book promotion, reading

Serials: The Little Engine That Could?

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Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, won’t you choo-choo me home!

Curtis says: “I have written a book that nobody needs. But that’s not just the case of One Green Bottle – you could say it of practically any book that’s published.”

Atthys says: Agents … “didn’t see the potential for the kind of commercial success that would’ve made it worth their time and effort. The bottom line really is the bottom line.”

Serials may be a viable alternative path to publication. Slow and steady wins the race, remember? No stone unturned, I promised that, to you and to myself, a while back.

I’m going to look into it.

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Here’s Yael Goldstein Love (of Plympton Publishing) on serialization: (some of this is paraphrased/condensed)

* A serialized novel is a novel delivered to readers in installments over time. Each installment is a satisfying read in itself, but it also leaves you wanting more. Any good serialized novel also reads well as an all-at-once book, whereas the reverse is not true. A slow, lyrical novel, for instance, might make a bad serial. I say ‘might’ because you never know what other charms this book might have. Maybe each chapter is a perfect gem you want to savor.

Charles Dickens was THE famous early serialist, with The Pickwick Papers. Pretty soon, and for much of the 19th century, it was rare for a novel to be published as a book without first appearing as a serial. Most of the great (and not so great) 19th century novelists needed that money to survive, before their full book made its way into stores.

* Time-wise, and cost-wise, a serial has obvious advantages (for a reader) over a full novel. The stakes are much lower. Don’t like the first installment? Don’t get the second.

* The rhythm of the thing: Monthly doesn’t seem to work. A month might as well be a decade as far as serial reading goes. You lose the thread, maybe have to start over. But is weekly ideal? Daily? Release everything at once and let the reader choose the pace? Yael says that works for the library of classics on Plympton’s companion site DailyLit. She doesn’t have an answer for original fiction.

Serials are something of a natural for us today. TV shows with a running narrative have trained us to expect our stories to arrive in bite-size chunks, and there’s real delight to the cliffhanger.

* Serialization may work best as a marketing device—to build buzz before a book is released. This means the format becomes, in part, a gimmick. But, historically, serials have changed thinking, and may do so again.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published as one complete book, wouldn’t have had the effect that it had on thousands of white readers. It would have been easier to read it, put it aside, and forget the uncomfortable fact that something horrific was happening in this country. Instead, readers had to sit with it for months, thinking and wondering as they went about their lives. That made it a lot harder to forget those uncomfortable facts. I mention this mainly because I think it highlights just how much depth and richness the serial experience can add. It’s the furthest thing from a gimmick; it’s an art form.

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Entertainment choices were once severely limited. Serialized fiction filled a real need. A popular author under contract was an asset, giving a newspaper an edge over rivals. It was no second-rate way of publishing, it gained you a wider audience than you would have had, and it paid, perhaps not handsomely, but dependably.

Online outlets have proliferated, but there is an admission process, and there are rules. We’re back to a situation in which we deal with a gatekeeper. Some spots are difficult to join, some less so. On those easier to infiltrate, the quality may be less. A few lemons and a reader may move on. There are pastures and pastures, some greener than others.

A handful of sites pay, most do not. The major gain is exposure. You’ll have to fight for it, like anywhere else and, to quote Ringo, it don’t come easy. There’s massive competition.

Plympton is a major player. It’s gotten some great press. I read about them on Salon. (Kindle and Amazon are the biggies, but Plympton is a well-known boutique site.) They handle some big names, and they take on unknowns. But I went to the website and found: No new submissions accepted at this time due to submission overload. I have no idea, as yet, how common this is.

You can go it alone, some do. But you have to promote just as relentlessly as you would for a book. And punchy episodic chapters that hang together as a whole are essential.

Punchy. We’re back to a formula. A few thousand words of fast-paced shenanigans, wrap it up with a hook that entices folks to look forward to the next bit of business. My dense, ambling style may not pair well with the format.

It is easy to believe, and it may well be true, that serials lead to repeat customers and enhanced customer retention. Some sites allow for reader participation. Authors generally welcome the back and forth, saying it gets a reader onboard like nothing else.

The form is appealing on both sides of the equation. An intriguing novelty, a short, self-contained story, read it on your lunch break. The structure lends itself to a test drive for reader and author alike. I expect that readers settle on a favorite one or two sites after a broader try-out.

With an eye-catching title, you may have a better than average chance of being noticed in a table of contents. It’s a form of market research. You may build a committed fan base before you vault onto Amazon, followers who may be Johnnie-On-The-Spot with a review when that time comes.

May-may-may. I’m constructing my castles in the air before I’ve ever set foot into a serial site. BTW, I read that some of them are loath to give out figures on traffic, hobbling an accurate evaluation of prospects. Choose wisely.

Hugh Howey created a serial without meaning to. His initial petite version of Wool proved so popular, readers demanding more and more from him, that he spun it out to a full-length novel. The rest is publishing history.

His story was so successful that he’s the first author ever to negotiate a contract allowing him retention of digital rights. He’s got his big book deal, and he keeps the full proceeds from online sales. Full earnings, not whatever percentage your liege-lord thinks good and proper. They had to do it. Hugh wouldn’t have signed otherwise. He’s making too much money on his own. How’s that for an inspiration?

Check out Tuesday Serial, which offers . . . whoa! . . . one-hundred-twenty-seven pages of listings. I’ll dig deeper into that next time.

 

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11 thoughts on “Serials: The Little Engine That Could?

  1. Perry Palin says:

    Mimi,

    You’ve given us a something to think about.

    One of the daily newspapers in the nearest metro area serially printed a new novel of local, historical interest last summer. The book was the first of a local writer. There were several installments each week. I read them all. The writing was very good at the beginning, lagged a bit for me in the middle, and then improved again in the last chapters. It was a success for the newspaper and they’re doing it again this summer. Having left my day job in the meantime and not having a print subscription at home, I am not reading this summer’s book.

    The newspaper had a call for submissions in the winter, and I’m sure they have quite a number of local writers vying for this kind of exposure.

    This newspaper supports writers more than most. It has an actual book editor on staff and does original book reviews, something that many daily papers have dispensed with.

    Mimi, can you find a local paper, even a weekly maybe, that will print a serialization? The publisher had better be convinced that enough readers will like your writing to make the book worth the space on the page. But it’s a thought.

    Several years ago I was a member of an on-line community not focused on writing, but with a thread on their site where writings were allowed/encouraged. I posted a short story of about 1200 words, and the comments included things like, “What happened next?” and “I can’t wait to see how this turns out.” I edited the ending of the first story, or installment, and wrote another. I quit after seven installments because it never was supposed to be a long story, and it was hard to keep the story going when I didn’t have a plan or a plot. Some people wrote that they joined the community because of my stories, and some of the members bought copies of my first book when it came out. So I guess that short “serialization” was a success.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    These days, who reads newspapers? Local papers, anyway, there’s hardly anything to them. USA Today, I always read that while I waited for my car to be serviced. To get a serial in there, that would be great. But if they were inclined to try it, they’d be looking for a popular genre.

    A serial online, I like the idea. First, get hold of an intriguing title. First episode is free. You could write two or three installments for a dozen ideas. Like the Mamas and the Papas said, ‘tryin’ to get a fish on the line’. You don’t have to actually write the story until you get paying customers. You know, I think this is kind of a genius idea.

    I’m wondering if that was Howey’s method. He wrote lots of stuff prior to Wool, stuff now, I read, being dusted off and published, now he’s made his name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perry Palin says:

      The newspaper of which I write has a daily circulation of over a quarter million and a Sunday print run of over a half million. Not everybody reads everything in the paper, but somebody must be reading some of it. There aren’t that many caged canaries in the Upper Midwest.

      By the way, I heard the book editor speak to a writers’ group a couple of years ago. She won’t even consider printing a review of a self-published book, and she said she gets about a shopping cart of new releases sent to her every day, from traditional publishing houses and from agents, GD may be right. It’s an overload.

      Like

  3. GD Deckard says:

    Hmm.. I didn’t know that books were still serialized, magazines having turned into advertising circulars. (Bob vs The Aliens is serialized for the reason you quoted, as a marketing device.) But you know the Internet. It’s too big to know.

    Information overload may be the reason book sales suffer. If so, the answer is …oh, wait. We never solve information overload, we just add to it. Unlike magazines, which are printed in a quantity equal to the number of readers, ebooks proliferate beyond the number of people available to read them.
    We are not suffering from a lack of readers so much as an overload of readables. The obvious solution is to shoot writers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mimispeike says:

    I just read on Scrib that a serial on your website isn’t a good idea. People don’t find it, unless they go to your site. But I’m doing some fancy stuff with format and type, and I don’t think it is transferable to an ebook. I prefer to create a pdf to sell on Amazon. Does a Kindle accept pdfs? How wide is a Kindle screen? (I would need to make the font large enough to be easily readable.)

    I am determined to have (visual) fun. I don’t want solid boring pages of text.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quite right, I think, about serials on a website – even if people do find it and follow, most only pop in irregularly, so missing a couple of instalments will lose them. I’ve played with the formula in my newsletter but reached the conclusion that it’s only useful there once you’ve already got a large following. But it could be a good way of releasing a long novel on Amazon, in separate parts. And as you say, make the first couple of instalments free and be sure to hook your readers early on.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. GD Deckard says:

    Kindle uses MOBI file format. (You might find a site on the ‘Net to convert Microsoft Word to MOBI)
    MOBI automatically formats your text for Kindle viewing.

    Like

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