2012 may be remembered as the year that digital publishing brought serial fiction back to the reading public. Readers in the 19th and early 20th centuries often read fictional stories in installments in newspapers and magazines: books were simply too expensive for many people. But as affordable paperbacks flooded the market in the mid-1900s, serials lost popularity. Now, however, the ease of delivering installments to digital devices, combined with the limited time people have to devote to reading, is leading to a resurgence of interest in serial fiction.
Serial fiction has been available on the web since the 1990s. But suddenly in the last six months, there has been an explosion of interest in fiction delivered in installments: Amazon announced its Kindle Serials program, publishing startups introduced their own serial fiction series, (e.g., Byliner, Wattpad, and Plympton), several iOS serial book apps (Silent History and Seven Poets) were launched, and at least one award-winning novelist, Margaret Atwood, began writing her own serial stories.
Why should you be interested in serial fiction?
Whether you are looking at this development as a publisher, reader, or author, there are plenty of reasons.
For a publisher, serial fiction provides ongoing engagement with your readers. Each new installment is delivered to them automatically on their device of choice, bringing your product back into the forefront of their minds. The episodic nature of serial fiction may also increase the buzz around the author and the story, as there is often a lively online discussion among readers about what may happen in future installments. This enhances discoverability by creating more opportunities for new readers to hear about the product.
Perhaps most interesting for publishers is the flexibility in payment options for serial fiction. For example, Kindle Serials charges one low price for the purchase of the series up front, with each subsequent installment delivered for free. If the series is well-subscribed, when it is complete, it is offered for sale as a book, either as a paperback or as a Kindle edition. The price for this often exceeds the price for the series if purchased when it began. Other publishers charge a per installment price, usually also offering a discounted price for all installments if paid upfront as the series begins. Some have experimented with offering the first installment for free, with subsequent installments at a set price, charged as each is delivered. And a few publishers have begun selling subscriptions to their site, with all series then available for free, no matter whether delivered in installments or as a completed whole. Obviously serial fiction lends itself to many different business models.
For a reader, serial fiction provides the opportunity to personally tailor the reading experience. Some serials offer quite short installments, 1,000 words or so per piece (Silent History is an example of this). Others are closer to 10,000 words per installment (like Margaret Atwood’s Wattpad serials), and some are more like short stories in each installment, running between 50,000 and 100,000 words (like Margaret Atwood’s “Positron” serial on Byliner).
Frequency, engagement, and experimentation
The shorter the installment, the more often it is likely to be delivered. For example, Silent History delivers a new installment each weekday for four weeks and then takes a break for a week to let everyone catch up before issuing new installments. Where a reader plans to read each installment may be a factor in what they purchase. For example, someone looking for something to entertain them during their 30 minute commute will most likely want longer installments than someone looking for a diversion while they wait in line for 10 minutes at the bank. But for someone about to begin a three-hour plane flight, a few installments of novella length may be the most appealing. Readers may also like serial fiction for the option it provides for interaction with the author through online discussions of upcoming installments, which may influence the direction of the story. (Authors have reported they have changed the ending or the level of involvement of secondary characters based on reader feedback.) And lastly, the need for cliffhangers at the end of each installment, as well as other techniques for bringing readers back to the story after a waiting period, means that serial fiction is often more intricately plotted and engaging than a stand alone book might be.
For an author, serial fiction offers the chance to experiment with new ways of storytelling. Pieces are shorter and more quickly delivered to readers. This allows authors the possibility of receiving reader feedback before the story is finished – a kind of agile development model for writing. And for serial fiction offered as apps on Apple devices, there is the opportunity to use the increased functionality of the mobile device as a part of the storytelling. For example, Silent History tells the main story through short “Testimonials”, written by the authors. But there is the option of reading and/or creating what are called “Field Reports.” These stories (based on the fictional premise of the app) are written by the community of readers and can be accessed only within 10 meters of the GPS location about which the field report is written. Another app, Seven Poets, offers not just the story installments, but also “newspaper articles” on the main events in the story, as well as challenges to the reader based on the events of each installment, the results of which are stored and can be shared as “Your Story” with a reader’s own community.
It still comes down to great writing
Overall, after reading many different kinds and examples of the serial fiction that has recently burst onto the scene, I have to say I like the flexibility of matching my current reading needs (the length of time I have, my attention span at the moment, the situation I’m reading in — is it a quiet doctor’s office or the DMV?) with all the different sorts of serials available at an affordable price. And I am amused by the new ways of telling stories utilizing the bells and whistles of my mobile devices. But I have discovered that the measuring stick for serials is the same as the one I use for all books: How good is the writing? Over time, neither the novelty of periodic delivery of installments nor the new storytelling techniques available through my device kept me interested in the story unless the plot was intriguing, the characters were fully developed, and the writing was engaging. Bottom line: I like the flexibility of serial fiction, but only good writing will keep me coming back for more.
What are your thoughts on serial fiction?