Sunday, November 11

Serial Fiction: Is It Profitable?

Serial Fiction: Is It Profitable?

For the past few months I've been thinking of experimenting with serial fiction. One thing I'm wondering is whether it's financially profitable.

You've heard, no doubt, that Charles Dickens was one of the first to serialize a story, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836 and that it was a great financial success, but the form seems to have fallen out of favor with readers ... although perhaps less so with listeners. (Serial, Wikipedia)

When I was a kid I spent summers at my parents' cabin, a ramshackle three bedroom tucked deep in the Dead Wood, listening to serializations over the radio. That was great fun. Years later a public broadcasting station re-broadcast episodes of The Shadow (The Shadow knows) along with the original commercials (Roma wine, that's R-O-M-A) from the 40s. The show broadcast every Saturday at 11:00 pm; I'd make popcorn and hunker down for an hour of campy goodness.

Serial Literature Today

Jane Friedman has written a fabulous article about serials for Publishing Perspectives called Experimenting With Serials for Fun and Profit. I would encourage anyone at all curious about the state of serial literature today to read her article.

Is Serial Fiction Profitable?

Here's what I think: It can be. I say that because for certain authors, authors like Hugh Howey and Sean Platt it has been. For other folks, not so much. As you can see from reading Jane's article, many people produce serial fiction simply for the love of it.

Since my question is whether serial fiction can be profitable and, if so, how to go about doing that, I'll concentrate on folks who seem like they've been able to make a nice go of it. Although please keep in mind that this is guess work on my part, I haven't seen their financials!

Hugh Howey - Wool

Jane wrote her article before the phenomenal success of Hugh Howey's Wool. Here's what Hugh Howey says about his ride to the top:
The first WOOL story came out in July of last year. At just over 12,000 words, it qualified as a novelette, and not much more. I forgot about the story until it began garnering a slew of positive reviews that could muster only a single complaint among them: Where was the rest? They wanted more.

So I began writing more. I released the rest of the story in installments, something I'd always wanted to try, and I enjoyed the quick turnaround and the immediate feedback from readers. The entries grew as the series went along, until the fifth and final WOOL story was the length of a short novel. Once the tale was complete, I collected the five books into an Omnibus, which was when it began to really take off.

The WOOL OMNIBUS is now roaring up the charts, and I like to think of the work as much as a collaboration as a singular effort. It was borne out of the call from reviewers for more and forged almost as it was being read. (How My Self-Published Book 'Wool' Became A Hot Movie Property)
Hugh Howey seems to have discontinued selling the first five serials and now just offers the omnibus version, but since that's currently at number 151 in the paid kindle store he's clearly made the right decision. Wow! That is very good, and the book was published in January 2012.

The question is: Would Wool have been such a great hit if Hugh Howey written it as a novel from the start? We'll never know, but clearly the serial form can be lucrative.

Roz Morris - Author, Editor and Ghostwriter

This is from Roz's site:
I’m a professional writer, editor and writing blogger living in London. You’ll have seen my books on the bestseller lists but not under my name because I ghostwrote them for other people. (Roz Morris)
Roz has come out into the daylight, as she puts it, with a 100,000 word literary novel she released in four parts. She published in September 2011 and appears to have done fairly well. One thing I find fascinating is that her first episode--the first serial--seems to be doing about as well as the completed book! Here, take a look for yourselves (keep in mind that I'm writing this on Nov 11th and things will likely change over time).

My Memories of a Future Life - Episode 1 of 4: The Red Season (Aug 23, 2011)
My Memories of a Future Life - Episode 2 of 4: Rachmaninov and Ruin (Sept 1, 2011)
My Memories of a Future Life - Episode 3 of 4: Like Ruby (Sept 9, 2011)
My Memories of a Future Life - Episode 4 of 4: The Storm (Sept 16, 2011)
My Memories of a Future Life - the complete novel (Sept 19, 2011)

Roz also has a great blog about writing: Nail Your Novel.

Sean Platt - The King of Serial Fiction

Together with co-author, David Wright, Sean has quickly become “King of the Serial,” as the father of the five series: Yesterday’s Gone, WhiteSpace, ForNevermore, Available Darkness, and Dark Crossings. Inspired as much by Stephen King’s serialized story, “The Green Mile,” as well as superbly scripted TV shows, such as LOST, Fringe, and The Walking Dead. Their first series, Yesterday’s Gone has received over 200 5-Star reviews, and has spent time on Amazon’s list of the Top 100 Best Reviewed Fiction Books of All Time. (Sean Platt)
Sean calls his omnibus works "seasons" and each contains six episodes. He models his serials after Lost and uses cliffhanger endings to keep his audience coming back for more. Jane wrote that the first episode was free and each after that each is $1.99 with the full season selling for $4.99. Apparently things have changed.

I just looked up Yesterday's Gone: Season One on Amazon and it's selling for $5.99 (#2038 in the Kindle store), the first episode is 99 cents and all other episodes are $2.99. Even though the first season is up on Amazon the first episode is still selling reasonably well (#29,490 in the Kindle store).

Keep in mind, too, that Yesterday's Gone is just one of the serials Sean and David are writing.  As I mention, above, they are also working on: WhiteSpace, ForNevermore, Available Darkness and Dark Crossings, all of which seem to be doing very well.

Don't Use Serial Fiction As A Gimmick

Jane warns against using serial fiction as a marketing gimmick. If it just so happens that each chapter of your novel stands on its own as a self-contained unit, then fine, but if it it doesn't you may find yourself with disgruntled readers--or, worse, board ones--rather than fans.

Serial Fiction: Try It!

It seems the most successful attempts at serial fiction have been when novel length works are serialized in 5 or 6 novelette sized chunks and released about a week, or a month, apart.

In the end, the only way you'll know if serial fiction would be right for you is to jump into the deep end and try it. Write some serial fiction, publish it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, WattPad, or what have you.

If you're a bit shy you can use a pen name so if no one buys it you don't have to worry about anyone knowing. I think that's unlikely though, especially if you give your first serial away for free. :)

Whatever you decide to do, best of luck!

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My NaNoWriMo update: Yesterday was a good day for me, I'm at 19,921 words, I'm hoping to reach 22,000 today. Coming up to the midpoint.

Other articles you might like:

- What's The Difference Between Paranormal Romance And Urban Fantasy?
- A NaNoWriMo Pep Talk From Neil Gaiman
- David Mamet On How To Write A Great Story

Photo credit: "My forest dream is still a dream..." by Vinoth Chandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Loved going through your post, Karen!! I think I had come across Chaz talking on one of the podcasts, and very much appreciated the information she shared. She then said that serializing her project was unintentional, and had each categorized under a different genre. Congrats on the word count too :)) I am at around 15000, with many thanks to all your wonderful tips and encouraging words.

    1. Thanks Nina! 15,000 is awesome! I'm trying to be done a bit early so I can read Jim Butcher's next Dresden Files book, Cold Days, when it comes out on the 27th.

      Thanks for the info about Chaz. Hopefully serials are making a comeback! :)

  2. I remember Stephen King tried to split up The Green Mile as a serial... the problem at the time was that you just got a few chapters, no complete story within a broader arch, and it got a bit annoying to pay $3.99 for 15K words or so. But I remember thinking it was a neat idea at the time.

    If you think about it, modern comic books ARE serial stories. Maybe the e-book is the right format to bring them back into style.

    1. Good point about comics! Sometimes I forget about graphic novels, but yes. Definitely.

      I know what you mean about The Green Mile. It was a great idea but I guess the time wasn't right.

  3. Great blog and information. As a coauthor and author of several serial works, I have to say the results have been mixed so far. I think, in the long run, I will be glad to have participated in all of them. Here's wishing you all the best for 2013!

    1. Hi Tim, same to you! The main thing is that we're writing and that we keep writing. Success will come. Eventually. ;)


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