Guest post by David Wright – Serialization: A Timely Return for the Digital Age?

One of the most exciting aspects of the indie revolution is seeing writers moving beyond straitjacketed definitions of what a story or book should be.

We have seen a resurgence in short stories, a rebirth of the novella, and, as you will see below, some fascinating experiments with serialized fiction.

All of these forms were held back by the economics of print and the risk-averse nature of publishers and agents.

Self-publishers, of course, are free to publish whatever they like.

Today, I have an excellent guest post from one half of a writing duo that is doing just that – with great results. Here’s David Wright:

“To be continued…”

I first discovered these three magical words in the pages of comic books as a child, and I instantly I fell in love with the concept of serialized fiction. 

Whether the hero was in peril, a mystery was a second from being solved, or some shadowy figure was about to reveal itself, the cliffhanger is the coolest thing in fiction.

It’s surprising how few authors use cliffhangers, though.

I think that’s about to change, thanks to Amazon.

If you’re reading David Gaughran’s blog, I don’t need to list all the awesome things Amazon has done for indie authors. And yes, I am singling out Amazon, because to date, they’ve had more of an effect on self-publishing than any other company in history.

Instead I want to talk about one particular freedom that Amazon allows — serialization.

Serials have been around forever, even if they’ve fallen out of fashion in recent years. When Stephen King released The Green Mile in six serialized books in the 90s, I fully expected to see a flood of serialized titles from other authors.

Unfortunately, that flood never came. There were a few attempts, but no real efforts by proven authors. Part of it, I’m sure was that serials are a risky sale. Publishers generally don’t like risk. And by don’t like, I mean avoid it like my cats avoid the bathtub! Which means unless your name is Stephen King, you’re probably not gonna sell a serialized book to a publisher.

With eBooks, however, that risk is nearly vapor. Especially for self-published authors.

Partnering up for adventure

When I first met my writing partner Sean Platt in 2008, I had no idea we’d someday be writing together. But once we started, I knew instantly that I’d found the writing equivalent of a soulmate — someone who got what writing is all about. Someone brimming with stories they’d been waiting for the right moment to tell. A true partner.

And when we talked about writing, talk frequently led to serials, both episodic TV we enjoyed like The Wire, LOST, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and stories we’d love to tell.

At the time, acceptance of eBooks as a new platform still seemed years off and neither of us knew much about how to get a book to print. So we dipped our toes in the water with the online serialization of a vampire-ish story I’d been holding onto forever called Available Darkness. While we drew a few readers, most people didn’t seem to enjoy reading fiction on a website. Neither do I.

This, coupled with the fact that we were trying to force a huge, complex Big Book Idea into a serialized format, prompted us to put the story on hold until we could release it properly as the book it needed to be. Our experimentation with serialized fiction would be continued…

And in the season premiere of 2011, the Kindle exploded in popularity. January’s downloads were staggering, eclipsing paperback sales for the first time. Writers were actually starting to find readers and sell books without publishers!

The sea change we’d been waiting for in publishing had come sooner than we’d hoped. So we decided to take advantage and write a serialized series specifically aimed at eBook readers.

The idea

We began with a blank slate, a big concept — what if everyone in the world, save for a few people, vanished at the exact same moment? Yeah, I know someone already wrote Left Behind. It’s not that book, trust me.

Sean and I would each be responsible for three main characters, and all minor supporting characters which surround the three mains.

We’d treat the book series like a TV series, with 100 page eBooks which left the reader hanging from “episode” to “episode.” The 100 page length was dictated by our love for King’s The Green Mile, which hits that sweet spot for serialization — short enough to be an impulse read, but long enough to deliver a satisfying experience.

Sean and I wrote the first draft of “episode one” without a clue what the other would be writing. A bit risky, but we wanted to see what we’d come up with independent of one another. Then we swapped pages and edited each other’s work, and knew we had something magical. We then brainstormed how to take what we were building and make it all flow together and where the story would go.

Our story sessions are exciting, as I imagine they’d be in the writer’s room on a show like LOST. “What if we do this?” “Oh no, we can’t  do that… Can we?”

One cool thing we had going for the first season was a contest between us. Whoever wrote the most WTF ending got the last page of that episode. I think the record stands Sean 4 and me 2, though I did get the season ending cliffhanger, which should count as at least two or three points, right?

In less than a month, we had the first “episode” of Yesterday’s Gone complete, and were at work on the next five books.

The advantages of serialization

While the form hasn’t gained a foothold yet in eBooks, it’s too attractive for writers and readers not to do well.

If you look at some of the most popular authors on Amazon right now, most of them have one thing in common — they have one or more ongoing series. When readers love a book, they often want to return to the world and spend more time with the characters.

Serialization allows your readers to fall in love with your story and characters and allows you to bring them back again and again in less time.

Serialization also handles a problem most writers would love to have — early success.

One of the things which mega-successful indie author John Locke said in his book, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in Five Months, is that the worst thing a writer can do is to put out a book, have it do well, and then have nothing more for readers to buy. Full length books take time to write. They can take anywhere from a month to several years! If someone loves your first book and has nothing more to buy, they might move on and forget about you by the time you finally come out with something new.

When you put out a serial, you get some of the benefit of having multiple titles for your readers to enjoy, without making them wait forever.

However, if your readers tear through your books as quickly as they would one full-length book, you’d probably still face the issue Locke mentioned if you don’t have anything else ready to go. This is why we never stop writing and are also releasing short story collections.

Some precautions

Not everyone loves serials.

If you write them, you will feel some resistance from readers who think the format is awful.

I want the full story right now!

I don’t want to be made to wait.

It’s a gimmick.

Those are just some of the complaints I’ve seen about the format in general. And who am I to say people are wrong? They like what they like, when they like it. While we feel there are enough people out there who will dig this exciting format to make it worth our while, it doesn’t hurt to make your work as accessible as you can in this age of content on demand.

As writers, we’re lucky to have people enjoy the stuff we create. It’s the ultimate honor, so we should cater to our audience in any way we can. So we are also releasing the series in full season books, which actually works better financially for us.

While we would love for readers to experience the episodes as we release them, once a month at 99c ($1.99 per episode after the full season comes out), we only make 35% of that through Amazon. Not a whole lot, especially when splitting profits with a partner.

Another downside to serialized eBooks, is figuring out the best way to sell them. Because Amazon controls how inventory is searched and delivered to your browser, you can easily confuse your potential buyers when delivering a serialized book.

You must have covers (often seen in thumbnail size) which are similar enough to convey that these books are part of a series without being similar enough to confuse readers into thinking they might just be different editions of the same book.

We achieved distinction with just enough similarity by creating a uniform title, a band beneath the title which indicates the episode number, and a striking image which fits with each episode.

Then, the biggest issue we had to figure out was how we’d offer a full season download (all the episodes in one book). Again, there’s lots of room for confusion for readers.

Is this episode one? Did I already buy this?

Is this a continuation after Episode Six?

How is this different from the other books in the series?

Which book should I buy?

We certainly didn’t want people who already bought the individual episodes to accidentally purchase the full season thinking it was a new title.

So I had to create a cover which was similar in theme, yet clearly indicated that this was a full season collecting the first six books. I think we did a great job here and haven’t had any complaints or confusion yet.

I also specified on the Amazon sales page that this is a full season collecting the already released first six episodes. You never want to mislead your reader, unlike some record companies that re-release the same CD 10 different ways with 15 different covers in attempt to bleed fans dry of every buck they have.

Watch, listen, tweak

So far, our experiment has been a lot of fun. We’re paying attention to reader response and seeing how the books perform so we can adjust how we continue in January with Season Two.

Here are two lessons we’ve learned so far.

People don’t like waiting a full month. While we love that people can’t wait to see what happens next, a month is a pretty long time to wait between 100 page books, especially when you’re juggling so many storylines and complex characters. So we’re changing the model to one episode per week for Season Two. A bit ambitious, maybe, but there are two of us, and we’ll have the full season done before we release them (which will make our November insane).

Don’t hold back. One of the characters in the book, Boricio Wolfe, is a serial killer. And not a nice one (because you know, there are so many nice ones). He’s over-the-top, and downright evil.

Surprisingly, Sean, the happier, more well-adjusted of the two of us (seriously, the dude farts sunshine!) created Boricio. When I first read what Sean wrote, I almost edited it down, to make the guy more palatable. If this were a straight-up horror novel, I’d have no qualms, but Yesterday’s Gone is more about characterization and building real fear than writing gory. Something told me to just leave Boricio alone, let him do what he does best, and readers have been amazingly supportive. We’ve had several responses along the lines of: Usually, I don’t like characters like that, but there’s something about Boricio that I love! He’s like a guilty pleasure. Is it wrong that I find him so damned funny?

What next?

So far, our serialization experimentation has been nothing short of awesome!

The full season purchases for October (the first month the full season has been available) exceeded the first episode purchases, meaning people enjoy the format and want to join us on this journey.

Amazon reviews and emails have been supportive, and we’ve even heard from some writers who are contemplating or at work on their own serials.

As authors and publishers begin to see digital publishing for the opportunities it presents, I believe we’re going to see a lot more experimentation, books that push the boundaries of the “book experience.” We’ll also see old formats that had been rendered nearly obsolete in print form (such as serialization) by Big Publishing, claw their way back onto the scene.

Can serialization become as big as it once was? Could a new age of publishing make it bigger than it’s ever been?

To be continued…

David W. Wright is an indie author who loves serialized fiction and is the co-author of the post-apocalyptic serialized series Yesterday’s Gone. You can pick up the pilot episode here or get the full season for just $4.99 here.

Sign up and Be A Goner to keep up with the latest in Yesterday’s Gone news and to get exclusive chapters from Season Two and short stories long before anyone else. Follow David on Twitter @thedavidwwright.

Here’s the book trailer: