Digital Dickens? Serializing Books on the Internet: Twitter Chat #4

Once again, Twitter lurking pays off: Fran Toolan, founder of Firebrand Technologies (which owns NetGalley), Susan Doerr, Carolyn Jewel, and Jane L had a discussion about what internet reading will do to the print publishing industry, with Fran suggesting that online books will be serialized (something I’ve thought about too: I would have joined in this conversation, but it was already complete when I discovered it).

This is just a snippet of a longer conversation which happened on May 2, 2011.  My comments follow.

jane_l: RT @ftoolan: after reading @brianoleary ‘s, wondering how long it will be b4 all novels are released in serial form

cjewel: @jane_l @ftoolan @brianoleary The midlist author will have moved on , , ,

ftoolan: @cjewel @jane_l @brianoleary thought process was a bit non-linear, but pubs need to keep readers attn in an age of exponential content avail

susanmpls: @ftoolan serialization comment makes me wonder (present company excepted) will readers read more just b/c it’s avail? @cjewel @jane_l

ftoolan: @susanmpls @cjewel @jane_l don’t think so, but keeping them wanting more, from a trusted source should lead to buying more

jane_l: @susanmpls I can’t envision paying a lot of money for many serialized books. Who knows how badly it may turn out? @cjewel @ftoolan

I think everyone in this conversation is right.  Sort of.

As I mentioned, I’ve thought a lot about delivering ebooks in serialized form. I don’t know that all ebooks will be sold this way, but I do think it’s a smart idea, and here’s why:

1.) When people read on a backlit screen (smart phone, computer monitor, or currently available tablets), they read in shorter chunks.  Short chapters of 2 or 3 pages would be ideal for this format.

2.) Tablets, phones and other reading devices are often used on the go, in the spaces we used to reserve for being bored as we rode trains or waited for doctors appointments.  A serialized format requires little time per chapter, allowing the reader to consume the story in spurts, while maintaining suspense and long term interest (if it’s a good story, that is).

3.) The afore mentioned devices are all perfect for integrating visual enhancements… illustrations, animations (or moving illustrations), and video (when appropriate to the source material).

4.) Finally, the revenue model can be very attractive on both sides: cheap automatic system for the publisher, and reasonable, staggered cost for the reader.

Consider this model: serialized delivery is a low cost of method of delivery by the publisher.  If the publisher sells the serialized material 30 short chapters at a time for say, $3.00 a run, and then provides an easy pay button to purchase the next 30 chapters (let’s call it Act Two), and again for the final 30 chapters (Act Three), then the reader will ulitmately have paid about $9.00 for a standard length novel (250 to 300 pages or so).

Upon completion of the serialization cycle, the  novel could then be offered as a full ebook, and a print book as well.  The longer, staggered delivery of the story could allow the book to gain an audience over time, initial free chapters would have the possibility of spreading virally. This would also give publishers an idea of what sort of success the book might achieve in print, as internet popularity increases the sale of books across all formats.

The success of serialized cell phone novels in Japan would point to the likely success of such a delivery method… and iPad sales seem to suggest that a whole new kind of reader is buying books that suit the tablet’s format.  It seems an inevitable evolution (though it takes us back to the very root of the Victorian novel… serialized in newspapers and periodicals).

That’s our story.  And we’re working to create a serialized format for books as I’ve described above.

I’d love to hear what you think.

6 thoughts on “Digital Dickens? Serializing Books on the Internet: Twitter Chat #4

  1. I have to admit, I hate this idea. I dislike waiting. I don’t want to wait for each “installment” of a story. I’m likely to forget what has happened before and not bother going back to the story to finish it.

    Another problem with serialization: the cliffhanger. I don’t like being manipulated. And in order to get people to fork over cash for the next installment, the author/publisher will have to entice them to continue reading. And the most common way of doing that is the cliffhanger. Like the old movie serials or the Victorian novels serialized in the newspapers.

    And lastly, I think serialization leads to poor editing and lots of filler. A book conceived and released as a single entity is, in my experience, better edited and more tightly plotted than one that meanders through several installments. I don’t think arbitrarily chopping a book into thirds will help this feeling, either.

    • Amber and I must have commented at the same time since I didn’t read hers! Totally agree with this too. Definitely the other side of the coin. While I love the idea of reading a little and knowing if I want to read the rest, I HATE cliffhangers. I didn’t even think about the fact that a serial novel would be littered with them potentially. Uh..that would be annoying.

      • Yes, Amber had some good points… and I still LIKE cliffhangers (the old Flash Gordon movie serials were awesome). Consider that you might not hate the cliffhanger so much if you didn’t have to wait a year, a month or even a week for the resolution. In any event, the cliffhanger isn’t the only way to keep people going… dramatic tension and resonance can work wonders.

    • Hey Amber:

      I see your point, and I can’t disagree with your likes/dislikes. They are yours and you have every right to them. But let me address some of your concerns…

      First, yes, serialization means small chunks over time. But in the scenario I propose, you could buy the full ebook after the cycle is complete (sort of like waiting for the paperback). Or the print book if you don’t like ebooks. This model affords more choices… and addresses people who do like to read in smaller chunks.

      Second, I don’t see cliffhangers as a problem. I love the old serials. I’ll argue that authors are in the business manipulating the reader, hopefully using her powers for good rather than evil. But I’m not suggesting that you pay per installment… rather, that after sampling free chapters, the reader may decide to pay for 30 installments at a time. We could even make it returnable. So you only pay if you want to. No harm, no foul.

      You mention the old serializations in Victorian newspapers… A contemporary example would be Armistead Maupin’s TALES OF THE CITY series, the first books originally appearing in serialized form in the San Francisco Chronicle and then the San Francisco Examiner. I loved the Cliffhangers… they were genius! And while I don’t think that Dickens’ work suffered in it’s original serialization (neither the content, nor the editing), I know many people find him a bit wordy…

      Which leads me to your third and last point. Books needn’t be published as they are written… they could be completed and edited before being disbursed. This would also address the issue of waiting… the reader could download chapters as he goes. Short chapters would actually require tighter writing and less filler, if they’re well written (and let’s face it, a good book is a good book, and bad one is a bad one. For the sake of argument, I’m going to focus on well written books). And I’m not proposing that the book be cut into three arbitrary pieces… but that it be written that way, as a play is not arbitrarily cut into three acts, but is intrinsically structured that way.

      Not all books would work in this format, and that’s the reason why I don’t propose that all books be offered this way. But I am suggesting that we need to write into the formats that suit readers’ habits, preferences and reading devices… this strategy is obviously best suited to people who read on smart phones and tablets. The explosion around cell phone novels in Japan is a good example of a writing that is intended for a certain sort of reader, schedule and device.

      But here’s my closing thought. Just because a novel is structured, formatted and delivered differently doesn’t automatically mean that it will be poorly or lazily crafted. We are all concerned about created the best sorts of stories, and this modality would simply mean more choices, and perhaps developing a market for a different sort of reader… the one more inclined to read magazine articles than long form books.

      Sales of ebooks on iPads seem to signify that a whole new market is beginning to buy books, and the ones that win are the ones best suited to that device.

  2. I think this is an interesting idea. It will definitely sort the good books from the bad. I’ve picked up books, read through the first couple of chapters, and not been interested in finishing. Same with whole books that are part of a series. I’ve read some books and was cyber-stalking the author’s blog for the next one. Others I have cared less about the future books in the series.

    I think that this serialized method could potentially challenge writers to continue to keep interest up through the book, the plot flowing, the characterization good, etc…After all…if they read the first part and it is already lagging or you could care less about the characters, you aren’t going to buy the rest. That would also be feedback in clear form on how a writer is doing. If you buy the first serial, and not the rest, that is a clear sign.

    • Thanks for your input. I do think that good writing wins out in the end, but it also depends on what sort of reader you are. I really like long form, immersive writing… but I find it difficult with a back lit screen. Good writing in short bits, delivered to my mobile device of choice would work for me to fill the little spaces in my day. In Tokyo, the read cell phone novels while waiting for/riding the train.

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