The Return of the Serial Novel

Back in the early days of the novel, one of the most popular forms of publication was the serial. Charles Dickens, who was famously paid by the word, was only one of many authors in the Victorian era to publish what we now consider classics in installments, beginning with The Pickwick Papers published in 1836. Other works published in installments include Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Madame Bovary.

But as the cost of printing novels went down, the serialization of novels began to fall out of favor. Only recently have prominent authors began experimenting with the form again, notably Michael Chabon’s serialization of his novel Gentlemen of the Road in 2007. Some have even taken to micro-serialization, in the case of Jennifer Egan, who, earlier this year, published an entire short story through Twitter.

With the rise of electronic readers, and the ceaseless refreshing of one’s eBook library (along with renewed interest in short fiction) it seems only natural that serials would make a return. Renowned self-published author Neal Pollack has begun selling a serialized novel, Downward-Facing Death with installments that automatically downloaded to eReaders as they are released. The reader only needs to purchase the first installment to receive the following ones. The Huffington Post has also started publishing serialized novels, much like other news outlets would back in the day.

The idea of serializing a novel is an incredible opportunity for authors looking to take advantage of multi-platform publishing. Not only does it allow them to gradually build a fan base throughout the publication of a novel, but it gives the author time to gauge the reaction to certain characters or techniques, and change accordingly to his audience’s reaction (Dickens did this as well).

Serialization also lets readers weave in and out of a particular story, which readers are apt to do anyway with eReaders. It lets readers take a break, and then delve back into the book whenever their next installment arrives. For writers of the suspense or detective genres, the cliffhanger aspect of serials will keep readers on edge, constantly refreshing their libraries to see if the next installment has arrived. For writers, it will give them time to breathe and continue to write, even after parts of it are published.

Check out our follow-up blog post: How To: Serialize with Lulu

Would you ever write a serialized novel?

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  1. I had a serial I was writing which I’m now considering rewriting and turning into a novel. Wouldn’t serialization be serialization be a tad difficult with Lulu?

  2. Oh boy, you can tell I woke up early to make that comment. Better phrased: A few years ago I began a serial for the fun of it. I did not, however, get remotely close to completion. Now I’m considering taking the concept I originally had and developing a novel. I would love to publish it through Lulu, and a serialization would be a fun experiment.

    However, for myself and other authors, it would be a challenge to distribute serializations within the current system. Perhaps the first would be free, and the rest following would at a standard price? Something to consider.

  3. Steven Lacey

    I was talking about this very thing earlier this year, and specifically citing the examples of Dickens, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas. With the rise of e-readers and tablets, smartphones, etc., I fully believe this is an idea whose time has come. I would even go so far as to say that the relatively recent shift in certain types of television programs from episodic stories to serialized ones (see what I did there?), “selling” that idea to potential readers is a lot easier than it might have been had ten years ago.

    Another bonus to that idea is that, as a writer, you can tell an epic story without intimidating your reading base. It’s the difference between handing someone an 800 page novel outright, or giving them 30 pages a week over the course of 6 months. This means that you can explore and flesh out your world and your story, and so long as you keep moving the narrative forward, you can figure out what does and does not work. You can spend time with side stories involving minor characters that shed light on the main tale, give background information, or even tell a story that might bear no initial connection to the rest of the novel (it should, though, because A: that’s just mean and 2: if someone has paid to read this story, they’re going to feel like the side stuff was just padding).

    And Zechariah, the pay model idea I came up with was exactly what you said: The first chapter (or two, depending) would be free. So, a potential reader logs in to the website and looks at a few different stories that are available, which would be classified using both standard genre types (mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, etc), as well as maybe something like hashtags to help narrow it down (#humor, #explicit language, #violent, and so on). There would be a quick blurb for the story, and if that interested the reader enough, they can download the first free part. Ideally, you’d want it to be both complete (i.e., a full chapter or two), but also leaving that reader wanting to know more. *I mention this only because a certain bookselling website will allow you to see the first few pages of certain books, but that includes title pages and tables of contents and such, sometimes only including very few pages of actual story and, more often than not, cutting that off literally mid-sentence. Which, frustrating* So, once they finish that free part, I’d say give them a few options. First, they can go ahead and pay for the book as a whole, and then it becomes automatic downloads on a regular basis – once a week, every ten days, however you decide it. Alternately, they can pay per chapter, so that if they’re not completely sold on the story but kind of interested, they can check out the next few installments to decide if they want to commit fully. As far as the cost to a reader goes, I would say that paying up front for the novel in question should end up being a bigger bargain than paying per chapter.

    Honestly, though, I think that this is a stellar idea, especially for authors trying to build a readership. If you’re telling a good story that is hooking people in, then word of mouth will only help you; a total nobody who starts a project with only a few people reading it week to week (the author’s long-suffering friends and family, usually), can build that into a pretty substantial readership by the end of that serial’s run. It even does double-duty *for* the authors friends and family, because now instead of lamenting that author’s lack of success, they are actively participating in it, and can spread the word through their own social circles (and, of course, the amazing power of social networking today is almost unfathomable) and help create that base.

    So, to answer the question at the end of the blog…yes. Can you tell I’ve thought about this just a little bit?

  4. Morgan, Lulu

    @Steven – Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful response. Sounds like you really understand the benefits of this for both readers and authors. I also wanted to address a good point that you bring up about the previews on our site. When you create an eBook, you will be able to upload your own Word doc to serve as your preview. This doc can be any length you choose. I hope that is helpful information. Also, we’d love to hear more about your progress if you do decide to start on a serialized novel. Best of luck!

  5. Steven Lacey

    Well, actually, I’m in the process of working on something right now that I think would lend itself rather well to serialized treatment, right down to the opening chapter(s) that end on a pretty good twist. I think that would help people decide whether or not they were willing to invest their time/money in the rest of the tale right away, which is important specifically because I don’t want to waste the time of anyone who would rather read something else.

    And, of course, just to make things interesting, the story in question that I’m actually writing is *two* novels, which are happening in parallel in the same story-universe. They crossover a few times, of course, but even when that happens, we see the events from the perspective of the characters in the story we’ve been following; in other words, we never go from third person limited to third person omniscient during those chapters. As you can imagine, this has been a challenge, but also extremely rewarding for me as a storyteller.

    Also, just as a further point of clarification, reading both stories will enhance the overall tale, but is not a requirement. Ideally, one could pick up and read Book A and enjoy it without ever reading Book B, and vice/versa. That’s why I’m always at pains to explain them as books A and B (that designation being about which one I started writing first) and not books One and Two. They begin at the exact same moment, cover the same amount of time, and then end on the same date. Most importantly, they are very different stories that not only follow different emotional and character arcs, but have different pacing and personal goals for the characters. Again, this was both to keep it interesting to myself as the author (since, theoretically, no one wants to write the same book twice) and to the reader, who would (again, theoretically) want the satisfaction of reading about the same story-universe without having to trudge through a re-tread of the same tale with slightly different characters.

    So, the long and short of all of this is, I’m about ten seconds away from committing fully to this idea; there’s still a few other options I’m considering before I jump in with both feet, but reading this article really got me thinking heavily about it again, so, thank you for that.

  6. Morgan, Lulu

    @Steven – Your books sound fantastic. I love the idea of the way they can each exist independent of the other, but that they’re intertwined in such intricate ways as well. I am thrilled to hear that this article got you thinking some more about it. I hope to see the finished products one day!

  7. @Steven: I would say iTunes’ current model with TV series would be great for serializations. Consumers are given the choice of buying episodes separately, and they’re not punished with a full price if they decide to purchase the whole bundle. They get a discounted price that takes into account their prior purchases. This system, however, cannot be implemented in Lulu. The first free, and the rest following at a standard price, comes the closest to this.

    It sounds like quite the ingenious idea you have, and it could certainly pay off. Plus, it’s a great way of letting the reader wander in Story A and B’s world a while longer with another fresh, but connected installment.

    I did something of the sort with my novel, but I intertwined the stories instead of making them separate entities. If the novel has a good show in the market, I’d likely publish “extensions” through Lulu, in which portions of the story, which at first seemed insignificant, are expanded upon and made into their own charming tales.

    Quite right. Articles like this one do indeed inspire some innovative musings.

  8. Ben

    I’m not sure I buy the underlying premise. If lowered publishing costs were the reason for the end of serialization, then modern publishing costs would continue to hammer away at serialization.

    The author of a serial has to publish routine, well-edited material…or the reading audience needs to become less sophisticated in its expectations…for the serial to be effective.

    That said, I was always told the serial was done to help sell newspapers and magazines.

  9. How odd that this would come up! I just started serializing a novella via blog last week at The story is already complete, so I can set it up to publish automatically. Eventually I will offer it on the site in complete form as an ebook or print copy from Lulu.

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