A New Kind of Fiction for the 21st Century: the Serialized Novel

Reading in Dickens' time...reading in the subway (Claude's painting on right; 19th C. French painting on left)
The digital revolution has shaken up publishing, we all know this. It has levelled the field for self-published authors, giving them a chance to by-pass traditional publishers and become best-sellers on their own. What is not always realized is that the way we consume books has also changed.  We tend to skim over content, we have little patience with wordy descriptions.

This means that the 21st Century novel cannot be wordy.

The long, sensitive descriptions full of striking images that were the hallmark of literary
fiction, are gone forever. Huge volumes, upward of 1000 pages, are a thing of the past.

What replaces them?

Two new formats have emerged and become hugely popular:
  • Short fiction of all kind from "flash fiction" - less than 500 words, and even as short as 6 words like Hemingway's famous "baby shoes for sale, never used" - to novellas; and even novellas are now reduced, down to some 15-17,000 words from  20-30,000 words of a few years ago. Anne R. Allen wrote a couple of times about this on her blog, giving excellent advice on how to do it (see here).
  • The serialized novel: this is something entirely new for our time; the last time anyone had seen this kind of novel was back in Charles Dickens' day. It all began with The Pickwick Papers, his first novel (published in 1836) and the one that catapulted him to fame and made the serialized novel a highly popular form.  Readers would get a new episode every week, each one ending with the famous "cliff hanger" (a term apparently  invented by Dickens, with a character literally hanging from a cliff). This is a crucial element, it makes the reader impatient to get hold of  the next episode...Thus helping to increase the magazines' circulation. The serialized model was equally popular in France, with, for example Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo broken up in 136 installments, in America, with  Uncle Tom's Cabin, in Russia with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that took several years to publish, from 1873 to 1877.
Now, with the digital revolution , serialized novels are no longer linked to magazines, they can be published independently on the Kindle and other e-platforms. Also, they can be cut up in much fewer installments and they are released in a matter of weeks, not years. However, as each  episode is released, an extra effort in marketing is needed as pointed out by Roz Morris, one author who tried it (see here).

How is a serialized novel different from a series? 

The quick answer: very alike and very different.

Before we go into it, a quick reminder of what a series is: more often than not, it's a trilogy, like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or even a quintet, like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.  But it can go on through multiple books following the trials and tribulations of the same characters, even as many as 30 books (the case of M.C. Beaton's Hamish McBeth series).

By contrast, a serialized novel is a stand alone book released in installments, and it is often a rather long novel (up to 150,000 words but it varies with genre - epic fantasy fiction can be very long because of the "world-building" it requires).

Stephen King was probably the first to experiment with this format back in 2000, publishing in installments his novel The Plant on his blog, making readers pay $1 to download each installment. He relied on an "honor system" for the payments and it worked reasonably well until he raised the price to $2 for a 54-page installment. At that point, the experiment failed and to this day the novel is unfinished. The serialized model was revived when Hugh Howey's WOOL reached best-seller status two years ago. It is perhaps one of the best example of this form, though not the only one. Booker-Prize winning author Margaret Atwood has also experimented with it, publishing Positron in installments on the literary hub Byliner and talked about her experience to Time

The current model of serialized novel involves breaking up a novel in relatively few self-contained installments - to a maximum of six or seven parts. But there's no particular rule, the number of installments is organically dictated by the overall plot.

How are they alike?

The main characters are the same throughout, with each new book in a series or each new episode in a serialized novel. As Elizabeth Spann explains in her excellent post about series, the reason readers love them is  because when they buy a book in a series, they know what they get  - as she put it, it's "keeping things fresh without alarming the reader".So, in both cases, you know what you're getting when you pick up the next book and you're not "alarmed".

In a series, what changes from one book to the next is the plot. This is what keeps the books "fresh": you as a reader become familiar wth the characters, they are like old friends. You want to read about them because new events - new challenges, new characters -  have entered their lives and you're curious to see how they will address them and solve their problems. Ditto for each installment in a serialized novel.

How are they different?

The pace: this is what truly distinguishes a serialized novel from a series. The plot lines are multiple and accelerated. Cliff hangers abound, indeed, each chapter should end on a cliff hanger and so should each installment.

A serialized novel has a complex structure, as all the threads of the plot have to be pulled at different times, with several threads left dangling at the end of each part.

By contrast, in a  "normal" stand alone novel, a satisfying ending is achieved when all the threads are pulled together to reach a climax and every sub-plot is resolved.  Not so in a serialized novel. There are many "dangling threads", i.e. unfinished sub-plots that can "rebound" at the right moment, in the next installment...and keep you wanting to read the next installment.

As a result, a serialized novel has a complex structure, often more complex than any book in a series. It requires on the part of the author, both careful planning to "pull off" the story and...a lot of imagination!

Thus suspense is created and maintained from one part to the next, always with one objective: prod the reader to buy the next part to find out what happens. Because the story is unfinished and it will only finish on the last page of the last episode - unless a cliff hanger is left there in order to lay the ground for readers to get the next book... again a serialized novel. So what you get is a series of serialized novels (that is certainly what I plan to do: Forever Young will be followed by Forever Young, 400 Years Later, again to be released in several episodes or parts.)

From a marketing standpoint, serializing a novel makes sense, there are two major price strategies that can be followed:
  1. for the reader, it will always be cheaper to buy the omnibus version (all the parts pulled together in a single volume) than to buy each part separately. 
  2. the first part can be cheaper than subsequent parts. Hugh Howey even made his WOOL 1 free for a long time (though now it is sold at the lowest price point allowed by Amazon, 99 cents in the US).  
Why is this format so well-suited to our current reading habits?
  1. Because in the digital age, we are bombarded with information, we have less and less time to read. Yet we crave a good story, that's why fiction needs to be short, so that it can fit into our busy lives.
  2. For many people, reading on a screen can be tiring compared to reading a printed book (with the exception of Kindle's electronic ink that is not a strain on the eye). So a novel you can consume in installments of 50 pages is welcome.
Can too much cutting up a good story end up destroying the pleasure of reading it?

I leave the answer to that one to the fans of WOOL, but if you haven't read it, you have certainly seen the popular TV series like House of Cards, Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. You know how each episode has different and fast-changing scenes involving all your favorite characters (or those you hate and fear the most). You know how each ends on a cliff hanger, never resolving the plot in its entirety.

There is always some unfinished business.

And that's why we turn on our TV sets and return to the series...or else binge on them, watching all the episodes in a single session. And that of course is the exact visual equivalent of an omnibus edition of a serialized novel.

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