The Pros and Cons of Serializing Your Novel
by MF Wahl Views: 1614
It might be hard to imagine these days, but long before people gathered around the TV, they gathered around the radio to listen to the latest episode of whatever was popular at the time. Even harder to believe is that long before radio the public clamoured around newsstands to pick up the latest “episode” of serial fiction. In fact, some of the classic literature we still read today was initially serialized. Big names like Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Harriet Beecher Stowe published their novels in serial format.
There’s something romantic about the vision of people gathered around the watercooler, discussing the written word. This is the image that swirled through my head when I considered serial publishing my first novel, DISEASE. Romantic visions aside though, there are compelling reasons to try your hand at serial publishing, and equally compelling reasons to stay far, far away from it.
While a complete novel generally has a pretty defined structure that spans the length of the work, each part of a serial novel can each be treated as an individual book, instead of as a chapter. Ideally each episode has a beginning, middle and end, preferably finishing with some sort of cliffhanger. It can be a fun challenge to write a novel that works both in serial format as well as a complete book. With any luck, the reader has been so enticed they must purchase the next instalment ASAP.
Self-publishing is a daunting task for both the novice and the experienced author. The ocean of talented (and less so) writers is swimming with schools of mega-sharks. Statistically it’s almost impossible to survive and one must do whatever they think will keep them alive another day. When I decided to self-publish, I felt serializing “DISEASE” would give me the best advantage. The process has brought me many triumphs and even more heartbreaks. This is what I learned from my experience with the serial format.
THE DREAM: HIGHER RETURN ON INVESTMENT (ROI)
Let’s be honest. ROI was the first thing that popped into my head when I delved into self-publishing, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Before I had even written my novel, before I had done anything but the most cursory of research, I had a conversation with a traditionally published author about eBooks. We both felt that one of the biggest drawbacks to self-publishing an eBook was the rock-bottom prices.
“What do you mean, the average eBook sells for only $2.99?!? That’s less than a latte!”
After years of hard work and cold hard cash paid out to editors, cover artists, etc, readers are only willing to shell out a lousy $2.99? Crap.
This little epiphany was one of the reasons I felt serialization was for me. DISEASE is roughly 75,000 words. By breaking it into 6 instalments and offering each part for $0.99, I would see an increased ROI – going from $2.99 to $5.94 for a full copy of the book. It felt like that was pretty reasonable.
Not so fast. Serializing your novel may actually lead to a lower ROI, especially if you’re planning on selling through distributors such as Amazon. Amazon is the largest marketplace for eBooks, for better or worse. As such there is no negotiating their royalty rates. If you publish below $2.99 or above $9.99, you will only earn 35% royalty instead of 70%. In fact, the vast majority of eBook distributors have similar policies, severely diminishing royalties beyond certain thresholds. Not so good for the low-priced episode, unless you plan on offsetting a pitiful royalty rate by publishing many episodes.
I made the unfortunate decision to price each of my six instalments at $2.99. This kept me within reasonable royalty rates, and I thought that since it was cheaper than a latte, readers wouldn’t be too put off by the price. Of course, as with many things in life, I was wrong.
From what I can see the average price for serial novel hovers around $0.99, or less per episode. Pricing mine at $2.99 basically priced me out of the market. That’s not to say episodes can’t sell for $2.99 and up. If you’re a known author or have a well-established fan base, this could be a golden opportunity. For an unknown, self-published, first-time author, readers are much more hesitant to spend their hard-earned latte money on your partial book.
As it goes with all products, know your market, and don’t price yourself out of it like I initially did. If you’re Stephen King, you can charge an arm and a leg for 10,000 words and people will be falling over themselves to hand you their money. If you’re not, you may have to settle for a lot less of the pie than you feel you deserve (even if you did spend the last decade slaving over a hot oven to make it).
THE DREAM: LESS READER RISK
If you don’t want to offer up your entire novel at $2.99 you may be considering a higher price point. Of course a higher price gives you a bigger ROI, but then a reader’s wallet ends up taking a bigger risk. Serializing a novel offers the author a chance to present a complete work for a higher price with less risk less financial risk to the reader. Readers will often purchase the first part as a trial and they feel more in control of the overall reading experience, since they can always not purchase the next episode if they don’t like where the story is going. If you’re an author trying to wrangle in new readers this can be a big advantage, especially if you’re someone readers have never heard of.
In the beginning sales of my first episode were pretty decent. I got some great reviews, and even more comments through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail from readers telling me how they really enjoyed it. It was a great way to dip my toe into the market, or so I thought.
Less risk or not, sales were slow. I stuck with a pretty basic structure for my overall story arc and chose not to create each instalment as a stand-alone episode. Each instalment was essentially four chapters of the novel, but structured in a way that didn’t feel like slices completely removed from the pie. I made sure that each one was action-packed and that that the ends felt like organic stopping points. Only a few ended in actual cliffhangers. I also offered the very first chapter of the very first instalment for free, as a way to entice readers. I never heard any complaints regarding my serial structure, but maybe my less episodic approach was why many people decided to wait until the full novel became available.
Sales for my second instalment dropped like an anvil off a cliff. Looking back I can see that one of the big factors in this was price, but there was also the serialization process itself. I had a lot of people contact me wanting to know when the full book would be available, and many others who were confused, unsure exactly what I was selling. I tried to be as clear as possible, even going so far as to put a disclaimer on my sales pages, but a lot of people just seemed put off by the fact that the first part wasn’t a complete novel.
When I finally released the full edition of my novel, I saw an upswing in purchases once again, but by then I had changed my entire marketing strategy because of slow sales. Bottom line, people weren’t gathered around the watercooler chatting about the latest episode I had released, as I had romantically envisioned. They were sitting back with their feet up on the desk, waiting for the full edition, and hoping for a better price.
THE DREAM: MORE CHANCES TO ENGAGE THE READER
If you have a serialized novel then you have a library of work to discuss with your readers. Each episode presents a new opportunity to reach out and say hello to your audience and to see what they think. If you’re super brave, you’ll tailor your writing to what readers want, much as authors in the Victorian era did.
Readers enjoy interaction! It’s always great to engage them, and any reason to do so is a good one.
The small fan base I’ve built up through serialization is solid. Although the full edition of my novel has been out for months, I still regularly interact with readers that found me when “DISEASE” was in episodic form. Having many launches afforded me the opportunity to engage with readers over an extended period and to form strong bonds.
THE DREAM: MORE EXPOSURE
I approached the release of each instalment like a new book launch. This meant guest blogs, podcasts, press releases, e-mail blasts, and so on, for each one. I released an episode a week and for a solid two months I was on the marketing trail with plenty of new product. It was during this aggressive marketing time that I sold the most episodes. I tried very hard to walk the line between being informative and spamming, while keeping people updated on the new releases. People seemed very interested, not only in me, but the serial fiction format as well.
A single book launch is a lot of work, and it was utterly exhausting to do what essentially boiled down to six book launches in 8 weeks. But I did get that extra exposure I was looking for. I was invited to be a guest on podcasts; I wrote numerous guest blogs; and my online presence was elevated beyond my expectations. It was almost a case of too much of a good thing, for me and for a lot of potential readers. Although I saw the largest number of sales during this period, I also saw the largest number of people unsubscribe from my mailing list.
I think a big factor in the near-burnout for both me and my readers was the weekly schedule. Although I had thoroughly researched what intervals would be best to release each episode, one a week seems to be too much. In the end, people got sick of hearing from me too much in such a short amount of time.
A better interval would have been a monthly release, with a two week push behind each one. This would have given people ample time to read the episodes. It also would have given them a break from the in-your-face marketing, while still being able to maintain the momentum of sales and exposure.
THE DREAM: MORE REVIEWS
In theory, you end up with more reviews per author when you serialize than if you just have one full-length book. Same amount of words, more reviews – sounds like a pretty sweet deal!
Readers are notorious for not leaving reviews, even if they love the book. I’ve sold and given away hundreds of copies of “DISEASE” and to date I’ve only received a handful of reviews for the full book. Trying to get them for each episode has been even harder. The first two parts have a few, and the other four have none – not a single one. Funnily enough, some of the readers who never left a review took the time to e-mail me personally and tell me that they loved the book. I also had a few reviewers leave a review for all the episodes at once, under the first one.
You’re lucky to get one review from someone who’s read your book, let alone several. Just because someone leaves a review for the first part doesn’t mean he or she will leave any more.
THE DREAM: BUILDING READER ANTICIPATION
Everyone loves a good TV show. Series like “Game of Thrones”, “Mad Men”, and “The Walking Dead” have droves of fans chomping at the bit to watch next week’s episode. I had hoped to bring this level of enthusiasm to the reading experience. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen King could do it with the written word, why couldn’t I?
I am neither Sir Arthur Conan Doyle nor Stephen King. I am M.F. Wahl, unknown author, and even though they bought it, most readers hadn’t even started reading my first episode by the time I was releasing my third. My books were a low-priority read compared to the stack of other books the readers already had waiting in the wings.
Despite massive amounts of research into how to serialize and structure releases, things did not go as well as I had expected. I think that the combination of inexperience with launching a book and the serialized format played against me. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great experiment and I don’t think I lost much in the process. Let’s face it, first-time novelists rarely attain unfounded success, serialized or not. Being unknown, it was the perfect time to try something that could blow up in my face – and although things weren’t ideal, they didn’t blow up.
If you’re a first-time author or don’t have a huge fan base, expect limited success, but also to have a lot of doors opened for you in terms of market exposure. If you already have a large fan base, a serialized novel may be just what you need to truly connect with your fans.
I still dream of the day when people gather around to dissect books the way they do their favourite TV shows. With social media in its prime and eBooks gaining on print books, now is the time for serialized fiction to rise.