Serialized eBooks
December 7, 2011 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Despite the popularity of long-arc, serialized TV shows, no one really wants to read serialized fiction, apparently. That's not stopped anyone from trying, though, like say Stephen King with The Green Mile and The Plant, semi-successful efforts from a mega-successful author. That was before the current rise of the ebook, though, and a few authors (also here and here and here) are betting technology will turn serialized novels into the next big thing, that we're in "the perfect environment for a resurgence."
posted by nospecialfx (44 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
no one really wants to read serialized fiction

Huh? So you don't mean like the serialized stories about the young vampires and their love affairs or the ones about the kids who go to a school that teaches them magic?
posted by coolxcool=rad at 1:41 PM on December 7, 2011 [13 favorites]


Or the neverending serialized stories where folks in spandex whale on other folks in spandex?
posted by COBRA! at 1:42 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, I think the HuffPost piece is talking about single stories broken into pieces (like chapter by chapter), not novels published one after the other.
posted by nospecialfx at 1:45 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Or the neverending serialized stories where folks in spandex whale on other folks in spandex?

That's a funny way of describing Game of Thrones, but not inaccurate.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:46 PM on December 7, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yea, on preview what nospecialfx said.

We're talking Green Mile vs. Dark Tower. Scale is the difference, page count basically.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:47 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with serializing a novel is that there is no benefit to the reader.

It only LOOKS like we're willing to accept serialization in other media, like comics and TV shows. In reality, a huge percentage of people will jump at the earliest opportunity to get it all at once.

Think how many people wait for a TV season to come out on DVD and watch it all at once. Or wait for the trade paperback, rather than tracking down (and paying extra for) each individual comic.

(And speaking of Stephen King - how many readers waited for the final Dark Tower novel before they started reading the entire series? I personally know three.)

You'll notice it's only ever content creators (e.g. authors and publishing companies) who proclaim serialized novels to be the next big thing.

Readers, on the other hand, clamor to be able to read the whole thing at their own pace, and without paying a fortune for the individual installments.
posted by ErikaB at 1:49 PM on December 7, 2011 [16 favorites]


I'd love to see a resurgence in serialised fiction if only for the sole fact that I have a near completed novel that would only really work if it were chopped into individual chunks, as most of the chapters read like individual adventures with an over arching plot.

Also, maybe we might get some fantasy fiction that's more manageable than the 1,000+ page books they're currently being split into.
posted by DuchessProzac at 1:52 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


MeFi's own Ian A.T., actually, has been publishing his absolutely brilliant serialized YA novel online for free.

I personally think it's a really neat format. Serialized fiction is to novels what TV shows are to movies; they're effectively totally different styles of storytelling, both with their own place in the literary world. I like movies, but I like TV shows, too, and I really hope serials take off.
posted by Phire at 1:53 PM on December 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Exactly what ErikaB said. Apparently a lot of people want to write serialized novels. That's not the same thing as it being the next big thing, or this being a great opportunity, because nobody seems to want to read serialized novels, in paper or whatever form.
posted by penduluum at 1:54 PM on December 7, 2011


Also, before someone corrects me: the book series is A Song of Ice and Fire. I've been HBO'd!
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:54 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


ErikaB: I agree that a lot of people want their TV and comics in one go - I know I do. At the same time, for shows that I'm really in to, like Mad Men, I'm not prepared to wait until the end because I get a lot of enjoyment out of talking about it with friends.

Some media - whether it's video or stories or games - have a 'better' serialised experience than others, particularly those that engage with the audience or are topical or responsive in some way. I quite like watching YouTube series in this way because it's fun to chat with the creators.

Regarding serialised novels, I think there are three big problems: the reading experience, the discovery process, and the business model. Any one of these is enough to really knock down serialised novels. I remember when The Mongoliad came out - it had a ton of press, some fantastic authors, and a reasonable business model (it comes out to about the cost of a paperback every year). But the reading experience is execrable. Other serialised projects fall down in other ways - perhaps they're too expensive or they're difficult to find.

It's a fascinating area for me, one that I'm personally experimenting in in three different ways (with a book I'm writing, a collaborative story I'm doing with some friends, and finally with an iPhone game). I suspect that when someone cracks it in a big way, everyone will just go 'Duh, why didn't we do that before?' and the simple answer is that everyone is just focused on the existing business models and modes of delivery. No-one wants to take a risk.
posted by adrianhon at 1:58 PM on December 7, 2011


Also, sorry for jumping back in the thread so soon, but I disagree that the only characteristic of a serialized novel is that you have to wait for installments (or, indeed, pay for installments). I think the broken up nature of the story allows you to play with subplots and minor characters in a way that you maybe wouldn't get to do, in a piece of work that's meant to follow one main storyline from beginning to end.

While I do agree with some of ErikaB's sentiment that it's nice to be able to consume everything at once--and that a lot of people will defer enjoyment of something until they're able to get at it at once--I also think more people watch TV shows and read comic books because they like a small and regular dose of entertainment, rather than needing to clear out their entire schedule for a week to sit down for a marathon session of 7 seasons of Buffy, for example. Different strokes for different folks, right?

And at the end of the day, even if you consume all of Buffy at once, the style of the story's development is still different from that of one single cohesive piece of work, and I think that lends it certain characteristics and strenghts as well. You can have an episode dedicated to developing Willow's personality without worrying that you're taking away from The Grand Plot.

Speaking as someone who spent years reading and writing fanfiction, I really liked having a weekly (or whatever) chapter land in my RSS reader. It's like reading bits of flash fiction, except the pieces fit into an overall world that I already care about.
posted by Phire at 2:01 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another issue is that serialized novels, unlike television shows, are often problematic and unweildy when compiled into a single text. Some of the great literature was produced this way, but it is for the most part that subset of great literature which, famously, nobody wants to read.

Here I'm talking Dickens, Melville, Stowe, Flaubert, Tolstoy. These are great, great writers who have enriched humanity with their words, but they are much more famous for being unread and important than for being enjoyed.
posted by gauche at 2:02 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love serialized fiction. I wish there was a way I could subscribe to serialized stories on my ereader, and have new chapters delivered every week.

In fact, I sort of already do this with fan fiction. An author with a work in progress, particularly a long fic such as Fallout Equestria, or similar, will post a chapter as it is finished being edited. I will then load this chapter onto my ereader, to read.

Someone just merely needs to find a way to monazite this model, and sell me fiction this way!
posted by strixus at 2:03 PM on December 7, 2011


Cell phone novels.
posted by notyou at 2:12 PM on December 7, 2011


*googles "Fallout Equestria" *
*clicks link *




* pours drink *
posted by jbickers at 2:13 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dickens [...] they are much more famous for being unread and important than for being enjoyed.

Really?
posted by shakespeherian at 2:39 PM on December 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


A significant reason that serialization is present in TV is because studios a) can't take the risk of investing in a 20 or 60 or 100 episode series without being confident that the public is going to watch it, and b) can't wait until production is done on their 20, 60, or 100 episodes to see a return on their investment.

Novelists have such a minuscule overhead compared to TV that it's not even rational to try to equate them, at least from a supply/demand perspective.
posted by chimaera at 2:39 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have a whole business plan written around this idea. Execution's a bitch, though.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:44 PM on December 7, 2011


Just last night, I finished #91 of The Walking Dead comic and I was soooo ticked that I couldn't immediately read the next issue (which isn't out yet). So count me in as a non-fan of serialized fiction; I'd rather avoid the thing entirely until it's finished and then consume it as a whole work. Makes it easier to remember who everybody is and their storyline too.
posted by stinkycheese at 2:44 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


jbickers, there are also two spinoff fics: Fallout Equestria: Project Horizons, and Fallout Equestria: Project Pinkeyes
posted by strixus at 2:48 PM on December 7, 2011


Exactly what ErikaB said. Apparently a lot of people want to write serialized novels. That's not the same thing as it being the next big thing, or this being a great opportunity, because nobody seems to want to read serialized novels, in paper or whatever form.

It's not quite the same, but as someone who is writing a duology, I made that decision because it was the best choice for my story. It was clear that if I tried to get it all in one volume, the first and second half would be drastically different in theme, tone, and setting, and it would be this epic, dense doorstopper. Even though they're essentially two halves of the same narrative, this gives me time to do both halves justice.

I think there are valid reasons to write them, and it's not just cash flow. Though I know it might make some readers grumpy.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:49 PM on December 7, 2011


In these days of trade paper backs/ graphic novels and dvd box sets, a lot of people are forgetting the joys of a proper serial.

I remember watching Buffy weekly as it aired and the long wait between seasons after a epic cliffhanger. Same went for reading Preacher, the excitement of snapping up the next issue to find out what happened to Jessie and Cassidy et al was palpable.

Serialised fiction should read in much the same way, each chapter being not too long, punchily written and ending leaving you wanting you to find out what happens next.

Whilst its true, having it all in one big block is great, perhaps in our "give it all to me now" world, a little patience mightn't go amiss.
posted by DuchessProzac at 2:52 PM on December 7, 2011


I read The Green Mile in serial form.

Got nothing else to say about it really.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:19 PM on December 7, 2011


Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was too young to read it at the time, but my mom still fondly remembers snatching whatever section of the paper it was in and reading the day's installment first thing in the morning.

I think they can still work, but they need to be done well. Careful plotting and not being afraid to end the story while the getting's good being two key factors.
posted by smirkette at 3:26 PM on December 7, 2011


The problem with a serial is this: I don't mind getting my story in bits every month or two months or whatever it is. But what I assume will happen is that it will start every month, and then go to every two months, then something will come up and there will be a year between a few sections, and so on. TV shows are pretty predictable in how often they air, and often their end is known about, so they will work on tying things up. So I'd be happy to get a serialised novel -- once I had faith that it would finish. (I like both proper serials and doing stuff like watching all of Angel in the course of about a month.)

I am sure that your story, PhoBwanKenobi really needs to be a duology, just like many other stories really need to be trilogies or heptologies or infinitologies. But there seems to be something in the air, where standalone or loosely related stories are just not so common as they used to be, people are coming up with stories that need thousands of pages to be told instead of a few hundred. (I say this as someone who loves books that are very long or in 23 parts if they are also engrossing.)

If an author I was really fond of did a serial, I would probably be happy to read along, depending on price and how consistently they wrote. (Seanan McGuire, who publishes eleventy zillion things a year, seems like a good bet, while Scott Lynch might be less of one.)
posted by jeather at 3:27 PM on December 7, 2011


I think I'd enjoy reading a serial story that was meant to be in that style, as in, for instance, took advantage of the cliffhanger structure. The thing that I wonder about is the difficulty of it, not on the writing end--some can and some can't--but on the technological and financial end, especially on the internet.

When I had a comics pull, I used to go to the shop every week, the comics were there, and I bought and read them. Similarly, the DVR gets TV shows for most folks and there they are and you watch them. (As the weirdo without cable, I fake this for some shows with iTunes.) I want a possibility for e-serialization that has similar ease-of-use: it shows up when it's ready, it's on my device, I don't have to worry about formats or DRM crap breaking the usability for me, etc. I imagine Apple can ultimately deliver it for those of us willing to do the Apple thing, if they can get the economics in order. Similarly I think Amazon can do it for those willing to do the Amazon thing. Unfortunately neither Amazon nor Apple is likely to be compatible with each other or anyone else, and that will be bad for writers. Maybe they'll need a service that gets their serialized novels into the Kindles and the Apple magazine format at the same time like the music services that get albums into the Amazon MP3 shop and iTunes.

jeather - I don't know whether you know that Scott Lynch has been doing a serialized story; if not, you will be unsurprised to hear he's late.
posted by immlass at 3:37 PM on December 7, 2011


Serialization makes sense when you have a limited amount of time or space, like TV or magazines. If they're just going to do it for it's own sake, I have to ask what the motive is. This seems like it's probably about making more money than anything to do with the reader's preferences. Would you rather buy a book in ten parts over the course of a year or just get it all now? The only pro I can see is that if I don't like the first one I don't have to buy the rest of the book. If they apply the the same kind of economics they do to comics, it will mean if the sales drop off after the first installment, they'll just cancel the series.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:19 PM on December 7, 2011


Tom Wolfe did this with Bonfire of the Vanities, so, again, recent precedence.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:20 PM on December 7, 2011


I am sure that your story, PhoBwanKenobi really needs to be a duology, just like many other stories really need to be trilogies or heptologies or infinitologies. But there seems to be something in the air, where standalone or loosely related stories are just not so common as they used to be, people are coming up with stories that need thousands of pages to be told instead of a few hundred. (I say this as someone who loves books that are very long or in 23 parts if they are also engrossing.)

Oh, I don't disagree with this at all. I think that there need to be more standalone genre books generally, and I know many authors who were encouraged to go tack sequels and trilogies onto what could have been strong single titles. But I think a series of any length can be carefully planned and conceptualized from the beginning.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:29 PM on December 7, 2011


I read The Green Mile in serial form.

Got nothing else to say about it really.


The only thing I really remember is them jacking up the price for the last volume.
posted by yellowbinder at 5:08 PM on December 7, 2011


Scott Sigler's books are first released, one chapter at a time, as podcasts. They're the kind of sensationalistic SF / thriller / horror stuff that really lent itself well to the suspense of the cliffhanger, and the exploration of a drawn-out mystery (Ancestor and Infected, in particular.)

I'd never have picked up any of these as an actual paper book, but really liked them in podcast form.
posted by BrashTech at 7:08 PM on December 7, 2011


(Whoops, sorry, I meant EarthCore and Infected. Ancestor was less mysterious and interesting, IMHO.)
posted by BrashTech at 7:11 PM on December 7, 2011


At this point I'm firmly in the "dead or done" camp when it comes to book series, so there's no way I'm interested in a serialized single story unless I know the author has completed the story and it's only being published serially, not written that way.

Besides, there's something about plots that turn me into Sieve-Brain Girl who always has to reread book I before starting book II if there's been much gap at all. Why would I want to do that to myself within a single story?
posted by Lexica at 7:19 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


This society? Two words:
Instant gratification.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:24 PM on December 7, 2011


What the renaissance of serialized TV has taught me is that it's really hard to do serialized fiction well. It's far from just a matter of releasing a chapter a week. Each chapter has to be written as a short-story in itself, with its own focal characters, plot arc and mini resolution, while of course also advancing some larger plot arc at the same time. Some of the Dickens novels do this a bit, but in some ways TV has raised the standard for just how much narrative cohesion we expect in each individual piece.

On the other hand, to the degree that you can do it on the small scale, having the largest arcs resolve becomes less important, as you see in some of the baggier 19th century novels. We're right now watching Pillars of the Earth, and at some point I realized wait, these larger arcs are never going to resolve, they can't -- it's not like someone won the throne of England it was all happily ever after. And then I realized, good god, they could theoretically just continue at this pace (skipping a few years every few episodes), one larger arc leading into the next, for another 1000 years. Now that would be serialized fiction.
posted by chortly at 7:49 PM on December 7, 2011


I can imagine the howls and/or whimpers of outrage if a publisher decides to cancel a serialized story 18 parts before the resolution.

Although I enjoy getting sort-of serialized fiction via DailyLit, sometimes I just want to skip ahead.
posted by dragonplayer at 8:49 PM on December 7, 2011


I don't know of the validity of serial fiction as a contemporary business model, but I'd be overjoyed to get a modern David Copperfield or Vanity Fair.
posted by sid at 11:42 PM on December 7, 2011


Dickens [...] they are much more famous for being unread and important than for being enjoyed.

Really?


Really. I kind of take it as a commonplace that there are more people out there who feel like they should read these authors than actually have. Is this not the case? Are there loads of people reading Flaubert and Tolstoy for pleasure, and if so where can I meet them?

My own sense has been that serialized novels have a roominess that communicates something of an author's self-indulgence. Dickens, in particular, seems at times in need of a good editor, and I at least attribute some of this to the serialized novel as a form.
posted by gauche at 6:49 AM on December 8, 2011


My own sense has been that serialized novels have a roominess that communicates something of an author's self-indulgence.

The first book I think of when I think of modern serialized fiction is Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber (the latter three books of the first five-book series were serialized). I'm currently rereading them for a gaming-related project, and they're anything but self-indulgent or Dickensian in the writing style. When I'm looking for serial fiction, I'm looking for something more like that, or on the 30s and 40s serial SF arc model (see: your Buster Crabbe serial as a part of your whole moviegoing package), or even the written equivalent of manga, not necessarily anything Dickensian. Serial fiction is a format; it doesn't necessarily imply a genre or a writing style.
posted by immlass at 7:31 AM on December 8, 2011


Did Stephen King ever finish The Plant? I remember paying a buck or so for each installment when he was doing the "I'll keep publishing new installments as long as 75% of those who download actually pay for them" thing (which, apparently, didn't work).
posted by Brackish at 7:42 AM on December 8, 2011


I wrote my novel online, updated once a week, in the serial format because I liked the idea of it. I still do, as a matter of fact. For me it's not about monetization but because I think that there is a difference in the finished piece depending on whether I can go back and drop clues, or whether the previous twenty chapters are set in digital stone. It's a matter of attitude that comes out in the finished piece.

It's possible that it's self-indulgent of me to release it as a serial. It's also possible that the method of writing made the story worse. Perhaps my readers hated every moment of it, but I like to think that instead it brought a bit of excitement to their mondays while they scrolled through their RSS feeds.

Serialized fiction has stayed with us for quite a while and has adapted from magazines to TV. I like to be able to watch or read all of a series all at once, sure, but I do feel like it deadens the experience a bit, like some sort of dynamic quality has been lost. More like reading the biography of somebody who's already dead instead of reading an article about what they're doing lately.
posted by burnfirewalls at 7:47 AM on December 8, 2011


I fucking LOVE Dickens novels... but most of them definitely would be better experienced as serials. Especially the longer and/or less brilliant ones (Dombey and Son, I'm talking to you.)
posted by Erroneous at 8:07 AM on December 8, 2011


Really. I kind of take it as a commonplace that there are more people out there who feel like they should read these authors than actually have. Is this not the case? Are there loads of people reading Flaubert and Tolstoy for pleasure, and if so where can I meet them?

I was specifically curious about this perception surrounding Dickens, because I think my notions about cultural ideas of Dickens revolve more around A Christmas Carol and whichever book-- probably Great Expectations-- you read in high school, and maybe half a chorus from Oliver! I don't think of Dickens as being famous for being unread the way I do of say Finnegan's Wake.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:28 AM on December 8, 2011


« Older When a prosecutor argues a bullshit case to a jury...  |  The 2011 Portfolio... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments