The massive event Amazon held Thursday to debut its new line of electronic readers and tablets included an unexpected shout out for a local start-up: The covers of three of its books flashed on the big screen behind Amazon boss Jeff Bezos as he introduced a line of serialized fiction for the Kindle.
The “stealth literary studio,” as its founders term it, is Plympton, named after a tiny side street in Harvard Square where the founders often met to discuss the future of literature and publishing.
Plympton cofounders Jennifer 8. Lee and Yael Goldstein Love had finalized their publishing deal with Amazon not 24 hours before Bezos hit the stage Thursday. Now suddenly the small electronic book publisher, based in the Boston area, is at the forefront of what Amazon hopes will be a revival of a venerable literary tradition, with a modern twist: serialized fiction delivered in digital form.
The obvious historical precedent is Charles Dickens, who wrote many of his classic titles in chapters that were serialized in magazines and newspapers. There have been attempts to revive the format since then, but the economics of bookselling always got in the way.
However the rapid adoption of e-readers has emboldened Amazon, and Plympton, to restart the idea.
“We now have the opportunity to reinvent an old storytelling format with the tools of the future,” Lee said Friday.
Readers pay once for the serial and new installments are automatically sent to their e-readers as they are published. Such books can be inexpensive because of their digital format: no paper, no printing, no shipping. All three Plympton serials are currently selling for just $1.99 each. Future updates will be free.
Plympton was incorporated in June 2011; by September it had commissioned serials from novelists and screenwriters. The business model: Plympton splits the royalties with its writers and retains the exclusive right to do additional licensing and optioning deals on behalf of the writers, making the company part publisher, part advocate.
Amazon, which was working on its own secret “Kindle Serials” program, eventually contacted the start-up as part of its general outreach to authors, and the subsequent talks led to the launch Thursday of three Plympton properties in Amazon’s freshman class of serials.
There are other small publishers of serialized fiction. However, Plympton is the only outside publisher partnering with the Amazon imprint to be featured in the first round of Kindle Serials.
Although the serial format is often associated with time-honored novels, Plympton’s new serials were also inspired by the popularity of television series like “The Wire” and “Mad Men.”
In fact, each Plympton title now available on Amazon sounds like it could be television series. In “Hacker Mom,” a stay-at-home mother married to a straight-arrow government lawyer finds self-fulfillment in a secret life as she ascends the ranks of an online international whistle-blowing ring. In “The Many Lives of Lilith Lane” a high school girl discovers a way to pass between two parallel universes and uses this dimensional doorway to investigate her younger sister’s kidnapping. “Love Is Strong as Death” features a hard-boiled investigative journalist who gets assigned to a “haunted house” story that starts to feel personal.
“Serials are just so much fun when you have great characters and compelling stories, no matter what the medium,” Lee said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Plympton’s print offerings. Amazon has purchased the rights to do print editions of Plympton’s products.