The Revival of the Serial
Beth Kery hit the NYTimes combined list, extended at no 32 for the first time in her writing career with the title Because You Are Mine. Kelly Favor (no website) appeared at No. 33 on the ebook NYTimes list with For His Trust. Sara Fawkes just sold Anything He Wants to St. Martin’s Press in a “significant deal” which is code for an advance of $251,000 to $499,000. Rumor has it that the deal is on the upper edge of the significant deal parameters.
What do these titles have in common? They are all serials. Serialized fiction made Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famous. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were originally published in 20 monthly installments beginning in April 1836 and ending November 1837. At the same time, Dickens was serializing Oliver Twist, writing two serial chapters a month. After the success of Pickwick Papers, Dickens serialized Nicholas Nickleby and shorter weekly installments for The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. (Source: English Literature from the 19th Century Through Today, edited by J. e. Luebering) In 1860, Cornhill Magazine was founded and one of the works that first appeared in its pages was Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Maddening Crowd. (Source: The Victorians by Aidan Cruttenden) “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a tale of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was first published in serial form in 1901, then in book form in 1902.
According to America’s Continuing Story: An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900, installment fiction in magazines was the predominant mode of delivery for literature, primarily because of the lower cost of installment fiction. In Suddenly You by Lisa Kleypas, the author heroine is encouraged by her publisher to serialize her novel, making it more accessible to larger number of people because of cost.
Serial fiction has a long and deep tradition in publishing. Roger Hagedorn in Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation argues that the serial is the “dominant mode of narrative presentation in Western culture”. Jennifer Hayward suggests in Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera that the serial is expressed continually through comic books, soap operas, and serialized novels. One could argue that the predilection for serials is evident in readers ongoing affection for series books. In fact, when I put out the call for reader feedback on serials, nearly every response I received was from a reader sharing her love for the connected series books.
Reader Michelle clarified that she did read serialized fiction and thought that one advantage was able the ability to digest pieces for longer periods of time:
I tend to read whole books in a single sitting if I let myself and I find that I miss carrying the story with me in the minutes, hours, or days between readings, and that the mental digestion time helps the story move to my long term memory. Books that I’ve read in a single setting are sometimes hard for me to actually remember afterward if I didn’t give myself time to fully absorb it. I also find that I have very little ability to say no to myself when it comes to reading, and yet I really enjoy being denied the next part for a certain amount of time. Anticipation is lovely. Gratification delayed is gratification doubled.
Sunita reviewed installments of Ginn Hale’s 2011 serial, The Rifter, last year. In her blog, she also mentioned the pleasures of delayed gratification:
The unexpected bonus of the serial form is that it forces me to reflect and relive what I’ve read, rather than rush to the next chapter. Romance readers especially read so many books, so quickly, that we don’t always savor the moment. At least I’m guilty of that. With The Rifter, I’m reminded how much fun it can be to delay gratification, and how often does that happen?
Hayward posits that “the advantage of serialization is that it essentially creates the demand it then feeds: the desire to find out “what happens next” can only be satisfied by buying, listening to, or viewing the next installment.” The JD Robb books, in the same vein as many detective/mystery stories, for example, is what Hayward would describe as an “ongoing narrative released in successive parts.” So too are books like Nalini Singh’s Archangel series or Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books.
Alina Adams, a serial writer, shares her background in soap operas gave rise to the idea of writing serialized fiction.
At the same time as I was writing Regency and Contemporary romances for AVON and Dell, I was also working for soap operas, first at ABC Daytime, and then later for Procter & Gamble Productions. In addition to writing tie-in novels for their shows, “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light,” I also developed a property for them called “Another World Today,” which was a twice weekly romantic serial, at the end of which, readers actually got to vote on where the story goes next, and I wrote based on their feedback. I loved the interactive component, of basically writing a story along with my readers.
Author LJ Cohen is serializing a Young Adult novel called Derelict. (Story here) It was her first foray into the serialized novelization, releasing short installments once a week. Cohen wrote to me upon my request and said that the birth of the story arose out of an admonition of her agent that the novel Cohen was thinking of writing might not have broad commercial appeal:
“The plan emerged from my agent’s caution that the novel I was planning to write might not have a broad commercial appeal and that I should consider working on a different story. But by that time, my stubborn subconscious had already latched on to DERELICT and wouldn’t let go. … Since I was writing what could very well not be commercially appealing to traditional publishing, I figured it would be worth releasing DERELICT as a serial to see if I could hook interested readers either as a way to demonstrate commercial appeal or as a way to build buzz for a potential self-publishing process.
I made it clear that this was a first draft process and invited readers to travel it with me.”
Delilah Fawkes, the author of The Billionaire’s Beck and Call serial, shared that she decided to publish a serial because her friend Sara Fawkes was doing well with her series, Anything He Wants.
“I’d been wanting to write a longer piece, but at the same time loved the pace of releasing something new to my readers every week or so, so from the moment I started, I fell in love with this format. It was the perfect compromise between production for readers and a longer, more in depth story.”
St. Martin’s Press is experimenting with serials. It released The Sweet Life in serialized installments of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield in their 30s. The success of the serialization has driven the release of more upcoming serials from St. Martins. Jamie Brenner is authoring The Gin Lovers, a story set in “turbulent and glamorous backdrop of Prohibition and the rise of the jazz age.” (More here) Two others are planned: The Heiresses, a YA due out in January, by Allison Rushby, and another by Opal Carew. Another Sweet Valley High serial may be in the making.
Jamie Brenner loved the flexibility of the e-book format because it allowed her to tell her story in a different way – serializing a novel instead of publishing it all at once. To quote her:
“I love this idea for two reasons: first, it isn’t new at all, but is actually going back to the way Dickens first published Great Expectations. Secondly, as a longtime fan of daytime dramas and prime time soaps, I was extremely excited by the idea. I had just finished writing three romances in the traditional way, and I wanted to try this.”
Berkley will doing another serial penned by Beth Kery in 2013. Cindy Hwang, Executive Editor at Penguin, said “we’re really happy with the reception Because You Are Mine has received (Part 4 is currently top 40 kindle, top 5 Apple, and top 20 nook), and Beth will be beginning a new erotic romance serial in February 2013. This will be a spin-off of Because You Are Mine and be set in the same world, and Ian and Francesca will be secondary characters in it.”
Kery admits in an interview with Romance Novel News that the serial was her publishers’ idea but that the process was exhilarating for her. Much like fan fiction authors, the feedback from readers was immediate. “Many people don’t realize that in the traditional publishing format, a book isn’t published until six months to a year after it’s written. In the case of BECAUSE, I literally just finished it, and readers are already starting to experience it. It makes for a much more invigorating and fresh experience, in my opinion.”
Carina Press is launching a serial by Zaide Bishop in 2013. It is a science fiction/futuristic and each installment will be around 20-30k and the pricing will be similar to other Carina Press novellas. Says Executive Editor Angela James, “We wanted to provide readers with a somewhat seamless reading experience that wasn’t interrupted or prolonged by wait for author to write it & still guaranteed the satisfactory conclusion of a romance novel.”
Most all of the serials cited above are written with the intent to serialize but not all are published in the same fashion. For Kery and Brenner, the series was completed before publication began. For Sara and Delilah Fawkes and LJ Cohen and Alina Adams, they are writing as they are publishing, a little like Dickens and his Pickwick Papers serialization.
Adams and Fawkes both agreed that reader feedback affects the direction of the story. Adams stated
That is absolutely the point of the “Counterpoint” series. However, what I’ve learned from my previous soap work, especially www.AnotherWorldToday.com, is that there is no such thing as one topic on which every single reader agrees on. Even when you think there is no way somebody could want the story to go in this direction, someone inevitably does. I’ve had votes so close, they’ve literally been mathematically 50-50, with a singe vote making the difference. What’s also interesting is that, since I leave the votes open indefinitely, sometimes they can flip months after the original question was posed and the scenes already written. The whole interactive aspect is what I find so exciting about writing a serial.
Fawkes looks at reviews for feedback “When I get a positive review, I look for the things that made the story special for people and then try to do more of that. For instance, people seem to really love this scene that takes place under a desk in At His Instruction: The Billionaire’s Beck and Call, Part 5, (and no, I won’t ruin it!), so I thought long and hard about what worked there and why, and tried to ramp it up for the next installments. Feedback has been great so far, so I’m a happy writer!”
Cohen has a different point of view. She is writing the story and while she invites readers to join her journey, it is her journey.
In examining the internet hoax perpetrated by writers Miles Beckett and Mesh Flinders when the two created an internet serial featuring a 16 year old girl, Courtney Hopf suggests that part of the appeal of serialization is the “possession” that fans take with the story. Indeed, reader Agnes stated one serial she enjoyed was an email mystery was delivered an episode at a time to her inbox and had some interactive elements in it.
There is a vocal minority who reject serials primarily because of cost. Fawkes wrote “As far as indicating it’s preferred, I think people love and hate the format like they love and hate their favorite TV show.”
In the early 19th century, an installment of the Pickwick Papers cost a shilling (or twelve pennies). The cost of a serialized novel was stretched over a year and sometimes a year and a half. A bound novel was $1.50, an unimaginable price for most of the public. The Industrial Revolution which brought about cloth bindings (versus leather) and steam powered machines for folding paper and sewing the bindings to the pages dramatically reduced the cost of a book.
The costs of current serials run the gamut from free (LJ Cohen’s series) to $2.99 an installment (the two Fawkes’ series). Beth Kery’s serial falls in between at $1.99. Despite the price to content ratio and the disquiet it raises with some readers, others are gobbling up the fiction. Delilah Fawkes shared that 50% or more of the buyers who acquire At His Service, the first in the serial, go on to purchase the rest of the series. With each new release, she sees an increase in sales of all the other titles. In just this month alone, she’s sold over 25,000 ebook units and will make at least $75,000.
With numbers like that, serials will be here to stay.