Monday, May 4, 2015

Serialized Novels: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Serializing novels is a recent trend in publishing for independent or co-published works that has advantages for both readers and authors. But it isn't all sunshine and roses.

When my agent and I first talked about releasing my full length novel, she hit me with this dynamic idea. Instead of releasing Inherit the Stars as a single title, she asked me to consider doing something a bit more unconventional. She wanted to release it first as a serialized novel in three parts.

I cannot tell a lie. My first reaction was...


But the more I thought about the strategy, the more sense it made. Why?

For one, a lot of readers don't enjoy wading through large novels on their e-reader devices. Plodding through page after page after page without feeling like they're making a dent in the progress bar can be discouraging. (I can relate. I read Last Hour of Gann on my Kindle. Believe me, I know the Bottomless Read Syndrome well.) So many readers now favor shorter, quicker reads which is one of the reasons novellas have become so popular.

But trying to run a "big" SFR story through a compactor to get it down to novella size is often not doable for our genre. Science Fiction Romance, by it's very nature, must have extensive world-building and explanations of future tech, politics and social issues threaded through the plot in a believable, in-context, info-dump-free way...and that requires word count.

So shrinking a full length SFR novel down to a more popular size isn't a wise plan. However, releasing the story in more bite-size pieces that make up the bigger whole is completely doable.

My second reason is that as a debut author, I'm a bit of a wild card. Readers may be wary of investing in my work until they know my voice and writing style appeals to them. Offering a serialized novel provides an advantage. Inherit the Stars, Part I: Flight is priced at only .99. Why the deep discount? It's a bonus for readers. And it's a gamble on my part. I'm betting they'll invest a buck in (roughly) the first third of the story to get a sense of the characters, stakes, conflict, sci-fi and romance elements, and (if I've done my job well) they'll get hooked, and decide they must know what happens next.

Then there's the other side of the coin. My novel may not be every reader's cup of tea. Where a sample doesn't often provide enough of the story for them to make that judgement, if they order Part One and my book doesn't excite them, they can stop there without the expense of investing in the entire novel. It's the literary equivalent of getting their toes wet.

The third reason for serializing the novel is purely for the sake of discoverability. That's a magic word in this industry. The more titles an author has out there, the more potential readers will see their work. Discoverability is a big mountain to climb for new authors. With my first novel, instead of one title I have four. That will increase exponentially with my second novel, which will ramp up to eight titles instead of two. By the time I release my entire six-book series...well, that's a lot of titles.

There are millions of other books out there trying to snag a reader's attention, and trying to reach potential readers can be a full-time job. Having more titles available will hopefully wave more flags in front of more book browsers and help them find my work.

So there's the Good. Where's the Bad and Ugly pieces of the equation?

Well, turns out there is a darkside. Actually, there are several--reviews, confusion and cost. This part of my blog is more a cautionary advice for authors who are considering serializing.

Most of the big review sites will not review novella size works or serialized works. Ouch! That means you'll have a tougher time getting your work in front of large groups of readers, and that feeds back into the issue with discoverability. If you're considering serializing, you may want to weigh the number of readers you'll reach via multiple titles vs. the number you won't reach due to having fewer reviewers accept your work.

Of course, there is an easy solution. Release your complete novel simultaneously with your serialized version, and then pitch only the complete novel to the reviewers. I didn't go that route with my first novel, where the serialized version launched a month before the complete novel. When my full novel released, it was already ineligible for review sites that only accept works released in the past thirty days. I'm planning to change my strategy going forward.

The other review issue is the splintering factor. Some readers will review the individual parts where others will review the complete novel, so you'll probably start out with a handful of reviews in various places instead of having them all consolidated under one title. As time goes by and more reviews come in, that will be less of a problem.

Readers may mistake your serialized novel for a trilogy, and if so, expect some dings in the comments for not ending each section on a HEA or HFN. I realized my mistake shortly after my first reviews started coming in and we tweaked the blurb a bit to make it crystal clear the parts were not meant to be a complete story. I'd suggest adding a disclaimer as the first element of the blurb--"This is a serialized novel in X parts"--and if the complete novel is available, it would be a good idea to add that info, too. Some readers will prefer to read the complete novel and appreciate getting the heads up.

Dividing a novel into three or more parts will result in higher production costs and more time investment for the author. Since each part will have a distinct cover, it's going to be a bit pricier. Most cover artists will probably be willing to work with you on a basic design, but purchasing additional stock images along with the time to create unique designs for each cover may bump the price up. On the other hand, edits shouldn't run more, since they're generally based on word count. Finally, decisions about where to split the novel and the extra time to format it into three parts and add front and back info will required more time investment and coordination on the part of the author.

Now I'd like to hear your thoughts about serialized novels? Have you ever read them? Have you released them? Was your experience positive or negative?  If you haven't read or released a serialized novel before, would you consider doing so in the future?


  1. Hmm. This is interesting. I keep hearing about serialized novels making a come back, but I just can't convince myself to try it as a reader or a writer. It's tempting to try it as a writer, since I'm so slow, but I think having multiple releases back and back will begin to decrease in importance in the algorithms, since many, many people will be doing it. The same thing for being able to offer a third of the book for $0.99. There's so much free and $0.99 stuff out there, a serialized novel with the great intro price will get just as lost as it would have with a regular length book and price. Maybe? Who knows, really.

    All that said, I still *might* try to release more products this year. I'm contemplating a few novellas, just so that I have more opportunities to be discovered. The problem is getting myself fully invested in a shorter story, since I do prefer full length. Honestly, my biggest strategy is to remind myself that many of the very successful, big name authors who got into publishing before the Gold Rush did so over a long period of time, building their audience reader by reader. It seems like a lot of people who've gotten into publishing in the last few years don't feel like they're successful because they're not hitting it as big as the Gold Rush authors. That's not the case. They're just not hitting it as big as *quickly*.

    1. Sandy, thanks for your thoughts. I think that's right on the mark about the not hitting it as big quickly. And I can understand some writers not wanting to go the serialized route. There were a few times early on that I doubted my decision, but at this point, I'm really happy I went that route. My serialized versions have outsold my complete novel, but that could be partly due to the novel being out for a shorter time, too.

  2. I have not bought nor am I likely to buy serials. Why? I want the whole thing. High word count doesn't put me off, and I'm greedy and impatient. I'm the girl who read all six of the Dune books in a day and who raged over the weekly cliff hanger endings of classic Doctor Who. It's bad enough waiting for the next book in a series. I want it all NOW. I downloaded a free book that turned out to be part one of a serial, and didn't bother reading it. The fact that it was a serial wasn't made clear, so I felt cheated that I wasn't getting a full story (yes, even though it was free). It felt like blackmail. I'd rather get a free short story, and if I like it I'll buy longer works by that author.
    And until recently I would never have considered releasing a serial, but I happen to have a recent project that might work well as a serial...when it's finished. I'm not sure I want to do all the palaver of cover art and costs putting it up at retailers though. I'm more likely to post it as a weekly/monthly release on Wattpad.
    Does that make me a hypocrite? Possibly. But just because *I* don't want to buy/read serials doesn't mean other readers don't. I'm sure there's a market for them, and from a purely marketing point of view I have to consider it as an option. I hadn't thought about the review issues, which for me is another reason other than costs to avoid retailing it and just do it as a free serialization, then maybe retail the entire thing as a set or full novel.

    1. LOL Pippa. I relate to being an impatient reader. To date, my only experience with purchasing serialized novels was with John Scalzi's The Human Division. He released one short story per week for a couple of months, then released them all as a complete novel a short time later.

      I gobbled up the serials, but never bought the complete novel. The advantage to his system was each of the stories did have a resolution to the particular story plot, but still left questions unanswered for the overarching story. I think he was quite successful sales-wise.

    2. I think I should also add an exception - if I know the author and the story as I did with ITS, I'd have bought the serialization for fear of it being the only way to get it. But knowing it would release as a complete novel AND in print, I would have waited. I always buy my favourite books in print if that's an option, and as my budget allows. ;)

  3. I kind of did things backwards. I released my HUGE novels and then later went in and divided them into parts and made the first parts free.I did it that way because having a first in series free of a HUGE book was pretty painful for me. Like you, I believe a reader who is 1/3 of the way into a book will know if they want to keep reading. In fact, they will probably know before that. I have put disclaimers and such at the top of the descriptions, but people still don't always read and then get annoyed. It happens. But it has definitely breathed new life into the series while I work on getting more books out. :-)

    1. I think your decision was a good one, Pauline. Other than John Scalzi's method, I think releasing the serialized parts after the novel had been out for awhile was a great idea. I'm guessing it brought in more readers and helped give your complete novel a boost too.

  4. I'm with Pippa and Sandy. As a reader, I have zero interest in serials. I avoid them. If one catches my fancy, I ask the author if they're planning to put the whole thing into one volume. If the answer is no, I'm gone. If it's yes, I'll try the first part to see if I want to buy the single volume.

    My writer brain doesn't think in that format either. Doing it well is a specific skill set, and it's not one I possess. Nor is it one I want to cultivate right now. I've found my writing sweet spot and I have no desire to leave it.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Rachel. From comments here, it appears the complete version is the most preferred. At least, we haven't heard from anyone who seeks out serialized novels yet.

  5. >So many readers now favor shorter, quicker reads which is one of the reasons novellas have become so popular.

    I'm not convinced readers *favor* shorter reads over longer reads so much as they're happy to have a *choice* about it. The mainstream print distribution system pretty much locked out short stories and novellas as a viable option for the majority of authors for a long time. Ebooks, of course, changed that. So what we're seeing is, in part, the expansion of a once small market. And readers have shown they like having both.

    re: serialization: When Meljean Brook serialized THE KRAKEN KING, she received a lot of push back, but on the other hand she still got a huge number of reviews and interest for the books. So even a well-known author can run into resistance, but they probably don't face as much resistance as a little-known author (e.g., some readers grumbled about the serialized format for TKK but said they'd bought it anyway).

    When few people know who you are, the challenge of broadcasting news about a serialized story is huge. Therefore, another factor to consider when thinking about serializing is the size of one's readership. If you haven't yet built up a significant audience of readers waiting for your next book to drop, is it even worth it?


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