How to write a book

Serialising my novel… what to do when the show is over

More indie authors than ever are interested in serialising their fiction on Kindle and it’s one of the topics I’m most frequently emailed about. (And with Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Serials, I guess the trend is going to continue! More on that below…)

At the time I serialised  my novel I wrote about it on Jane Friedman’s blog and Tuesday Serial. But these questions from Michael Stutz, who serialised his literary novel Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, highlight points I haven’t covered before – what to do once you’ve released the final episode.

Michael: Like you, I’m a longtime legacy author who is now experimenting with indie, publishing a 700 -page literary novel in episodes. A lot of what you wrote in your guest post at Jane Friedman’s blog is things that I’m either going through now or discovered the hard way.

Have you found your complete version sells more than the individual episodes?

Yes, definitely. Get your complete edition out as soon as you can. For many reasons –

  • it’s easier to link to just that one, so that’s the link you want to spread around
  • it’s more convenient on the Kindle – four episodes clog up the screen and look confusing (which I was blissfully unaware of when I hatched my serialisation plan)
  • you want to start gathering reviews and it’s best if they go on the full version

Although serialisation was exciting as a launch pad, I’m not sure that readers appreciated being interrupted mid-stream. Some told me they wouldn’t buy until the final episode was up. Others told me they’d knocked stars off their reviews for the inconvenience of waiting (this seems irrelevant when a review will be read in several months’ time, but it just goes to show you don’t want to annoy a reader). I released my complete edition as quickly as I could to grab the interested readers before they decided I was making life too difficult for them.

Michael: Should I retire the individual episodes?

I wondered about this. But I decided to keep them because:

  • People are still finding them. I don’t know how, as I long ago stopped giving out those links, but they must be simmering on distant posts far away. Episode 1 sells the most copies – which possibly demonstrates how much the links were shared because serialising was a story in itself. But I also get surprise sales for the other episodes, so some people might be completing the novel extremely slowly!
  • The episodes give me more visibility in the Amazon store – 5 entries for the Kindle book instead of just 1 makes it look more substantial (or annoying, see left… no idea what that camera is doing in a search for My Memories of a Future Life…)
  • Episodes are a good way to use KDP Select lending. When KDP Select launched, I wasn’t keen on enrolling the whole novel or my writing book for lending or free promotion. But offering just the first episode is a terrific calling card – both in the lending library and sometimes also free. So because episode 1 is on KDP Select, I have to keep the other parts available for sale.

Michael: What about the Amazon customer reviews – did you have to start with zero again for the complete version, and wait for new reviews?
Amazon understood that the complete book had the same content as the episodes, but regards them as different publications and won’t transfer the reviews. That seems entirely fair to me – but it does mean that you launch the full book with a worryingly naked star rating. The sooner you do it, the sooner those early adopters will review where it helps you most. (And I found they didn’t mind being nudged in the right direction…)

So while it’s frustrating to have reviews that don’t count on the book’s most visible page, browsers still see that when the book was serialised it had good feedback – which all helps to demonstrate a buzz about the series.

STOP PRESS – just as I put this post to bed, Amazon announced the Kindle Serials Programme. If you are chosen for it, it looks as though this takes a lot of the faff out of it. A community gathers around the book, allowing discussion with other readers – and I guess this might collate reviews together too. You don’t have to organise separate launches (as I did, which was time-consuming) and it seems much easier for readers to keep track of the episodes on the Kindle because they’re updated automatically. This means there probably wouldn’t be any need to release a separate complete Kindle version as readers who found it afterwards would get all the episodes in one go. (Perhaps we early serialisers paved the way for them….) You do have to pitch your idea though – which means you can’t just opt in like KDP Select – and we don’t know what their gatekeeping criteria are.

If you’re thinking about serialising, whether it’s the old way or this brand new one, make sure your novel is in good shape for it. Chopping it into parts is a rigorous workout for your novel’s structure – especially if you didn’t originally write it with serialising in mind. This post might help:

Can You Split Your Novel Into Four Equal Parts?

Thanks for the main pic Ralph and Jenny

This weekend is my novel’s first anniversary (give or take an episode or two). So my blogging schedule is being turned upside down (which is why you’ve got a post today) to make room for something a little unusual and creative. I hope you’ll like it. There will also be a competition with a special prize (top secret at the moment). To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to my blog (somewhere in the sidebar) or sign up to my newsletter (somewhere in the sidebar and also here). See you at the party


34 thoughts on “Serialising my novel… what to do when the show is over

  1. A quick note about Select. You aren’t supposed to offer anything on Select that is also available elsewhere. So, if the full version is for sale anywhere other than Amazon, you are technically breaking the terms of Select if you put episode one of a story up. If they spot it they will warn you first – but you could potentially get into trouble doing it that way.

    The same thing goes for stories that are part of an anthology.

    They may treat them as separate for the sake of reviews – but they don’t when it comes to Select. I’ve seen a few people fall foul of this on Kindleboards.

    Thought I’d better flag that up as it’s a biggie, and it can be a nightmare to get something off distribution once it’s out there!

    1. Great point, Zelah. I’ve heard of people having tremendous problems getting their books off Kobo, for instance. It’s easy to get things off Amazon but not off the other sites. And because Amazon are cracking down on all sorts of rule infringements, it can be difficult to persuade them that you’ve made an honest mistake.
      Just in case anyone wants to know, I didn’t transgress their rule. My novel is, at the moment, only available on Amazon. They don’t mind about the episode format – or haven’t so far, and I have emailed them so many times with queries about this and that that I’m sure they’re aware of what I’ve done.
      But good reminder, Zelah – thanks. Has anyone here fallen foul of the KDP rules?

      1. I stand corrected. It isn’t chapter by chapter. Each episode is 10,000 words. Which makes sense. In general, people publish their episodes at that word count on Amazon, Hugh Howey for example (well, at least in his first couple of books). I published my episodes in 30,000 word chunks because I thought charging 10,000 an episode for .99 would make people feel cheated. Also, because my book was long enough to be episodic.
        I think amazon is doing something interesting here. They’re trying to address the cheated feeling readers get when they shuck out 1.99 for an episode when they can pick up whole books up for that much. Therefore they’re charging once and then adding 10,000 word episodes as they come in. Creates suspense and excitement over a story while a person does not feel cheated.

        I’ve read that other people don’t like serialization. I have found that interesting since the average person loves a good TV show. While they bemoan having to wait for the next episode to see if Jack Bauer makes it out of the torture chamber alive (the answer being yes), they also love the season long suspense. I think the issue is simply a resistance to change, much like indie author upswell over the last couple of years. We’ve always read our novels in 90 to 120,000 word chunks, so changing from that is an inconvenience. But if and when the episodic fiction market takes off, I could see an author publishing their books in “seasons” like a really good television show.

        1. ‘People say they don’t want to wait….’ but still they join in when they hear other people talking about it. The trade-off is impatience versus the desire to be part of the community that is most up to date.

  2. Hi Roz,

    This has the potential to completely skew how a writer structures their story, with no luxury of being one of those books that “takes a while to get into”. I’ve just read Colin Greenland’s “Other Voices” and that took a good 50 pages (of 180) to get going. In fact it’s not even clear what the novel is going to be about for the first few chapters, because it goes off in a completely different direction. In theory, a serialised version would deter potential fans.

    Is there a risk of front loading a novel with bigger bangs to make sure readers are hooked? You see this in films a lot, with a peek forward at the action to come to compensate for a slow build up. This might also mislead writers into making more of their hook than their pinch points later on.

    I’m not sure about the chapter by chapter thing either. Following the Dan Brown page turner model short chapters are the key to keeping the reader hooked. If the next chapter is only 5 pages I’ll read on, but if a book is serialised into 100 chapters I’ll be less likely to go for it. Game of Thrones for example – the story chops from character to character. I read it looking ahead to where the next one I was more interested in was coming along (so I read about the annoying character I didn’t care about as much, knowing there was a better chapter coming). If I bought it chapter by chapter, would I have just paid for the ones I wanted and missed the others? Wouldn’t the experience suffer as a result? Again, it returns to the writer to rethink how they structure their novel to avoid readers shooting themselves in the foot.

    Cheers for now,

    1. Thorny issues here, Jonathan. Not every novel will be suitable for serialisation – and certainly not the long-running type of serial that this new Kindle version is geared for. When I released my novel I had to be sure that it could stand that format – and as you’ve pointed out, the kind of book that lures you in more slowly is not going to be shown to its best advantage.

      It’s rather like some TV serials that are designed to take a few episodes to get going. They’re often better viewed in one chunk of six or so episodes, because of the need to tune in. Chopping them up ruins the sense of immersion that’s been carefully built up.

      And would you skip some episodes if they didn’t feature your favourite characters? The ones we skim if we have the whole book in front of us. But then, sometimes those characters come into focus because of an event or something they do, or the story snarls them in an unexpected way and we need to go back and pay more attention to them. On a Kindle it’s not easy to find your way back to pages and reread them because you don’t have the visual memory of the page and its position to help you. (Although I dare say Zelah is going to zoom in and tell us how to use the search function. In which case, please do, Zelah. I’m totally hamfisted with those tiny Kindle keys.)

      Jonathan, you’re dead right – don’t do anything that will kill your book. Serialisation isn’t for everyone.

      1. Well, I know how to do it – but my Kindle Keyboard keeps locking up today for some reason! Maybe I should stick on my tinfoil hat and wonder whether they’ve sent a self-destruct message to it now that the new Kindles are out?

        You can search your entire library from the home page if you can remember a particular phrase around the area of the book you’re looking for. Or, you can open the book itself & hit ‘menu’ and ‘search inside this book’.

        Different models may well work differently, and as I said, unfortunately my Kindle Keyboard is locking up when I try to search and I understand that this is quite common if you have a lot of titles on your Kindle.

  3. I serialized a novel two years ago on KDP and it was an abject failure. Readers want the whole thing. The only way it might work is it’s a work in progress and readers know the rest of the book doesn’t exist yet. Otherwise they feel cheated. And serializing a work in program has editing issues.

    I’m sure there is a way it will work, but it would have to be something more than just chopping a novel into pieces.

    1. Hi Bob! I didn’t know you’d serialised so early. I think you must hold the record for early adoption.

      You make some excellent points – I’d never put a book out if it wasn’t already edited from top to toe. You know how one of the last things you write should be the beginning? Nuff said.

      And – again – not every book is suitable. Just chopping a book up is not enough. In my case, I did it because I had a point to prove. My novel is quite literary, but I wanted to prove that a literary work could have a compelling story and characters. As we know, the term ‘literary’ can often be used as a disparagement of books that are pretty but plotless (rather a soulless simplification, but that’s not the argument here). When I serialised my book it sustained an excited audience until the end – and so serialisation was a good choice for me, for those reasons.

      But despite your very reasonable objections, writers still want to serialise their novels. Why do you think this is?

  4. Serialization is a time-tested and proven concept (magazines and comic books have used it for decades), but as you say in the other comments, it is not suitable for every novel.

    In the tech world, we have this concept called the “hype curve.” A new enabling technology comes out and everyone gets excited about it. The hype increases and lots of people adopt the technology, mainly because it has become so popular.

    The problem is that most solutions are designed to solve a particular problem. They are rarely a panacea. Adopters become disgruntled when they realize that the solution doesn’t work well for their circumstances. They blame the technology and there’s a rapid deflation in the hype surrounding it. The truth is that the overzealous adopters were using the wrong tool for the job in the first place; they were using the technology to solve a problem for which it was not designed.

    I see the same kind of thing happening with Kindle Serials. Left to the self-publishing masses, a lot of authors would use it like a paid beta reading program (shudder). Other authors will use it for novels that don’t fit the model well, and their efforts will be poorly received. They will blame Kindle Serials when the truth is that they used the wrong tool for the job.

    A few authors will understand the strengths and weaknesses of the serialization model, and they will use it only to publish works that fit the model well. Those authors will be successful, and rightfully so.

    I think the idea of Kindle Serials is fantastic. I also think it is wise for Amazon to filter the works that will be published through it. To ensure the success of their program, they’ll need to educate writers on what’s involved in writing a successful serial.

    1. Hey Daniel! Extremely wise comments there. I’m very wary of writers who want to put books out before they’ve written (and properly revised) all the way to the end. That way madness and slush lies.

      Certainly, to continue to respond to Bob’s point, there are writers who have made serialisation work very well. One can hardly ignore the success of Hugh Howey and his Wool series.

    2. I should have been succinct, like Bob was in comment 17. I too believe that serials can work very well. I’d probably even become a “subscriber.”

      I also think Kindle Serials has great potential for authors who aren’t served very well by the current ebook marketplace. I know several short story writers who are having difficulty selling individual stories. The advice they receive is to release a collection, but that takes several stories, and the stories usually have to be related in some way. I’m thinking that serialization might be a good way for these authors to continue writing in the form they prefer, but also be able to gain a following. I suppose the trick would be learning how to write short stories as part of a series with a series-level arc.

      Also, to clarify the “chapter” issue, here’s some info from Amazon’s submission guidelines. They want you to submit…

      “A minimum of two episodes in a Word or text document. Each episode should be a minimum of approximately 10,000 words. We’re open to considering projects with more or fewer words per episode, where it makes sense. The complete book doesn’t need to be already written.”

      10,000 words puts each episode into the realm of a “novelette.”

  5. Good stuff. I’m one of those readers who bought your book in parts, but waited (and am still waiting – eagerly, I might add – thanks to my OCD tendencies to read books in the order in which I add them to my shelf) to read it until I had all four parts. Serialization doesn’t really appeal to me as either a reader or an author. But I do watch the new developments with Amazon’s serial program with interest. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. Katie, I need a system like yours. My bookshelves – real and digital – are stuffed with purchases and although I am fiercely organised in other aspects of my work I don’t have a system for getting through books. I once thought I should start at A on my shelf and read in alphabetical order, but that didn’t last long.

  6. I think serialization can work. One thought I had was it could work if several authors were part of it. Much like a TV season has multiple writers for episodes, they usually also have only one story pusher. I think a way it could work is if there was one person who was the story pusher, and then writers in that genre adding episodes. Each episode has to be a story unto itself, but it could also arc a season and characters.

    The bottom line on serialization for me is that it has to enhance the story in some way and not be a marketing ploy. This post has got me thinking.

    1. I’ve seen others compare Kindle Serials to TV writing as well, and I think that’s a great way to look at it. The readers should come away from each installment feeling satisfied. Even cliff-hangers along the “season arc” would be okay, as long as the episode at hand was resolved. Working on a serial with a group of other authors sounds like fun to me.

      I totally agree that “enhancing the story” should be the goal. As a marketing ploy, it would probably be about as effective as most other book marketing ploys. 😛

      1. Stories with a writing team with a series editor – that’s a great model. US shows do that brilliantly. Unfortunately in the UK they seem to skimp on the writer teams – to the detriment of the show. Without writers, there’s nothing!
        Yes, this would be a terrific way to write a prose series. Sean Platt and his partner collaborated on their recent series, although there were only two of them. How would it be funded? (Just tyre-kicking here…)

  7. Some interesting points emerging here.
    1. There are different kinds of serialisation. What I did with my novel was the equivalent of the TV mini-series. The model a lot of people are talking about is based on long-running TV shows of 13 or 26 episodes – but the 4-episode show also has a firm precedent. Bob Mayer – the short serial has always been a valid way to release a story and is not just a marketing ploy.
    2. Does it make a difference if the end of the show is already written? As serialisers for the Kindle system will be able to see audience feedback, do they want the story to respond to what people are saying? Do the audience want to feel they have that influence, even though they probably don’t really?
    Personally I think stories could go badly wrong if they were directed by the readers – although it wouldn’t hurt if characters who were unexpectedly popular were given bigger roles. Thoughts?

    1. I think that if I wind up pitching for this, I’d write the whole thing beforehand so that I could get it edited.

      I have concerns that the editing standards will suffer due to the low payment per subscription to the author (based on an unknown percentage of $1.99) and the regular release dates for the episodes (if the author is writing as they go.)

      Not many authors have editors on tap who will keep a regular slot in their schedule in order to work for little or nothing. Of course, the author could swallow the editing costs as a loss, but they’re already putting themselves at a financial disadvantage if the $1.99 one-off price is a lasting cap rather than an initial promotional push by Amazon.

      If I do this (and there’s no guarantee I’d ever be accepted!) – then, based on the current package visible to us, it would be for the extra publicity plus the fact that Amazon are trying to encourage the readers to form a community and discuss the series.

      I think it would work well as a way of gaining a readership while getting something in return (as opposed to just giving away mountains of free books) – but I also think that I’d need a lot more titles out in order to really benefit from such a program.

      For now, I don’t have the time to experiment with writing in a new format (and I’m not one of those who thinks that just splitting a book into multiple parts will cut it for getting into this program.)

      I also have many unanswered questions regarding the terms and conditions involved (I’m not big on exclusivity, but I’d agree to it if I were allowed to make the titles available elsewhere once the series had finished, or within a few months of the last episode going live.) Once Amazon come forward with more information about what you’ll be agreeing to if they select you – then I’ll look at it again.

      1. Interesting analysis of the cost implications, Zelah. If the series is open ended you might not know what costs you’re letting yourself in for. As you say, more info is needed.
        The entry into the promotional machine has to be factored in as a potential benefit, though. It might be the kind of publicity that money can’t buy. Or it might be a damp squib – basically the kind of gamble you take if you buy an advertisement.

    2. I’ll bite.

      1. Different kinds of serialization…

      The “standard” rate Amazon charges for one of these serials is $1.99. That’s a one-time fee that includes all subsequent episodes. How much work are you willing to do for a $1.99 product? I have not heard what the royalty rates will be. I think the price fits very nicely with a 4-episode (40K-word) serial, but ultimately the length of serials will be influenced by reader expectations. If readers slam a serial because it has “too few episodes,” writers will need to create serials with more episodes (whatever number that may be).

      Like MMoaFL, my novel closely follows the 4-part structure. The hero goes on a series of three mini-quests before the big climax. It would work great as a 4-part serial. However, my total word count is about 75K, so the episodes would be too long for the Kindle Serials program. In any case, I think it would be best to design a book specifically for this program, rather than try to chop up a novel that was not written with serials in mind.

      You mentioned above that “team” efforts would face a division of profits problem. At $1.99, I think that would be a real issue. I think the team would have to release a series of related serials to make their efforts worthwhile. Going back to the TV analogy, they’d have to release multiple “seasons” of their series.

      2. End of show already written…

      Amazon appears to be flexible on this point. They refer to the full series as a “book” and they say the book does not have to be already written, which implies that it’s okay if the book *is* completed.

      Also, Amazon wants authors who are “interested in engaging with readers.” They don’t say anything about letting that engagement influence the series. In fact, if the book is already done, that opportunity is probably lost anyway.

      I’m honestly surprised they are letting authors submit proposals at this point, given how little information they’ve made available regarding the Terms of Service. It will be interesting to see how Kindle Serials evolve.

      1. Daniel, the 1.99 price tag is obviously going to have huge influence on how authors present their work. And is there going to be a price-war free-for-all, where authors undercut each other? ‘My series gives you 90 episodes – just for 1.99!’

        As you said earlier, they certainly need to police this. Perhaps they’re going to finalise T&Cs once they’ve seen what kind of problems they’ll need to legislate for.

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