E-publishing is making ways of sharing stories feasible that weren’t when physical books were the only option for self-publishers. We’ve seen a return of novellas and short stories, as well as a surge in serialized fiction, both by independent authors and by publishers (Amazon has been putting out Kindle Serials for several months now).
Though I mull over the idea of writing a serial now and then, I haven’t put anything together yet (unless you want to count certain cliffhangers at the ends of certain novels… ahem), but I’ve got a great guest post for you today from someone who’s done a lot of research in regard to the effectiveness of publishing serialized ebooks as a way to earn an income as an author.
Monetizing Serialized Fiction by Zachary Bonelli
Thank you for having me on your blog, Lindsay.
My name is Zachary Bonelli. I’ve been writing in my free time for over a decade. Last year I decided to take the story I’d been working on forever, Voyage, and realize it as science fiction serial.
Voyage’s format eluded me for a long time. Like most writers, I’d just assumed I was writing a novel. If it’s that long as a whole, what else would it be, right?
One of the most liberating moments in my career as a writer was the moment I realized Voyage was not a traditional novel, but in fact a serial. I was finally able to give myself permission to tell the story in the way I wanted to tell it, unrestricted by the conventions of novels, which were holding my story back.
The most important way that a novel differs from a serial is that a novel’s chapters cannot stand independently of the novel as a whole, whereas each episode of a serial can.
Voyage consists of largely independent, novella-length episodes that weave together to form a bigger narrative. Serialization was definitely the right choice for this project in terms of style and execution.
But was it the right choice in terms of marketing?
Choosing to go serialized is a mixed bag. There are some big advantages, but also some important disadvantages to consider. At nine episodes into my massive seventy episode arc, and with a second serial on the way soon, here’s what I’ve learned about working with this format.
Higher Return on Investment
A few months back, I did an interview on Google+ with developmental editor David Arney on the topic of return on investment for serialized fiction as opposed to the standard novel. David pulled items from Amazon’s Top 100 list, approximated their word count based on page length, then worked out the return on investment for each book.
While the novels averaged a mere $8.15 per hour, the serialized fiction averaged $20.89. Releasing smaller works more often, it turns out, causes revenue per word to shoot through the roof. [Click to tweet]
Customers are less likely to feel reticent about many small purchases spread out over time, even if they are many in succession, and even if they add up to more than what they would have spent on a single large purchase.
Here’s a concrete example. Let’s say you’ve got a 100,000 word epic novel. If it’s possible to break that epic into 10 episodes of 10,000 words each, then you can charge $.99 for each one as opposed to $3.99-$6.99 for the whole thing. And, you can still market the collected epic after the individual episodes have run their course.
More Frequent Releases
We’re all aware of the awesome impact of social media. Facebook, Google+, and Twitter permeate our modern collective conscious. I’ve even heard mumblings that they now are our collective consciousness.
Whether you find that prospective frightening or exciting, the fact remains that the mechanics of social media play well with the mechanics of publishing serialized fiction.
We all know that we’re only supposed to blog and tweet and post when we have something relevant to say about our work. Just spewing out your book’s Amazon link ad nauseum is likely going to get you ignored. When you have a single novel, you get to push its release, then maybe when it gets a review, or maybe when something relevant in the real world relates to your book.
When you have a serial, a legitimate reason to post is every time you release an episode. Not to mention any time any of the above legitimate reasons applies to any single episode you’ve ever released.
More Engaged Readership
More frequent releases mean a more engaged readership. Each episode that you release on schedule adds to the perception that you are a dependable source for new content.
Post your release schedule on your website. Make it public once you’re sure you can meet the deadlines. And whatever you do, make sure you have enough content built up in advance that your schedule isn’t blown away if something unforeseen happens in your personal life (or your other career, if you’ve got one).
For example, you can see my timeline for releasing Voyage: Embarkation and Insomnium are public and therefore do not change. The second Voyage arc, Windbound, has a tentative release schedule, but I haven’t made the page public, because it might yet change.
Narrative Structure Opportunities
Since a novel is a single, giant block of narrative, you really have no control over where the reader will put the book down and pick it up again. A serial gives you more control.
By strategically placing the breaks between stories or by skillfully weaving just the right detail into an episode’s closure, you can make the reader squirm. You can make them need to know what happens next. And since you control the release schedule, it will, by definition be a week or two or three before the reader can continue the story.
I’ve written before about how I feel that the cliffhanger can be used manipulatively. But in terms of raw, profit-driving potential, it’s hard to ignore just how effective this trick is. Simply have the conclusion of an episode leave the main characters in some dangerous situation, unresolved.
I need to reiterate here the two things that drive me nuts about cliffhangers. First, your cliffhanger should not come out of left field, a kind of inverse deus ex machina. Your cliffhanger will feel “thrown in.” I recommend it be the natural consequence of your narrative’s progression. Second, do not resolve cliffhangers in a way that relies on luck or circumstance. These are the two easiest ways to make a cliffhanger feel hollow and forced.
There are other narrative techniques you can use. The serial gives you the unique opportunity to explore characters across a wide variety of stories and situations. How do they respond to this change? How do they grow over time? A novel usually follows characters over one stage of growth and development. A serial gives you the opportunity to explore many stages and for many characters.
Perhaps Not the Greatest Entry Point
One of the most disheartening moments of my career as an independent author so far came when Goodreads posted the results of their 2012 user surveys. See the section titled “Please, Sir, I Want Some More.”
As the graph clearly shows, readers are fairly interested in reading serialized fiction from well known, established authors. However, for an unknown author, interest plummets to an abysmal 54% of Goodreads users saying that they are not at all interested in reading serialized fiction from someone new.
I am committed to the serialized format. Voyage is a serialized story by its nature, and I will pursue it to completion as such.
However, if you have the option of starting a new project as either a novel or a serial, the data speaks for itself.
Remember the upsides! If serials are your passion, perhaps you could write a few short stories and novellas first, put those out, then start your serialized fiction.
Lindsay has written before about not putting all your eggs in one basket. By maintaining a diverse portfolio of writing, you can spread risk around.
More Inventory to Manage
Above I talked about how great it is to have so many books out there on the market. Well, there’s a dark side to that benefit. You’ve got to manage that inventory. To boot, you will lose more time to releases because they will happen more frequently and for smaller works. And oh, if only you knew how much time I lose to updating the backmatter in extant Voyage episodes. Oi.
This is definitely something to consider when starting a serial. If your serial is twenty episodes long, are you going to update the backmatter on each ebook as a new one becomes available? How are you going to communicate to readers at the end of an episode when the next one will become available and how to get it? Will you have to update the messaging after every release?
This kind of work compounds upon itself. At episode two’s release, you have to update episode one. At three’s release, you update one and two. At four’s release, one, two and three. This is called a linear growth curve. And it is not fun. Trust me.
Build in coping mechanisms. For example, in Voyage, I plan to make the backmatter for all episodes in the Embarkation arc static once the Windbound arc begins. In other words, I won’t have to update those at every release anymore.
Readership Communication Issues
Novels have a long literary history. The narrative form goes back at least a couple of centuries. The standards and expected styles of novels are very clearly established, and they have been more or less stable since the inception of the form.
Serials, though they’ve been around almost as long, do not enjoy consistency over their history or any establishment of standards. They started with writers like Charles Dickens and Herman Melville in the nineteenth century, but petered out quickly into the twentieth. They experienced some stops and starts in the professional publishing world, little side roads along the way, never leaving the realm of genre, before finally getting appropriated fully by television in the 1960’s.
Readers and feedback givers who don’t understand the rules of serialized fiction, or that you’re even writing a serial, may judge your serial on the terms of a novel. This is not good.
My famous example of this is my botched attempt to market multiple episodes of Embarkation together in chunks I called “parts.” It was only after an angry blog comment from a potential customer, who thought I was attempting to sell groups of unfinished novel chapters, that I realized I had a communication problem.
Episodes can be marketed individually because they can stand on their own, and the term “episode” communicates that intent. Call your episodes just that—episodes. Don’t use a different term like “part” or “chapter.” This will just create confusion.
I am still working on what you call the book collections of episodes that form a story arc. So far, “arc” and “sequence” are all I’ve got. Sean Platt and David Wright group their works into “seasons,” but that term is a remnant of a time in cable television history when episodes of television shows aired over the course of a particular yearly season in a cycle of filming, production and release. I’m not a fan of that term, but if it became standard for serialized fiction, I’d adopt it to clarify my market positioning.
Eventually, one term or the other will win out, and all of us doing serials will adopt that. Until then, feel free to contribute to the diaspora of lexical choices.
Challenges Managing a Sprawling Multiverse
I highly recommend joining a writing critique group. It’s one of the best things you can do for your development as a writer.
I get a lot of feedback from my peers, most of it useful, some of it not to my liking, and on some rare occasions, I find myself reeling at the things I hear. This is all part of growing as a writer.
However, there is one type of feedback on Voyage that has never, ever been silly or frivolous or inane: consistency of world details.
It is very hard to manage all your details in a novel. But a novel is one story. Maybe two or three intertwining stories. The number of stories in a serial is the number of episodes you have. And all of those have to be both internally consistent, and consistent in the larger context of your serial’s mega-narrative. As a result, it is woefully easy for an episode’s details to come into conflict with previously established story.
Get lots of eyes on your work before release, and build up a group of smart beta readers who pay close attention to details.
Serialized fiction has its share of positives and negatives, just like any other format. After writing in the serialized fiction format for many years, it’s my belief that doing a serial, even a short one, can be very beneficial, especially as part of a larger portfolio of writing.
Zachary Bonelli is the author of the ongoing Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions series. It is currently in the middle of its first sequence, Embarkation. He is active on the Google+ Science Fiction Writers community, and muses about serialized fiction, and randomly as well, on his blog.