspired the setting to notes and links about paintings, books and poems alluded to in the text. As I suspected, there were plenty of allusions I hadn’t picked up on my first read. But we were careful not to be over-explanatory, and we didn’t aim to comprehensively annotate the book. Rather, we hope the extras will sound as echoing notes, drawing readers further in to the beguiling, beautiful world of The Sacred Combe – and encouraging them to talk about it with each other.

The 12-part Pigeonhole serialisation of The Sacred Combe begins on 2 June.

Subscribe at www.thepigeonhole.com/books/the-sacred-combe for just £2.99.

The first ten Pigeonhole readers to send us a link to their Goodreads review of the book after the serialisation will receive a Cocoa Runners gift box.

(c) Sarah Ream

About The Sacred Combe by Thomas Maloney – published by Scribe (£14.99).

‘A man’s eye is accommodative, like his heart.’

Samuel Browne’s wife has left him suddenly after three years of marriage. She invites him to ‘go and live a better life without me’. He must start again, and alone.

And so it is that Sam finds himself deep in the English countryside in a cold but characterful old house, remote and encircled by hills, in the employment and company of an older, wiser man, a man as fond of mystery as he is of enlightenment. What is the purpose of the seemingly hopeless task set for Sam in the house’s ancient library? What is the secret of the unused room? And where does a life lose its way or gain its meaning?

The combe is home to a truth born of fraud, a building made of light, and a family wrecked by recklessness: loss and love reverberate around the house and around the novel, providing pleasure, pain and purpose. Combe Hall is a house designed to honour and to enthral. And this very fine debut novel does exactly the same.

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