Episode 143: Stay Tuned! Serialization Unpacked

After two failed attempts, on May 8th, Kasie and Rex were finally able to take on Serialization as a strategy for getting your work out there. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day(s)

Publish-as-You-Go: Serialization is making a comeback

Agenda

  • Great SCWA Conference last weekend, here are some highlights
  • Vella from Amazon and what it means for serialization
  • What is serialization and how can you do it?
  • Should you serialize?
Photo by Jumana Dakkur on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Last weekend, we hosted the Livestream component for the SCWA’s Annual Conference “The Storytelling State.” We saw Mary Lash, John McIlroy, Ann Barton, in our first livestream on Saturday and Barbara Evers, James Furry, and Carolyn Hartley in the late session. Saturday we talked to Arthur Turfa, William Bruhl, and Dana Ridenour as well as Conference Director Amber Wheeler Bacon. On Sunday we talked to Josie Olsvig and Mary Beth Gibson. So many good takeaways and so many diverse and interesting options for books. Check out the entire series here.

Thanks to our patrons who continue to support the show and our efforts to bring writing craft lessons to the airwaves. Carolyn Hartley was part of the SCWA conference last weekend and CJ has a new book coming out. Can’t Hide What’s Inside is a psychological thriller and available everywhere April 30th. Congratulations to CJ. Visit mustreadcj.com to see the trailer and learn more about the book. We’re going to do an interview with CJ this week. So look for that livestream as well.

If you’re ready to support the show, go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC and join at the $5, $10, or $18 level to get access to behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive courses, and promotional work like Profile Pages and author interviews on the YouTube channel.

So, in three different missives this week, I learned about Vella. It’s Amazon’s new serialization application available through Kindle Direct Publishing. So let’s break down what it means and what it does:

  • Publish short installments — between 600 and 5,000 words each
  • Available on the Kindle iOS app and Kindle Unlimited
  • The first few episodes of each story are free
  • Readers spend “tokens” on stories after the first few episodes

One of our SCWA Chapter leads and published author, Ray Foy, asks:

  • Is there something about the human psyche that makes us partial to serialized storytelling? 
  • Are there still enough people who like to read stories (as opposed to watching them) to make this project profitable for Amazon? 

So, in Segment 2 we’ll talk about the business sense of this and by the end of the show, we’ll be talking about whether this is the right strategy for one of your projects. Stay tuned.

Segment 2

Serialization is a classic way to publish. I thought it was back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock but it goes further than that.

This link has a brief history complete with diagram. Turns out, in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Serialization was immensely popular.

Serialization is the publication of a longer work in segments that are released over time. Charles Dickens is credited with popularizing the format with The Pickwick Papers which were published over 19 volumes and 18 months.

Advantages of serialization:

Affordability — poor readers could afford short volumes and periodicals while they may not have been able to afford the full publication

Broader audience — periodicals had readers that the novelist might not reach with a full work but might be brought to the audience by finding the serial in a popular magazine

Some famous works that were serialized (per the link above)

  • The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844
  • Vanity Fair, 1847
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1851
  • Madame Bovary, 1856
  • A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
  • Crime and Punishment, 1866
  • Anna Karenina, 1875
  • The Portrait of a Lady, 1880
  • The War of the Worlds, 1897
  • A Farewell to Arms, 1929 (Hemingway)
  • Tender is the Night, 1934 (Fitzgerald)
  • In Cold Blood, 1967 (Capote)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971 (Hunter S. Thompson)

So it’s remained a legitimate approach for specific reasons but they have their challenges, too. Among them (again, from the link above):

  • Excessively long texts
  • Overly grand dramatizations
  • Too much repetition
  • Too many exaggerated or flat characters
  • Plot lines that don’t make sense when viewed as a whole

Segment 3

But many publishers have moved away from it, magazines are less popular now, newspapers are dying, etc. So what of the digital means by which to serialize? What are your options?

Most famously, Andy Weir serialized The Martian by publishing it on his personal website. This is effective if you blog has traffic and if you can get readers to visit it.

There are also platforms like Wattpad and AO3 that encourage serialization. While these have traditionally held a fairly large percentage of fan fiction, there are some original works there. In fact, Wattpad has even reached into the possibility of publishing complete stories and does hold reader-selected awards.

So why would you do it? This link offers some reasons:

  1. Keep the story fresh – when people binge-read or even just if they can binge read, that excitement might not be there chapter-by-chapter
  2. Take time to reset – if you write the whole thing ahead and just “drop” each segment, or if you write it in real-time, you can use the breaks between installments to review what you have and not covered for the reader.
  3. Maintain your own writing momentum – I see this on Wattpad a lot, once your readers are expecting new installments, it keeps you writing.
  4. Build your audience & platform – if readers can’t get the conclusion of the work, they can get more of you. So they’ll come to podcasts, interviews, and social channels to learn when they can get the next installment. In this, they become a fan of you, not just the work.

Segment 4

So how do you do it?

This link offers some suggestions:

  1. Outline your overarching story – know where you’re going from the outset to avoid wandering aimlessly through installments
  2. Center your story around a character – people might lose the plot over gaps in reading, but they’ll stick with a character
  3. Cliffhangers are good – keep the readers coming back with unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions; at the same time, it can’t be all cliffhangers, each installment should have a self-contained episode and resolution, like a TV series

The industry has been talking about the comeback of serialization for years. This article from 2016 points to Margaret Atwood experimenting on Wattpad with an every-other-chapter collaboration with another author. This article from 2018 talks about Serial Box, a publishing start-up that sought to leverage the popularity of television series like Game of Thrones for their addictive but spaced-out releases. Since then, Serial Box has become Realm and it’s described as “part podcast studio, part magical refuge.” So the answer to, “Could he make serialized stories a thing?” was kind of “no.”

At least, not for reading. But we’ve seen through successful podcasts like Serial that this vignette-style storytelling can be compelling to people who want their fiction (or their non-fiction) in small doses at their convenience.

So, to finish the How-To:

  1. Pick a story — what’s the thing you have that works in small bits and pieces? 3000 words at a time?
  2. Pick a platform — where are your readers most likely to be? 
  3. Create a creator account on that platform and start interacting with readers and other creators. You want an audience and that starts with promoting others’ work and showing good literary citizenship.
  4. Generate a “coming soon” campaign to build hype around your own work and its release date.
  5. Publish – be consistent in dates and form, respond to readers/comments and continue your citizenship duties with other creators.

Many of these publications will not be eligible for “traditional” publishing after they’ve appeared on these platforms. So keep that in mind. If you’re Margaret Atwood you can afford to throw away your genius on a small audience with little to no monetization opportunity. But if you’re expecting to earn from this, or if you want to see your name on a book, or if you want to pursue traditional publication, then consider serializing something adjacent, but not the actual work. Maybe short stories (or vignettes) in the same world, with the same characters, or following the same themes.

Get some other takes on Vella and the serialization opportunity from Alexa Bigwarfe of Write|Publish|Sell (from her email this week on the topic):

About those potential earnings: the royalties are currently at 50% of the value of the “tokens” each episode costs, plus bonuses that will probably fluctuate as the program kicks in. The tokens are sold to readers in bundles – the numbers are a little fuzzy and will almost certainly change, but you can probably earn between 1 to 25 cents per reader per episode. The length of your work will determine how many tokens it costs a reader, hence the wide variation. 

Right now Amazon is suggesting that you set up 5+ episodes before you make them available, so that readers can dig in and not lose interest waiting around for your next one. It makes sense in terms of managing the business side of your writing – and you can leave more episodes in the app in “draft” status to release down the road. 

They also note that this is something that is only available on the website and through the iOS (Apple) Kindle app. If the platform gains traction, you’ll see it on other platforms quickly.


 Another take on the Reedsy blog here.

Here’s Kasie’s serialized story The Full Moon in Neverland on Wattpad. Check it out.

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