Serializing Your e-Novel: Pros and Cons

I read an article today which about authors Sean Platt and David W. Wright whose self-published post-apocalyptic serial, Yesterday’s Gone: Season One has just surpassed the 100 customer reviews mark this week.

Until reading this article, I only thought about writing a novel in the more traditional way: uploading it to CreateSpace and then sending out the various digital versions.  Now I am rethinking everything.  I can’t help but think that my book could easily become a serial on Kindle and all the other e-book formats.  Once a series is complete, I could upload it all to CreateSpace and make a complete printed edition.

The benefits of this are as follows:

1.  Speed of Content to Reader – Rather than my readers waiting until August 1st for my book to release as a complete novel, I could release it in segments with cliff-hanger endings.  In this way, readers would be anticipating the next installment, wondering what will befall the characters when the following sequels roll out.

2.  Better Marketing and Sales – If you charge for your installments, (Yesterday’s Gone is completely free) you could make more money on the consecutive issues than selling the one shot novel that will see declining sales over time.  Releasing a new serial episode every two weeks or so would be tough to do as a writer, but it would work well for you if people who catch the series in the middle go back to buy all the past episodes in order to catch up.

3.  Broadening Your Audience – This would in turn broaden your audience as more people caught on to the series.  This format has the greatest potential to travel through word of mouth, but hopefully you have written a real pedal-to-the-metal barn burner or people will lose interest fast.  The trick will be creating cliffhangers for each series so to entice readers to buy the episodes that follow.

Some problems I see with this:

1.  Work, Work, Work – If you plan to write the first installment and then write the rest later without serious outlining, you will be backing yourself into a corner with your own pen.  What if the unforeseen happens and you get sick or get in an accident or can’t write the next installment by the deadline?  Waiting a month to release a new episode is way too long because readers will soon lose interest.  You will have to write the completed book first or at least create a very good outline so that you know where your serialized e-novel’s plot is moving.  Consider the amount of time you will have to spend editing and revising the episodes so that they are straight to the point, powerfully written and structured to deliver a cliffhanger ending believable enough to drag the reader back for the next one.  It will take a mountain of work.

2.  What If You Throw A Party and Nobody Shows? – Probably the biggest fear I have is writing a serialized e-novel and then only one or two people buy the book.  Yesterday’s Gone is completely free, but I have issue with just giving my work away for free.  The problem is that writing is indeed hard work.  If I were a plumber, I wouldn’t run water pipe under a house for free.  Why should a writer work for free?  If I created something, I would want to be paid for that work even if I have selected 35% royalties on a .99 cent e-book.  .99 cents is not much to pay for entertainment.  I don’t really care if authors say “it’s a way to get my name out there.”  Your name is still going to be “out there”.   If people want to read it they will pay the minuscule buck and read it.  Good grief, it’s only a buck.

3.  If You Can’t Plan, Then Forget It – If you are one of those writers who relies on your day to day writing to drive your productivity or a writer who thinks outlines are for musty old fuddy-duddies or English teachers, you may find yourself hitting a brick wall when you reach the third installment of your series and run out of ideas.  To pull off an e-serial, you will have to write a detailed outline and then stick to it.  It will take careful planning on your part.  You may lead your readers down a path and then leave them in the lurch because you will take another month or so to come up with the next installment.  Installments need to come out on a regular basis, once a week or once every two weeks.  Any longer than that and readers will lose interest and move on.

I am not sure if I will turn my current novel into a serial, but I am thinking about doing something like it for my next book.  It will be fun to try something like this, but I will have to plan it like an architect writing blueprints for a skyscraper.  It will be a challenge, but I think it will be one that will help me grow as a writer.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

15 thoughts on “Serializing Your e-Novel: Pros and Cons

  1. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited this web site before but after looking at a few of the posts I realized it’s new to me.

    Anyways, I’m certainly pleased I found it and I’ll be bookmarking
    it and checking back frequently!

  2. By the way, it doesn’t really seem that easy to make a book free (permanently) on Amazon. The minimum price appears to be 99c. Am I reading that wrong?

  3. Hey guys!

    I’m one of the co-authors of Yesterday’s Gone.

    As far as pricing, free works for us because of the strength of the “pilot” episode. People are far more likely to download something for free than they are paid, even if paid is just .99.

    .99 is the worst price point imaginable because your volume has to be ridiculously high to make a profit. And it’s worse for Dave and me since we split everything. But .99 is just the open door, we have individually priced episodes at $2.99 after that, and full seasons for $4.99, which is what we want our readers to buy since it is a good deal for us and the best deal for them.

    As far as outlines, we’re pretty loose. Our big benefit comes from having a writing partner to bounce ideas off of and accelerate our writing process. We have line editors and copy editors behind us, but we do write fast, following the model of scripted television more than novels (for the most part).

    Yes, this schedule is grueling. Yesterday’s Gone is our first series, and the third season comes out in June, but we’ve had first seasons of two other series since, a paranormal serial called ForNevermore and a sci-fi thriller launched this week called WhiteSpace. We have a new episode each week without fail. As difficult as the schedule is to maintain, it’s worth it. We get to see our audience grow each week, and respond to us in real time. That’s insanely valuable to our growth as writers.

    Roger, thanks for writing about our story!

    1. Thank you so much, Sean, for your reply! It is so good to have your input into this subject as you and David are probably the best example of a success story with serialization. Thanks for the pointers!

  4. My experience tells me that people tend to attach a value to something based on what it cost them. Fiction should not be in the same category as direct mail.

      1. Libraries only eliminate the *cover* price (or more precisely, spread it around).

        To acquire and read a physical book from a library still bears a significant opportunity cost, more so than media streamed more or less directly into your skull from all directions. It requires effort, thought, movement, and interaction with human beings.

        The transaction is fundamentally identical to that in a bookstore, down to showing a piece of plastic to a clerk to be allowed to take it home…though the local library is trying to get rid of staff by introducing self-service checkouts. Just like the store.

        Don’t get me wrong: I like efficiency as much as the next guy, but I fear what will come of the frictionless state we’re facing.

      2. @Jeffrey

        The example you give is a little tenuous. People know the difference between a plastic card that takes money out of your bank acct, and one that costs you nothing.

        You can certainly manipulate perception of value through pricing, like sticking a 10c piece of fabric on a running shoe and charging an extra fifty bucks for the designer label, but it doesn’t change intrinsic value. I can download free classic (out of copyright) literature onto my kindle from Amazon with no plastic and no bookstore browsing and Dickens loses none of his ability to impress me.

        The uncomfortable feeling you have about digital content and free books is understandable, but feelings of insecurity about the new and the unknown never live up to the claims of impending doom they generate (although there’s always a first time).

      3. I maintain the differences between a library and a bookstore, and especially between the experiences one can have at either, are less significant than the fundamental similarity: the purposeful journey to get books.

        I believe value and purpose are inexorably intertwined, but the current system is heading towards removing purpose as a component. If everything comes to the consumer without effort, without thought, any differentiation between content, even between content types, becomes irrelevant.

        I see this happening already in terms of quality of writing (or perhaps editing), which I believe has been slipping in speculative genres. Another writer I know blames the ubiquity of fan fiction online for this–we are in competition not with bound books (and certainly not Dickens) or even professionally done ebooks, but the teeming hordes willing to give it away for free, and the equally teeming hordes who think that must be the new price point.

        They deserve each other. But homey don’t play “race to the bottom.” I’d rather take my chances with trad publishing and the luck inherent in the system there than be at the mercy of millions of anonymous content consumers.

        Can value be both purely subjective and

      4. mooderino: Yes, one of the great features of the device. Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, S. S. Van Dyne, James Joyce, Baroness Orczy. Amazon doesn’t promote it because they don’t make money from it, but it’s the main thing I use the Kindle for (besides marking up my own drafts).

  5. It’s a great idea–worked for Dickens. I do too much revision, and like the safety net of as many drafts as it takes to polish it up, so it just wouldn’t work for me. One thing to consider if you do throw your party and no one comes. You can always go ahead and finish the book and sell it in one big batch. People who might be afraid to commit to a series might be more willing to commit to a single purchase.

  6. Very interesting subject. Laura Stanfill directed me here, and I’m glad she did.

    I agree that serial publication can speed the work to the audience, and it can build an audience over time, if they get hooked by the episodes. I love serial fiction myself. The first thing I ever read by Stephen King was The Green Mile because I was so excited he was publishing it in monthly installments.

    I’ve been writing and self-publishing fiction for over 20 years (first in monthly chapbooks, then on BBSs, and more recently on the internet and via Print-on-Demand). I do have some specific comments on your post.

    One is that I don’t really like the analogy between writing and plumbing. 🙂 Now, I am entirely in favor of professional writers getting paid. I have a friend who has been a professional writer since 1972 and he never writes unless he has some expectation of making money, and I respect that. However, that doesn’t apply to all writers. Some people provide tech support as their jobs, and that’s great, but other people offer it for free to their friends and in internet forums (and the quality is, in my experience, at least as good from the enthusiasts as it is from the pros). So, I agree that I would never lay pipe for free, but writing is much more fun than laying pipe (at least for me).

    And I disagree with your last point, about planning. That sounds logical (the idea of outlining always sounds logical), but it’s not been my experience at all. I’ve written two novels (one short, one long) and a series of mystery stories (twelve, possibly to become a book), and I’ve never had an outline. I have no opinion for or against outlines as a general thing — but I don’t use them.

    I sometimes have some idea where I’m going, but there have been a couple of mysteries where I started them without even any idea what the crime was going to be. (Rex Stout used to work the same way. 🙂 )

    My general advice would be to start a serial from scratch if you want to do a serial, rather than repurposing a book that’s already in draft form. Similar to 3D in movies, it really works best if everything is going in that direction from the beginning, rather than adding it on later. (That’s just an opinion, since I’ve never tried to adapt something to serial publication — everything of mine was always intended that way from the beginning.)

    I’m sorry to go on for so long, but I also have to mention that every episode needs to end with some sort of hook, but not all with a cliffhanger. Too repetitive and predictable (like a Hardy Boys mystery). There are a lot of different types of hooks.

  7. I think the general “I don’t work for free” idea is fair enough, but this is a different world and without name recognition you’re asking for a big dollop of luck to help you out. That initial take up is the problem. If a lot of people recommend your series, it could launch it into the stratosphere. If the same number of people recommend it over a longer time frame, it might get swallowed up in all the chatter out there.

    The point isn’t whether 99c is a fair renumeration for a book, it’s your revenue stream overall. 99c isn’t a fair price for all the work you did. Neither is 9.99. It’s about having a big enough readership and if offering it for a penny means you get a 10 million readers and you make a million bucks, that’s a fair strategem too.

    As for your personal quandry, you might consider making the first in the series free, then people who are invested in your tale can pay to continue.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

    1. I like the idea of making the first one free. That’s a good idea to get things going. I really think that writers should be paid, though, even if it is .99 cents.

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