Answer: When readers’ tastes and new product delivery methods mesh.
Despite what my kids think, I am not old enough to remember the days of serial radio shows or the Saturday movie shorts. However, when it comes to publishing fiction these days, what was once old is now new again when it comes to serializing stories.
Serializing stories goes back a lot farther than most people realize. Charles Dickens published a great deal of his work in smaller chunks long before they ever appeared in book form. “The Old Curiosity Shop” is an example of his using serialization. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published two of his Sherlock Holmes novels (“The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Valley of Fear”) first in monthly installments in magazines. A list of other well-known authors from decades past who used this method would more than fill a few pages. Serialization in writing remained popular until at least during the pulp magazine days of the 1950s before slowly fading into the background, never quite dying out but becoming more of a fringe product.
But now a whole new crop of authors are using serialized stories as a way of creating a reader base and (gasp!) making money. My first recent memory of an author doing this was Stephen King. He serialized “The Green Mile” in six small paperbacks over a five-month period in 1996. The experiment worked for him but he still sold a lot more copies when they were all compiled into novel form. But in my opinion, he was ahead of the time. He was hamstrung by the need for new technology.
Enter Amazon and Kindle (or similar products). Today’s new crop of writers who are using serialization are using the Internet and e-books to deliver the segments. In most cases a reader can purchase the whole story up front and then each chapter is delivered automatically to an electronic reading device, like a Kindle, on a regular schedule.
And who can argue with the success. Hugh Howey has become a worldwide, best-selling author in digital and print based largely upon the serialization phenomenon that became “Silo.” Also, don’t forget that the “50 Shades” franchise began life as serialized fan fiction. (Fan fiction is a different topic for a different day but I will admit that it is something that I just don’t understand.)
From a writer’s perspective, I can understand the lure of serialized stories. There is an immediacy to the process because you write on a deadline and then it is printed, sometimes within days of your finishing. Pay begins almost immediately and the product is lower priced, enticing a larger fan base.
Compare that to the traditional time frame of writing a novel, sending it out to publishing houses, getting accepted, being put on the publishing schedule, then waiting for royalty checks to arrive (very simplified). That process can take possibly two years. Even with the advent of self-publishing it can still be months invested. That is a lot of time spent working before the pennies start trickling in to your bank account. Serialization makes a lot of sense.
But on the consumer side of the coin, I also need to consider the way I like to read. I may not touch a book for two weeks because I am heavily into writing. Then, some Saturday evening, I may grab a book, plop down on the couch, and read until noon on Sunday, ripping through 500 pages in one shot. That would be tough to do if I need to wait for another week for the next story installment.
Plus, I do not think serialization makes sense for my writing style. One of my critique partners once told me I could make a novel out of a grocery list (Thanks, Michele.). I think it was a compliment? Anyway, her point was that I enjoyed producing longer works with deep character developments and intricate plots. You can certainly do this in segments but think back to Flash Gordon – every show ended with him in mortal danger, a cliffhanger that made the viewer want to come back the next Saturday and dish out another nickel to see how he escaped. I am not saying I won’t attempt the form some day, but for now I am still on the fence.
If anyone wants to read more on the whole serialization trend, Jane Friedman had an excellent blog post on the subject. You can read it by clicking here: