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Beyond Dickens: Trends and Tech in Serial Fiction

By Thomas Hawk / via Flickr
By Thomas Hawk / via Flickr

Note from Jane: This piece first appeared in the January 2014 issue of Scratch [1], a digital magazine about writing and money. I am delighted to run it here at Writer Unboxed, where it can be publicly discussed and shared.

Two commenters on this post were randomly selected to receive a free annual subscription to Scratch [1], starting with the first issue. They are Felipe Adan Lerma and Marcy McKay. Congratulations!


In September 2011, I received an e-mail from Sean Platt, who requested a meeting to ask for publishing advice. I had never heard of him, but he had significant experience in online marketing and copywriting, and I agreed to meet with him.

At Coffee Emporium in downtown Cincinnati, Platt showed me his unpublished children’s verse, which he was passionate about, but had a low chance of commercial success. Then he outlined a highly strategic plan to self-publish a continuing story in episodes and seasons, like a TV show, that would build suspense with a fast-paced thriller plot and cliffhangers at the end of every “episode.”

What he was describing was a serial. At the time, serials were most often found on the edges of the traditional book publishing industry, at fan-fiction sites and other niche communities. They were also primarily written and given away for free. I advised him on what I knew about self-publishing, but the serial aspect I privately had doubts about.

However, Platt struck me as a high-energy, creative person who was going to do well with or without my advice. He had all the qualities of a shrewd entrepreneur, which later resulted in me inviting him to guest lecture at my university classes. The students hung on his every word because he spoke with enthusiasm and without bullshit.

Inspired by his project, I researched and wrote a piece on serial fiction for Publishing Perspectives in December 2011 [2]. Platt’s project, which had launched by that time, was mentioned, along with a few start-ups and the over-reliance of publishing types on the example of Charles Dickens as the ideal serial author.

[pullquote] What first struck me as a fringe activity in 2011 is starting to look more like a potential driver of author discoverability, as well as how we consume stories. [/pullquote]

Since that article (and certainly since the Victorian era!), a lot has happened. Amazon has gotten into the game, and new services like Wattpad are affecting on how writers and readers interact, with participation from mainstream and niche authors alike. What first struck me as a fringe activity in 2011 is starting to look more like a potential driver of author discoverability, as well as how we consume stories. It’s time to take a fresh look at the form of serials: what’s happening with the trend, how authors are using serial publishing services, and why it matters to the future of publishing.

What’s a Serial?

For purists, a serial is a work that the author writes in progress, releases on a specific schedule or deadline (close to the time when the writing gets done), and is produced without a preconceived middle or ending. Such serials often involve reader engagement and may incorporate reader feedback that helps the author mold the story along the way. Bestselling science-fiction author John Scalzi launched his career on a serial, Old Man’s War [3], and of course everybody knows and even loves shows like All My Children. The soap opera is classic serial storytelling.

Based on that classic definition, what Platt was writing was not a serial, but serialized fiction: a completed work that is published in segments.

However, that doesn’t necessarily preclude authors of serialized fiction (or completed novels, for that matter) from using reader feedback to modify or continue a story. Hugh Howey, known for his blockbuster success in self-publishing his sci-fi novella, Wool [4], received so much reader demand for continuation that he added more segments to the story over a series of months. In other words, he wrote a serial.

Here’s the thing: “Pure” serials are tough to make money on right away. Today’s authors don’t exactly have a burgeoning market of periodicals willing to pay a meaningful wage for such work. Instead, most writers do it for free, then make money by selling compilations, asking for donations, or building an audience large enough to catch the attention of an agent or a publisher, as in the case of 50 Shades of Grey [5], which started out as a fan-fiction serial.

[pullquote]Serialized fiction can present an immediate opportunity to profit if an author has the right platform for sales and distribution, which brings us, perhaps inevitably, to Amazon.[/pullquote]

This type of slow-build serial business model—if you can call it one—isn’t appealing to online entrepreneurs like Platt, who seek to make a living right away and can’t wait a year or more, writing a work in progress, hoping for a payday. But serialized fiction can present an immediate opportunity to profit if an author has the right platform for sales and distribution, which brings us, perhaps inevitably, to Amazon.

The Challenge Facing Serial Writers and Startups

There are two ways Amazon enters into the serials discussion:

  1. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): This is the self-publishing platform authors use to publish and sell their e-books, whether or not they’re produced and marketed as serialized fiction.

  2. Kindle Serials: Launched in the fall of 2012, Kindle Serials is run by Amazon Publishing. Readers who buy a serial while it’s in progress pay $1.99 up front and receive all new installments—usually eight total—for that price. After the serialization is complete, the completed work is sold at a higher price; $3.99 is common as of this writing.

The Kindle Serials platform—and the Amazon e-book retail platform in general—offers a functionality, convenience, and delivery mechanism that’s difficult to find elsewhere, especially for authors (and publishers) who want to monetize digital fiction and reach a mass audience of digital readers without launching a major website or developing an app. Of course, Amazon also comes with the usual downsides of that particular monolith: total control over their terms and products, opaque analytics, and business goals that can be at odds with those of authors and publishers.

Take publishing start-up Plympton [6], launched in fall 2012, which focuses on publishing serials of literary and classic literature. They partnered with Kindle Serials for distribution of their first three titles, but haven’t released any serials since then, and don’t plan to continue working with Kindle Serials.

As Plympton founder Yael Goldstein Love told me, “The direction they were going is they wanted their titles to be Amazon Publishing titles, not from other publishers. They were a little more of a drugstore [mass-market] book than we were.” Once Plympton realized it wasn’t an ideal fit, Love says that slowed them down, because there wasn’t another immediate way to serialize. “Just having lots of little e-books isn’t very elegant and doesn’t take advantage of the form. We’ve been experimenting with various things. We’re building an app to get the right platform for serialization. A lot of other people are running up against the same problem.”

For better or worse, lots of little e-books is exactly the path that Platt started out with—in collaboration with his writing partners—using Amazon KDP to drive sales and discoverability.

In fall 2011, Platt released the first “season” of Yesterday’s Gone [7] in six e-book installments, each costing $1.99. However, over the last two years, his approach has evolved. Platt told me, “I always felt from the start that we were delivering a broken experience. [The serial] really shouldn’t be in e-book form, they should be an app. You pay for it once on the front end and you get automatic updates.”

[pullquote]”The serial really shouldn’t be in e-book form, they should be an app. You pay for it once on the front end and you get automatic updates.”[/pullquote]

This, of course, is the exact functionality of the Kindle Serials program, and Platt has partnered with Amazon Publishing on two serials, Z2134 [8] and Monstrous [9]. For the serials that he still publishes independently, Platt now releases each season as one complete e-book file, rather than dividing it into episodes. (The season is still split up into episodes for narrative purposes.)

The logic to Platt’s practice of, effectively, de-serializing his serials, is reader convenience, but it’s also good business sense. “If we want to charge $6 for our season, the smart thing is waiting until we’re done and releasing it. Doing it both ways was crippling us; you are sending attention to two different places. You have half the people buying one product, and half the people buying the other product, and you’re not getting the [Amazon] rank you need to.” Furthermore, by releasing the entire series as one product at a higher price point, Platt and his partners stand to earn more money. Amazon KDP pays 70 percent on e-books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and 35 percent on everything outside that range—making low-priced shorter works less profitable.

The Kindle Serials Experience

Amazon released about 50 Kindle Serials in 2013 and plans to publish more in 2014. Most are genre fiction in the mystery/thriller, science fiction & fantasy, and romance categories. When considering what projects to publish in serial form, Jeff Belle, vice president of Amazon Publishing, told me they look for the “true” serial. Books that have already been written and are just released on a chapter-by-chapter basis don’t work for them. With an ideal serial, Belle said, “You’re talking about working with an author who wants to create content essentially in real time, weekly or every other week, and engage an audience who is responding—who know they are involved in that creative process.” When looking at the long-term success of the program, Belle says that’s the component they will continue to improve and invest in—making it easier and easier for readers to become more engaged in the book.

One of Amazon’s most successful serial projects has been Option to Kill [10] by Andrew Petersen, which had sold 119,000 copies by late 2013. Other successful serials Belle cited had sold 20,000 to 30,000 copies. As a general rule of thumb, half of Amazon’s serial sales happen while the story is still in progress, at $1.99; half of sales happen after the fact. While encouraged by the results so far, Belle says he’d like to see Amazon sell even more copies during the live serial phase.

[pullquote]One of Amazon’s most successful serial projects has been Option to Kill [10] by Andrew Petersen, which had sold 119,000 copies by late 2013. Other successful serials Belle cited had sold 20,000 to 30,000 copies. [/pullquote]

Writing at large volume on fast turnaround isn’t for everyone. Author Neal Pollack enjoys writing fast, and he has spent the last two years writing books with Amazon Publishing, and his latest projects, Downward-Facing Death [11] and Open Your Heart [12], have been serials. For the first serial, about a yoga detective, Pollack wrote 10,000 words a month. For the second, he had to provide 30,000 words upfront and 10,000 words a week. Amazon provided editing and proofreading support, and Pollack says they gave him the best editor he’s ever worked with in his career. “She kept me in line and kept the story moving. If it was grinding down, they’d tell me— and if it needed to be slowed down a little bit, they’d tell me. Perhaps there wasn’t much attention paid to the overall arc of things because we did have to get it done fast.”

Pollack has worked with a range of traditional publishers, and he says that Amazon is willing to work faster. Even though they have an editorial calendar like anyone else, he said, “They are a digital era publisher and company, and they recognize that working fast is important.”

[pullquote]Pollack’s serial sales have been well north of 10,000 copies, or, as he told me, “enough to sustain a book career.”[/pullquote]

The speed of publishing also has a financial reward. “If you receive a certain modest advance for a piece of fiction, which is what most writers get these days, but if you write a book in six weeks and it’s published two months after you start it, that makes more economic sense than three years,” Pollack said. “I realize that not all writers are interested in or capable of doing a novel that quickly, but I am. So it makes a certain amount of economic sense.” His serial sales have been well north of 10,000 copies, or, as he told me, “enough to sustain a book career.” He estimates that serials make up 25–30 percent of his overall income.

What About Wattpad?

In the grand scheme of things, Amazon’s serial efforts are quite new, and charging for serials, even if only $1.99, makes their business model quite different from other established players in the space. Currently, the biggest player, in terms of user base and name recognition, is Wattpad [13].

Toronto-based Wattpad started in 2006—before the Kindle and Nook were even available—and now has more than 20 million users, which includes the often-trumpeted participation of Margaret Atwood [14]. Strictly speaking, Wattpad isn’t a platform for serials; it’s a platform for all types of writing. But the predominant creative activity on Wattpad is the work-in-progress. Participating writers tend to be female teens and young adults producing genre fiction and fan fiction, the latter of which is Wattpad’s fastest-growing category. Its millions of stories are freely accessible to anyone in the world, and its user base has one writer for every nine readers—a writer’s dream.

Therein lies part of the reason Wattpad is attractive to certain writers: it offers a real chance to directly reach and grow a readership—even if it means giving away the writing for free—and also be front-of-mind with fans due to Wattpad’s ability to ping a devoted readership whenever a new story or installment gets posted. In 2009, Wattpad launched a mobile app for content delivery; today, 85 percent of their traffic comes from mobile devices, and they send 6.7 million push notifications per day. Unlike Amazon, where authors have limited insight into the size of their fanbase, without a means to access readers directly and consistently, Wattpad offers a platform for ongoing interaction. Ashleigh Gardner, Wattpad’s Head of Publishing Partnerships, told me, “The focus of Wattpad has been the connection of the reader and writer.”

[pullquote]Wattpad offers a real chance to directly reach and grow a readership—even if it means giving away the writing for free—and also be front-of-mind with fans.[/pullquote]

There’s another motivation for writers to use Wattpad: “It can be very daunting to write a book, but it’s very easy to write a chapter,” Gardner said. By building an audience and getting feedback right away, a writer may be encouraged to continue and build on their efforts rather than giving up when faced with a slump or self-doubt. When you consider the age of writers using Wattpad (three out of four users are under the age of 25), and also the very positive community that Wattpad has created (there is no “dislike” button, and appreciation and positive comments are the rule), one could see Wattpad becoming a preferred path for young writers to learn the craft and get their career footing. But can it pay?

Monetizing Wattpad Activity

Traditional publishing deals represent one way to monetize a huge Wattpad fanbase. Authors Abigail Gibbs [15] and Brittany Geragotelis [16] both received six-figure deals from New York publishers for the young-adult books they serialized on Wattpad; another Wattpad author was named one of TIME’s Most Influential Teens of 2013 for racking up 19 million reads. Gardner said, “If you have a huge fanbase, it becomes really easy to monetize.”

Another model is using Wattpad to serialize a completed work, and making it clear to readers that the full work is available for sale elsewhere, for those who lack the patience to wait for future installments. (Platt’s writing partner maintains a Wattpad account for this exact purpose.) For writers who transition to traditional publishing from Wattpad, the fans who played a role in that success expect the authors’ work to be made available for free to them, in serialized form, out of courtesy and respect.

How does Wattpad itself make money from the 59,000 stories that are updated to their site daily and its 16 million unique monthly views? They don’t charge site users, and they don’t retail any type of content, product, or service. They do accept display advertising, but even Wattpad CEO Allen Lau has said that’s not the long-term business model.

There may be a solution in the reader-writer connection they’ve nurtured. In 2013, Wattpad started testing a crowdfunding feature that would allow its users to raise money from their fans to formally publish their work. Just as with other crowdfunding sites, Wattpad took a percentage of the money raised. However, if you visit their “Fan Funding” page today, you’ll see a notice that their “experiment is now over.” Wattpad is also dabbling in partnerships with traditional publishers and other corporations, but these appear mostly experimental and serendipitous.

The Growing Footprint of Fan Fiction

It’s important to bear in mind that the fastest growing category at Wattpad is fan fiction; out of 20 million new story uploads in 2013, 7.5 million were fan-fiction shares. Gardner told me that a lot of the people who start out reading fan fiction become motivated to write fan fiction. She explained it this way: “When someone is learning to play music, they don’t start out writing their own songs. They start by playing covers, then writing their own songs. So you play around with other characters until you learn how to write your own.”

[pullquote]It’s important to bear in mind that the fastest growing category at Wattpad is fan fiction; out of 20 million new story uploads in 2013, 7.5 million were fan-fiction shares.[/pullquote]

But fan fiction is nearly impossible to monetize, since its very existence is predicated on copyright infringement—appropriating other authors’ characters and worlds without permission. For this reason, most fan fiction remains on the fringes of the traditional publishing industry, at sites maintained by volunteers or as nonprofits. (A good example is An Archive of Our Own [17].) Furthermore, the fan-fiction community is known for rejecting just about every effort to monetize its activity, since it’s seen as counter to the fan-fiction ethos and philosophy. When it comes to paychecks, E.L. James is not exactly a representative example of the fanfic bottom line.

Unsurprisingly, however, Amazon has seen flashing-dollar signs when it looks at the devoted and engaged fanfic community. In 2013, the company launched Kindle Worlds, a formal publishing program built around legitimizing and selling fan fiction by securing permission in advance from copyright holders. Time will tell if the effort succeeds despite the long track record of fan-fiction communities resisting commercialization.

What’s the Future of Writing and Reading Serials?

Ever since Amazon launched Kindle Worlds and Kindle Serials, there has been increased discussion about whether these efforts indicate how writing, reading, and publishing will evolve. While serials and fan fiction are sometimes dismissed by industry insiders as low-quality work that won’t much affect how traditional publishing operates, others have started to speculate that these markets might be in a position to do exactly that.

[pullquote]While serials and fan fiction are sometimes dismissed by industry insiders as low-quality work that won’t much affect how traditional publishing operates, others have started to speculate that these markets might be in a position to do exactly that.[/pullquote]

Eric Hellman, an industry expert who specializes in economic models for e-books, recently wrote on his blog [18]:

It’s worth paying close attention to the fan fiction sites. After all, 2012’s biggest revenue engine for the book industry, 50 Shades, was a repackaged fanfic. On an iPad with a decent internet connection, the fanfic sites work better than ePubs. …  They deliver content in smaller, more addictive chunks, and they integrate popular culture MUCH more effectively than books do … The authors are responsive and deeply connected to readers; they often ARE the readers! There’s a fanfic site to appeal to every reader.

But are we really looking at the future? Both serials and fan fiction have been around a long time (since Dickens, remember?). If these forms are being reinvented and rediscovered because mobile- and tablet-based reading is growing, this may mean the strategic author has to start thinking about their readership as divided between two distinct groups: the very large group that expects the content for free, and the smaller group that’s willing to pay. This is more or less what another industry commentator expressed on his blog [19] during the same week as Hellman: “Wattpad might not be the future, but the future will look more like Wattpad than it will the publishing industry … Added benefit: we who are poor and have no money for joy can get stories for free if we want to.”

To get a deeper perspective on the serial—its history and its future—I talked to Kira Lerner at EpiGuide [20], an online community founded in 1998 and the longest-running active hub for serials. Lerner has been a practitioner of the form since 1997, penning one of the oldest serials still in existence, About Schuyler Falls [21]. She told me that most of the community belongs to the hobbyist category, without any goal to sell their work, and that it’s risky to monetize the in-progress activity, using webcomics as an example of why. “Something as popular as webcomics—massive compared to web fiction—they haven’t successfully found a paywall model to be profitable,” she says. “What works for them is the compilation book or the extra features, such as stickers and magnets. I just don’t see, if it hasn’t worked for webcomics, I can’t imagine it working for less popular web fiction.”

[pullquote]Lerner says writers mostly use serials as a platform builder, a means to launch a career and sell completed works. “It’s a good start for people who are not convinced they’ll be able to go for the traditional publishing route,” she said.[/pullquote]

Still, there is Amazon’s success; they’ve been able to sell at the $1.99 price point, though half of their sales come from compilations. Amazon’s Jeff Belle did say they were hoping to increase sales while the serial was in progress, which might say something about the diminishing returns of a fast, intense editorial process if more copies aren’t sold upfront. Lerner says that many authors are cynical about Amazon’s program because the framework is so limited; they allow a small number of installments and little flexibility. Based on her experience, writers mostly use serials as a platform builder, a means to launch a career and sell completed works. “It’s a good start for people who are not convinced they’ll be able to go for the traditional publishing route,” she said.

“You Have to Love Your Reader”

Since starting down the serialization path in 2011, Platt has launched seven distinct series, two of them through Amazon. But after concluding his existing series with them, he’s doing the rest on his own, under his own co-owned publishing company, Collective Inkwell.

Platt said that Amazon’s practices allowed his readers to be disappointed, and even attracted the type of reader he didn’t want. Platt couldn’t make his first episode available for free on Amazon, which he finds critical to building a strong funnel of devoted fans, and they also didn’t release episodes as quickly as he recommended, at the pace of one per week. (Amazon later adjusted their frequency on most serials to weekly or biweekly.)

[pullquote]“You have to love your reader,” Platt said. “Serials have that line to walk. It’s a really fun thing to do, but we really have to position it correctly so that we don’t have an upset reader.”[/pullquote]

“You have to love your reader,” Platt said. “Serials have that line to walk. It’s a really fun thing to do, but we really have to position it correctly so that we don’t have an upset reader.” Platt talked to me at length about how his editorial, marketing, and pricing strategies have evolved, with a level of minute detail that would push the boundaries of most authors’ attention spans and abilities. (For those who are interested, you can hear all about his experiences through a weekly show with his co-authors, The Self-Publishing Podcast [22].) Even though Platt thinks he’s a better marketer than most publishers, including Amazon, he told me in November 2013, “I’m going to try again with traditional [publishing] in February.”

When I followed up with Platt in early January to ask further about his reasons for pursuing traditional publishing, he wrote me, “Essentially, I love what we’re doing on the indie side, and wouldn’t want to change that for anything.” He said that his stint with Amazon isn’t really the traditional publishing experience he wants; he’s looking for something bigger—including physical bookstore placement and a giant marketing push that gets his name out in ways he can’t do digitally. So he’s strategizing with his agent and trying to identify the right project to pitch, but it hasn’t been easy, even with stories conceived as traditional projects.

“[My agent] says traditional won’t want more than 100K–110K words, and yet there’s no way I can stuff the epic into that space. It needs 150K+. There are too many ideas and layers. I’d rather wait until I can tell the story the way it needs to be told,” Platt wrote.

He’s also expecting a publisher to show him the money to leave his indie serial model. “I won’t sign unless the advance is substantial, not because I care about the money, but because the publisher does. I need to make sure they give me enough [for them] to be thoroughly invested.”

Correction and clarification (2/26/14): An earlier version of this article indicated Plympton had stopped releasing new fiction and was no longer working with Amazon. Even though Plympton discontinued publishing serials through Amazon, they continue to publish original fiction through Kindle Singles and other platforms, and plan to continue working with Amazon outside of the Kindle Serials environment.

Have you ever serialized your work, and if so, what was your experience in gaining readership or in monetizing the serial? After reading about others’ experiences, would you try it yourself?

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About Jane Friedman [23]

Jane Friedman [24] has more than 20 years in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She's the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet [25], the essential industry newsletter for authors. You can find out more about her consulting services and online classes at her website, JaneFriedman.com [24].