Anyone For Serials? by Debbie Bennett

Serialising appears to be all the rage at the moment. Popular in the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, many of what we consider to be classics today were originally released in episodic format – you can read an interesting history with examples here. But the appeal of serials waned towards the end of last century, possibly due to it no longer being lucrative for the publishers. When you are relying only on physical books, there are unit print costs to think about, and publications with lower word counts do not cost significantly less to produce than their bigger counterparts – yet it’s difficult to charge the same price for less words.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, the web and e-publishing, and everything changes. Now there is no print cost and design/editing can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be. Producing a novel as a single entity is going to cost broadly the same as producing it in ten episodes. So why are serials suddenly so popular again? 

I independently published my first book (a collection of previously-print-published short stories Maniac & Other Stories) in 2011. Back then, Amazon KDP was aimed firmly at the novel market; although there is no minimum word count for a title, there are obviously limitations to producing a paperback. But you do have to upload and therefore sell the entire content at the same time. 

Now there are writers who can write, edit and produce a new novel every month or faster – how? Do they sleep? Do they have access to a parallel universe where times runs differently? But the rest of us write more slowly. Maybe we have day jobs, families, lives, or simply other priorities. Everybody is right and there is no ‘best’ way to do these things. But the fact remains that Amazon and the internet favour the quick-release writer. Algorithms give more visibility to newer books and higher visibility means higher sales. Don't put a book out for months/years and Amazon forgets you and your books exist.

Meanwhile in the mid noughties, Wattpad was founded in a garage in Canada and launched the careers of many new writers. Wattpad allows writers to effectively write and upload in real-time, get feedback and gather readers at an early stage, allowing the successful writers to have a ready-made fanbase when they come to monetise their product. 

And now we have a new crop of outlets attempting to take a share of the episodic market. The writers upload episodes of a novel and the readers buy tokens (the more they buy in bulk, the cheaper each token becomes) which they can then spend on episodes of books. The writer then gets paid according to how many tokens have been spent on each episode. There are also signing 'bonuses' and all manner of 'rewards' built into the systems.

Kindle Vella is Amazon’s serial offering. The rewards may not be as tangible as some of the other sites - there is no upfront money - but there is at least accountability and reliability in the name and a guarantee that you will be paid something each month, even if it is several months in arrears. There's the worldwide visibility of Amazon. Plus you have the added bonus in that it's ... Amazon, and everybody knows that Amazon rules the world. Kindle Vella is still showing as US only - but I did create an account as a UK user; I haven't published anything as yet, so I can't confirm it is fully working for non-US writers.

Other serialisation sites include NovelCat and Dreame. These have mixed reviews here and here. NovelCat promises We have a Signing Bonus of $50, an Updating Bonus of $180, a Completion and Renewal Bonus up to $300, or advance payment/ buyout payment for exclusive novels. In addition to these bonuses, you’ll also get a profit share when your novel sells well. There are bonuses for uploading more than a certain number of words per month and bonuses for daily uploads. Dreame offers similar bonuses - so similar it does make me wonder how independent the two sites actually are? Dreame doesn't show a contract - you have to create a story and then 'apply' for a contract. NovelCat also uses apply for a contract. What I can't see - and I freely admit I've not spent a great deal of time on either site - is anywhere where it is explained what rights you are signing over and for how long.

Webnovel is another similar site, but slightly different in that it's more reader-orientated. I had to dig deep to find author resources, which led me to another site Inkstone to create an account (I didn't). The terms of service here say: These Terms provide that all disputes between you and Webnovel will be resolved by BINDING ARBITRATION. YOU AGREE TO GIVE UP YOUR RIGHT TO GO TO COURT to assert or defend your rights under this contract, except for matters that may be taken to small claims court. Now that's a red flag for me - waive all my rights? I don't think so.

There are other sites like these. People obviously like them as there is oodles of content. I can't speak to the quality as I haven't looked and I'm not sure it even matters if readers are happy? Are writers happy? Are they making money? I do wonder what will happen if/when they want to take their content elsewhere. But what really makes me sceptical is the proliferation of spammy messages in Facebook groups by 'editors' from these companies who are clearly 'recruiting' writers, homing in on the more naive authors, and yet are evasive when questioned by the more experienced authors in the groups. They send the same generic emails to scores of people at a time, so not always discerning. If it wasn't for the fact that Facebook is down right now (yes, really - WhatsApp and Instagram too), I'd copy some of the posts, but they smack of ... I don't know. 

I'm reserving judgement. I'm thinking of having a play with Kindle Vella at some point, but I'm happy to forfeit signing bonuses to keep my rights, thank you very much.

Anybody else know anything different?


Peter Leyland said…
Fascinating Debbie. I love the idea of serialisation, especially those of Dickens and early crime writing like Conan Doyle. The thought of all those readers waiting for the next instalment is breathtaking. I haven't ever got involved with the modern serialisation that you go into in such brilliant detail, but am open to offers for my living autobiography blogs...
The medium affects the length of the message. The Bible's books were scrolls of a finite length, the little numbered verses were a precursor of a table of contents or to push the idea further, Google's search engine. Physical space on physical paper (in other words, word count) was and is how magazines and newspapers deal with "grey space" - the "content" that writers labour to produce. Television was the prisoner of the 23 minute half hour or the 55 minute hour so long as programs ran between the "top and the bottom of the clock" so that corporations could purchase time for their advertisements. Then came YouTube, and What'sAp and streaming and self-publishing and Amazon'sr need to extract as much as they can from the relationship between "content providers" or authors and "consumers" or readers. Notice that from the scrolls of scribes, through the printers of books and magazines to the electronic FAANGS that chew up words and turn them into money, what is being said is entirely irrelevant. There is one thin strand of humanity in all of this, and that's the desire to connect with another human being who is not immediately present, and to do so not exclusively to fleece them of as much of their cash as is possible. Your association is a guerrilla squad of the imagination striving to turn the technology to a human and humane use. And thank you, Debbie, for your useful survey of who's out there trying to exploit your (and my) writing.
Reb MacRath said…
Good God. Just when I think it can't possibly get any worse! Thank you, Debbie, for the brutally harsh but necessary light.

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