Margaret Atwood's Brave New World Of Online Publishing

Play associated audio

If you're a Margaret Atwood fan — and you've got some spare change under the couch cushions — just a few dollars will get you a stand-alone episode of the new novel she's writing in serial form.

It's called Positron, and Atwood is publishing it on Byliner, a website launched last year that's one of many new sites billing themselves as platforms for writers.

So what inspired the best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author of The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale to try out this newfangled approach?

"Once upon a time, novelists of the 19th century, such as Charles Dickens, published in serial form," Atwood tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "They would put out maybe three chapters or so, and then they would respond to readers' reactions. And then, that moved on and serial publication got taken over by magazines and newspapers, and that was where it was in my youth. But that died out as the 20th century neared its close, so a whole way of publishing, a whole platform vanished."

Now, Atwood says, the advent of the Internet means that platform has reappeared, and she's in the middle of writing Positron — the third episode went on sale last week at Byliner.

Positron imagines a near future where society has solved a major problem of modern life — the absence of jobs — by making everyone a part-time criminal. "They can live in prison and they take turns," she says. "One month they're the prisoners, and the other month they're the people in the town taking care of the prisoners. So that provides full employment for everybody all the time."

Lest you fear that Atwood has abandoned regular old print novels, don't worry. This fall, she's publishing a traditional novel as well — a very different experience from writing an online serial.

Atwood compares online serial writing to improv comedy, to creating a story live in front of a waiting audience. "Whereas, with a comedy play, with a script, it's already finished, you learn the part, you get up, you perform it — well or badly — but it is not something you're making up in front of everybody," she says.

Serial writers — like Dickens — got plenty of feedback from their readers about what should happen in their stories. "The closest analogy is probably TV sitcoms: If somebody's getting high ratings, you make their part bigger, and if they're not you have them die of an unfortunate disease."

Once Dickens was done with his serials, he republished them in book form, which is exactly what Atwood plans to do with Positron — so you may yet see the title at your favorite bookstore.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

The Real Bob Ross: Meet The Meticulous Artist Behind Those Happy Trees

Don't be fooled by his mild PBS persona; the beloved painter was actually an exacting artist and businessman with — brace yourself — naturally straight hair.
NPR

A Chocolate Pill? Scientists To Test Whether Cocoa Extract Boosts Health

Chocolate lovers may agree cocoa is the food of the gods, but how strong is the evidence that it boosts heart health? Researchers are recruiting for a new study aimed at answering this question.
WAMU 88.5

D.C. Department Shakeup Raises Questions About Pay-To-Play Politics

Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.

WAMU 88.5

How Many Times Were You Late? Metro Is Keeping Track Of It Just For You

If you log into your SmarTrip account, you'll notice that Metro has started providing individualized trip analysis. It's called MyTripTime, and it measures the time from when you tap in, to when you tap out.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.