The problem with long form serials
When catching up feels like homework
Last week I published chapter 51 of Tales from the Triverse, the weekly serial I’m putting out through this newsletter. It’s free to read, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turning out so far and I’ve had good feedback from readers.
Convincing new readers to commit to the series is a challenge, though. I mean, fifty-one chapters? That’s a lot of reading! Here’s what I would like potential new readers to think:
Oh wow, I get over 50 chapters to read entirely for free, in my own time? And then a new, free chapter each week? And I get to see a novel form before my eyes in real time? Sign me up!
Here’s what I suspect actually goes through people’s heads:
This Triverse book sounds interesting, but I really don’t have time to read 51 chapters of a free internet novel by some random guy. And I don’t want to start reading at chapter 51, because nothing will make any sense. Oh well.
This is the big conundrum for anyone serialising long form content online. At the beginning of a project, there’s the excitement of getting on board with something new and being there from the start. But the longer the project continues, the bigger the barrier to entry. The more the back catalogue starts to feel like homework.
It’s an illusion, of course. The chapters exist and can be read at any pace. There’s no obligation to ‘catch up’ to the current releases. That pressure is inevitably there, though, especially in a world of infinite content. There are television shows I’m fairly certain I would enjoy which I will never bother to watch simply because there’s so many episodes.
So what can we do about this? A few ideas coming up, and please do share any that you’ve got down in the comments.
Television has been doing this for decades. Previously on… is a standard way for TV shows to begin, serving to both remind regular viewers what happened last time (which was more useful pre-Netflix back when there was at least a week between episodes) and also give potential new viewers a lifeline so that they’re not completely lost.
I’ve been doing this on my fiction chapters from the start. To pick a random chapter, take a look at how this begins:
It’s quick, simple and useful.. The problem for brand new readers is that it likely simply isn’t enough. A paragraph recap isn’t going to get a new reader up-to-speed and they’re likely to come away with more questions than answers.
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Something I’m now considering rolling out are more comprehensive catch-ups. These would be entire chapters of their own, but designed to onboard new readers. Think of it as occasional custom landing pages designed for new readers, which can be created every 10-20 chapters. They’d function almost like bookmarks, allowing a new reader to jump in from that point, get a quick summary of the story so far, and then carry on from that point.
This might sound heretical to some of you, which I understand. Why would we want to encourage new readers to skip all the stuff we’ve spent so much time and effort writing? It’s about giving readers options.
A well-crafted catch-up summary would provide enough detail so that they can read from that point in the story, but it might also have enough detail to fully intrigue them enough to return to the beginning. It has a better chance of convincing a new reader that the story is worth their time, regardless of where they decide to come on board.
These are milestones, helping new readers navigate through an ever-longer text. They’d also have the benefit of helping regular readers remember key details and would also encourage lapsed readers to return.
Catch-ups could also be presented in a different form, such as a comic strip or audio narration. A comic in particular would be an eye-catching way to promote the series.
This one requires more time investment, because it means writing entirely new fiction. The idea is to write self-contained, one-off stories that are either set in the same world as the main story or which simply demonstrate your writing ability and style.
A new reader stumbling upon your work gets to read a single short story, thus receiving a satisfying start, middle and end, and can then decide whether they like your work enough to read more.
In many ways this is the ideal scenario; the problem I’ve found is one of time. It’s a challenge to write the main book in and around the rest of the week, so throwing in an additional project, albeit a short one, would only make matters more difficult. It’d certainly be a lot easier to promote, though.
While Substack is a decent reading experience for one-off articles, like this one you’re reading right now, it’s only halfway there when it comes to long form serials. There’s no built-in way to see a contents list and jump around chapters. Even going to previous/next chapters requires the write to manually add those buttons. There’s a nice Substack app, but again it’s optimised for reading non-fiction articles rather than continuous fiction - hence vertical scroll instead of Kindle-style page swipe.
A way around this is to periodically collect the published chapters of a serial into an ebook compilation. This is much like how TV shows back in the day would be released season-by-season on VHS or DVD, even while the show was still airing. It was an alternate way for new viewers to get on board, even if they’d missed the initial run.
I’ve had an ebook version of the first chunk of Tales from the Triverse for a while, which I use in BookFunnel promotions. That way new subscribers get a quick ebook catch-up, though it only goes up to chapter 16. I’m thinking that I should probably update the ebook every ten-or-so chapters, and link to it when people subscribe to this newsletter. That way they have a convenient way to catch up, and can then carry on with the weekly chapters in their inboxes.
This is a curious one in that it doesn’t actually reduce the amount of ‘catch up’ reading required; instead it transfers it into a slightly different and more convenient form. It removes the faff of trying to navigate through chapters online and lets readers access the earlier material in the most optimum way.
Alternative ways to read
Lastly, I’m wondering whether providing additional ways to catch up and read might help. Primarily, an audiobook version of the book. That would open up the possibility of readers being able to catch up while doing other work, or going for a walk or a run. It removes the need for someone to have a quiet moment of actual reading.
Of course, producing an audiobook version is far from trivial, even if done in a bare bones, simple kind of way.
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There’s a few ideas, then. I’m intending to play around with a few of them and will report back on how they turn out. If you have additional ideas please do head down to the comments!