The Verdict is In: Serializing Your Novel Does Not Work!

Ever since Hugh Howey's WOOL became a success, serial novels have become the talk of the (publishing) town. Could serializing your novel work to sell it? 

Serialization is nothing new, it was common back in Dickens' time. Serial novels were a standard feature of  magazines which they helped to sell. In short, serial novels used to be very popular and not just in the English-speaking world. Dostoyevsky's masterpiece, the Brothers Karamazov, was published serially in a magazine, the famous French political and naturalist writer and Nobel winner Emile Zola  likewise.

Has the digital revolution brought back their popularity?There is little doubt that Hugh Howey has made a success of the formula, he's sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox and made a print-only deal worth $500,000 with Simon and Schuster, one of the Big Five publishers. A lot of people in the publishing industry thought that perhaps he had hit on something. 

A new marketing ploy that works. 

Consider the facts: so many people have Kindles and e-readers, tablets and smart phones nowadays, surely the format makes sense if you sell each part at a low price and move the readers to buy the next installment. 

But it's a mirage. This ignores two fundamental obstacles:

1. Readers don't know what serialization is and they don't care. When they buy something for their Kindle, they want a good story, not something in bits and pieces, and above all, not something that's too short. Even though they might have paid very little for it or even gotten it free (the case with WOOL's first installment that is perma-free).

2. WOOL could be a "black swan", i.e. an exceedingly rare event, "highly improbable" as Nassim Taleb has explained; therefore it is not a model to follow.

Indeed, a lot of people (see article below) don't like Howey's writing, even though he's sold over a million copies of WOOL.

In spite of the risk, I thought I would be brave and try serializing my new novel FOREVER YOUNG and see how it would go. I set it at 99 cents and published it on Amazon in March 2013 (see here).

Well, the verdict is in, it didn't go.  The first installment sold reasonably well, the second, that came out 6 weeks later, lagged behind (with few reviews, only three). The linkage between the two did not occur as expected. 

Don't say I allowed for too much time between the two, that doesn't seem to matter. With WOOL, Howey let much more time go by!

Was the book simply bad? Not likely.  On ReadWave where an early (and shorter) version (under the title "Programmed to Die") was published, it got a surprisingly large number of reads and "likes" (well over 1,000 when most average 50 to 100 on that site, see here). On Amazon, I quickly got 11 reviews  when I first published it (and still getting them, the latest was a week ago). But I noticed something very worrying: at least 3 of the 11 reviewers had not understood that this was merely the first installment of a novel, that they were getting something like 15 percent of it, not more. Yet they claimed it felt "rushed", more like a short story. They clearly were dissatisfied with not getting more (you can see the reviews here

An additional problem cropped up recently with serialization: I discovered most serious publishers, even those who are into digital publishing, won't consider publishing a novel serially. Likewise for marketing. Tellingly, Bookbub, one of the fastest growing ebook deals site, closing in on 1.5 million subscribers, does not accept serial novels.

Amazing, but the core of the publishing industry is not ready for serialization. So why should we poor writers be the guinea pigs and risk it when they don't?

In a nutshell, that's why I'm contemplating suspension of the serialization of FOREVER YOUNG and going straight to full publication.  Is that a good idea? What's your advice?

To serialize or not, to be or not to be?

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Anonymous said…
As a reader, I would hate only have part of the book. If I like a book I want to read it all now!
Unknown said…
I couldn't agree more, Claude. You'll do more for your writing career this way. Always choose the series over the serial, always.
Thanks emandyves and A.M.Boyt for the support and advice! Yes, I am convinced now that I made a mistake in trying to follow the WOOL model.

Definitely. I will always choose the series over the serial. Indeed, FOREVER YOUNG is Book One of a coming series, THE MASTERS OF THE FUTURE. I've already got 2 more books planned!

And of course, to be coherent wit the decision, I've just just pulled down Part Two of the book (called You Will Not Take My Place) even though it had obtained 3 good reviews - my heartfelt thanks to those reviewers, and I do hope you understand and can forgive me!

But I also do think it's useless to leave bits and pieces lying around when they're only part of another bigger book that I'm about to publish...Give me 3 weeks, and I should be done!

Again, many thanks for taking the time to comment and providing encouragement.
Claude, your judgement of the serial model seems to be based on one distribution model: selling serial fiction on a la WOOL.

You will find many, many examples of thriving serial fiction projects out there if you broaden your scope a little.

Check out the work of Claudia Hall Christian, or Sean Platt (a more recent success). Heck, I'm even re-visiting serial fiction (after my late nineties "Sovereign Serials" success) with Walk Like A Stranger: Passing Through Home," and that's growing steadily.

I will say that simply taking a novel and breaking it up in bite-sized pieces will not result in a compelling serial. I think this is why some authors are disappointed in the performance of their serial effort.

Each installment must be engaging and entertaining on its own, and it's critical that each one end on a cliffhanger to bring the reader back.

The storytelling model for serial fiction is the dramatic television series, soap opera, or monthly comicbook, not the novel. Serial fiction is a whole different animal than what most writers are used to creating.