4 May 2015 - 5:19 pm

Invisible serials

It feels a lot like this. (Picture by Lisa Brewster)

It feels a lot like this.
(Picture by Lisa Brewster)

An article recently came to my attention that made me want to facepalm so hard that it could be heard reverberating across the internet. According to the Washington Post, it would be great if serialised novels were brought back.

Brought back. From where, precisely? I wasn’t aware that it had gone away.

The premise of the article appears to be that serials died with the 19th Century, harking back to the glory-days of serials in newspapers and magazines by authors like Dickens, Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins. Now, it’s true that newspapers don’t host this sort of material any more (as far as I’m aware), but I believe there are still magazines around that serialise stories across several issues, including novels.

Publishing has shifted since those long-ago days of the illiterate being read to from master’s newspaper, and it is shifting even more rapidly now. Serials are, if anything, experiencing a blossoming in material and readership.

Just check out the amount of options out there already, right now, waiting to be read (the Web Fiction Guide listings are a good place to start!). There are entire services dedicated to discovering and delivering serials right to you (like the recently-mentioned Inkspired, Wattpad, Jukepop Serials, or Tuesday Serials, to name but a few). Whatever device you prefer to read from, serials are available and abundant.

The motive behind the aforementioned article seems to be that publishing is in the doldrums and traditional publishers are completely missing this potential marketing windfall. Serialisation is a great way to build audience, gain exposure, and build up chatter and excitement for a novel’s release.

I completely agree with all of that. Serialisation achieves all of those things, and could be a great marketing tool if used that way. Traditional publishers don’t tend to use this, spending their marketing time and money elsewhere.

However, it’s not completely unknown. Stephen King serialised the Green Mile, and Max Barry initially wrote Machine Man as a serial as well. As far as I’m aware, neither of these authors did it to bulk up their book sales; the serials served different purposes.

But so did the serials of old. Dickens didn’t cleverly serialise his work so he could sell more novels; he was paid to write a serial (by the word!), and the novel versions came along much later. The novel was not the original goal. So twining these things together is misleading, at best.

What about the people who have used a serial to gain interest, audience, and exposure? Indie writers. Me. Many others. It’s another place where traditional publishers are missing a trick in the e-publishing world, and another place where indie authors get to shine. Many of us go on to publish our serials as e-books, and do well a a result.

Should more novelists serialise their work? Maybe. Having more completed works serialised would be good for serials as a whole, because of the reputation it has of being unreliable; many serials are simply abandoned, leaving the reader frustrated. More good stuff in the market is good for everyone.

It’s worth recognising that the serial and novel audiences are not synonymous, however. Many readers despise serials and don’t like having to wait. Others love it. It’s not a solve-all, by any means!

“Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works.”

I had to call this particular part of the article out, because of how completely ignorant these critics are. Sure, sometimes serials can be heavy on cliffhangers, but I know from personal experience that overuse of them annoys serial readers. Serials work just fine without them. Just like TV shows don’t need to have cliffhangers on the end of each episode to pull the audience back every week, text serials don’t need it either. There are so many different ways to be compelling and immersive.

Corrupt ‘serious’ work? Be light on subtlety? These critics are reading the wrong serials. You can be subtle, clever, obtuse, and literate, and if you write a good story, readers will come. Do it well, and you’ll be fine.

Dickens wrote popular, ‘pulp’ stories (which we now call ‘literature’), designed to string the story out and keep his readers scrabbling for more, but Dickens does not define serialisation. He is a model for a specific kind of serialisation that happened at a specific time. Things have changed. Reading habits and audience have changed. Move with it, people!

““Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” the critic Adam Kirsch says, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.””

Dickens? James? What about modern versions? What about something written in this century? What about just reading a good story? I’ve read many a good, compelling story that was written within the last century. What is this ‘modern novel’ that they speak of? If they’re talking about literary novels, then perhaps they need to realise that literary novels tend to view plot and characterisation as secondary to their purpose, and so intentionally throw their best tools to the wind when it comes to creating something ‘compelling’.

My exasperation with this article only continues. It seems to have a very narrow view of the publishing world, how writers publish these days, the works that are out there, and what’s actually going on in the wild.

The article has identified three different places that are serialising fiction: Mousehold Words (which apparently serialises public domain works like Dickens), Kindle Serials (one of the worst serial services around, and one that is currently not accepting submissions), and DailyLit (an email distribution of fiction).

These are bad examples of the wide range of serial services out there, never mind all the self-hosted or single-hosted serials (like mine). Even Hillary Kelly, the article’s author, says how inadequate they are, but without recognising that they are only a very small and unrepresentative part of the serial world.

No, according to Kelly, a great serial route would be to stick them in publications like Time, or the New Yorker. Are those kinds of publications likely to welcome fiction in their non-fiction? Is that at all the right kind of audience?

You’re writing for the Washington Post, Ms Kelly. Why don’t you get THEM to start doing this, then come back and tell us how awesome it is? I would love to see some real stats, rather than blind and badly-informed speculation.

Then again, the author also states that reading novels is “a slowly fading pastime.” The fact that more books are being sold than ever has apparently completely missed this author’s attention; novels are not in danger of dying out any time soon. Quite the opposite. But I suppose that’s true only if you count ebooks and indie sales in the figures; if all you’re looking at is the traditional publishers’ numbers, you’re likely to get a dire view of the situation.

The author doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between a serial and a series, either.

“Young-adult literature has already embraced the spirit of serialization. With the first Harry Potter novel came a guarantee of six more….”

There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start. A series of novels isn’t the same as serialising a novel. The readers who eschew reading serials may thrive happily on a series, because they’re delivered in complete stories, not bite-sized parts, and they know there’s a finished story there. Lumping the two approaches together this way confuses the issue and won’t help writers to make the right choices about their work.

Harry Potter did not start a trend by being a series with many books; series have long been popular with traditional publishers, and they have been staples of the speculative fiction and children’s genres for over a century. That books that are both speculative fiction and for young audiences are in series isn’t attributable to Pottermania (there were many around when I was growing up, well before Potter was stuffed in the cupboard under the stairs). There isn’t a change in reading habits here; Harry Potter simply helped to draw in more readers and bulk out a particular part of the market. Traditional publishers knew long ago that building a series is a great way to build sales and retain audience.

So what’s the tl:dr version of this post?

Traditional publishers have long known that publishing series of books is a good sales tactic. They have yet to cash in on the current serial boom, however.

And there is one. Serials are live and thriving. Indie and self-publishing authors are using this tactic. Traditionally-published authors have been doing this on and off for years. There are many ways to get your work out there to readers, one post at a time, and people are using them.

Thank you, Hillary Kelly, for completely disregarding a whole section of the literary community and industry. Thank you for making us feel invisible and unimportant. As the comments on your article show, all you’ve done here is show the breadth of your ignorance of what’s really going on in the market.

What do you think of this post?
  • Awesome (3)
  • Interesting (4)
  • Useful (0)
  • More pls (2)

Comments are closed!