When catching up feels like homework
I agree with Alex. I don’t think recaps or any other methods of “catching readers up” is a very effective way to get new readers. A recap might help a lapsed reader recall what they had read, but I think new readers will either start at the beginning or not. And a lot depends on if they like your writing/know you.
I don’t think I would try a serial by a writer I don’t know unless it was highly recommended by someone I know or had a lot of buzz around it. Or something else drew my attention to it. There is just too much out there to randomly try an unknown author. There has to be something that gets the reader to try your serial. That is the big obstacle. Once they try it, they will either like it and continue or quit reading.
Perhaps a “trailer”, or preview, like movies and TV show use could help, but you still have to get people to read the trailer.
It makes me wonder how the papers used to handle this in previous centuries--like when Dickens or Hugo serialized their works. They must have had the same problem, I imagine.
One thing I've learned though from writing a weekly serial is that it's not for me--it's too stressful for my taste lol. Once I'm done with the current "season" I think I'll switch to writing the whole thing as a novel and serializing that after it's completed.
Speaking as a reader, yeah, signing up and seeing I have a back log of chapters to read would intimidate me. I probably wouldn't read then. I'd be the reader who would wait for you to release it as an ebook and get it that way so I can read before bed.
It might be something not to worry about much. Those who want to go back and catch up will. Those who are like me will wait for the ebook to read. And those who just don't bother...they aren't your target audience.
I wonder how much the chapter lengths affect the "ugh.." factor? When I scroll down and see a super long read of anything, I immediately subconsciously slide it over into "I'll read that later when I can devote my attention to it." I have a stack of 40 issues of a comic "I've been meaning to get to."
Do you think breaking up chapters into even smaller chunks would increase engagement and reduce the overwhelming sense of it? I think it would for me as a reader. But as a writer, that would be a bigger challenge to identify break points, or to have to write it with micro-chapters in mind.
With this in mind, how much more difficult would it be to cater the entire reading experience toward the limited-attention reader, and then worry about making it a proper "book" after the fact?
Fascinating all around. I'll be starting my serial experiment soon and I'm devouring case studies like this. Yours is the most thoughtful and willing to experiment that I've seen.
I've had this problem as a reader, long works in general intimidate me. Not sure if there's any real way around it, but the recap method seems like a good one. On the reader end maybe it could be approached like stumbling upon a new show at episode 15, keeping up with new episodes while also making time to go through the back catalog. Though this probably won't occur to anyone too young to know anything other than the streaming era.
As a writer my weird fake fighting game format actually seems to work well in regards to this issue, since each character's story is it's own continuity and therefore you don't need to read every character story and can just catch up with the current one. In theory at least.
Fascinating article, I think you've got some great ideas to try out and it will be interesting to see which ones work best! I'm earlier on in my serialisation journey than you are and I think that a new reader jumping in at 50 is going to be off putting in terms of reading the whole work. I'm thinking of pulling together all the chapters into a single PDF or ebook once the weekly chapters reach a suitable point in the story (say after 20 chapters?) This will then be Part 1 and I'll make it available and give new readers the option of going directly to there rather than navigating one chapter at a time. This will hopefully make it easier for the reader to navigate. Short stories do sound like a good idea too and I'm wondering it they could also be released as a serialisation and then pulled together into a single document? All the best, E
Great post and something I've been struggling with for several months. I suspect my new subscribers are also thinking the same thing as you surmise in your second alternative.
I include a one-sentence recap at the beginning of each chapter (but it is more pithy as opposed to a full recap) and I link to all prior chapters in that part of the book. I have interludes in each book that are placed in between each part so I just link to that. No clue whether people are clicking and reading back when they join and not sure whether I would want that tracking because I probably would over-analyze it too much!
For alternative ways to read, because my book is done, I could obviously offer the completed ebook. But that is priced at $5 (and included in my paid tier) so I don't want to make that perma-free. Maybe putting a link in the welcome post to the book so people can choose if they want to just buy the completed ebook or read for free.
One idea I had was to create an automation through my normal email newsletter provider that would send out a weekly email either replicating a chapter or providing a link to the Substack post. That way, people get prompted in their email (and get used to getting weekly chapters) and can read weekly at a set schedule rather than go through the entire archive of chapters, which would seem daunting.
It would be several hours (hopefully less) to set up for my first book but the beauty would be that it would be completely automated after that. People would be tagged and placed into an automation sequence that would run for almost a year.
Thoughtful article, Simon. Appreciated. Will be good to hear your findings. Feeling the Substack USP is immediacy of content and conversation over convenience of format for fiction. Think the jury’s still out on its serialisation potential and more broadly whether modern readers (potentially shaped by bingeing media) really want their fiction in this way.
The work I'm serializing is 50 chapters, and I've also tried to think about how to keep readers engaged between posts (summaries, recaps, teasers, etc might work!) and get new readers interested now that more than half the chapters are up... I agree that there is a disconnect between the ideal of "ooh, free fiction" and "meh, this seems like a lot of work" so I've tried to streamline access to and between my chapters as much as possible. I'm also hoping to publish ebook and print versions at the end. I'm the kind of person who likes to binge the whole thing when it's done, so maybe there are some out there who would prefer to wait for the book version...?
I'll admit, I'm a reader who feels overwhelmed jumping into chapter 50 of a work.
You make some great suggestions to ease readers into larger projects. Thanks for sharing!
I've actually heard this concern from readers, and at one time I considered trying to summarize all previous chapters, but that's also hard to do depending on how deep you need to go. I think this is a potential problem for readers, and I like some of the alternatives you have listed.
I'm posting a 'Previously' section at the start of each of my story's monthly chapters on Substack, which gets longer as longer as the reader needs to be filled in on more and more stuff that's happened before. But it's designed so that people can jump in anywhere. Incidentally, it's also turned out to be a really good way of writing a synopsis of the whole story. My story doesn't have that many readers at all, but readers I do have have said that they find the 'Previously' section helpful. I will eventually be publishing the story as ebooks too.
I like serials here on Substack. If I start one and really like it, i go to kindle and try to find it. If I do, I buy it and read it on the kindle.
This is so helpful. Thank you for sharing with me!
I think it depends on who you think your audience is on Substack.
No one is coming to Substack is here to read a novel, even if the newsletter is becoming a novel.
For anyone following fiction on Substack, as opposed to following a writer who is writing about their writing, already knows they'll be getting short bursts, or have the option of playing catch up. That's the nature of the medium and format.
Given competing distractions and reduced attention spans, there's nothing inherently good or bad about serialization.
Aren't people on Substack to find fresh writing and voices, whether fiction or non-fiction?
Short stories are an entirely different art form.
Having said all of those random things, it's clear that Substack only 'works' for well known or well established writers, in whatever field, and thus have an existing audience. It's weighted against new voices.
When I think about serializing a novel and if it could work I look to those who did a similar thing decades before us: the web serial. These are twice weekly, 5k+ words, of one place that have been written about for years. The main difference is that there is no “end” for web serials. And their fan base which numbers in the thousands or hundreds of thousands grew by word of mouth. When someone new discovered “Worm” they didn’t cringe when they discovered 1 million words and many years had already been written! They didn’t run away in anger and frustration. They rolled up their sleeves, grabbed a drink, and hunkered down to reading. Why? Because someone who loves such works by George RR Martin or is tired of waiting for his next tome a decade from now, is hungry for the challenge of a long long long, maybe even never-ending, tale.
Is that reader our “target audience”? Maybe. They may not want to read our serial because our end result is not never ending but concluding so that we may produce a final product; ie a book to put on our shelves. But they would be up for the challenge. They’d love the concept of weekly chapters. The suspense of what comes next.
I plan on revisiting my novels going up as a serial and couching to an audience of Worm readers as a “never-ending” story that they’ll soon get to put on their shelves. But I’m waiting till all the books in a series are written so instead of releasing a book that’s 40 chapters I’ll release 5/6 that’s 100+ chapters and will likely take a couple years is not longer to get out there. Because while I may not want to write the same character over the course of a decade with 10 million words, I do have an entire universe planned with 60+ books and a similar word count when it’s all said and done. It’s all in how you market it to that kind of reader. Also genre helps.
The reader is out there but bc this is different means when it’s a serial the novel reader (ie person who buys the whole book) isn’t the audience. The web serial reader is the audience. But when the book is all released and ready to go up on Amazon then the audience can and will be different. I realize that now and will change how I promote accordingly. It will mean having two different audiences at two different stages of my writing but that’s ok bc at least now I know what to do and how to move forward with this information. And who knows, if my idea works, the reader who buys the book may subscribe to read it before it’s published and the one who reads it weekly in my newsletter may turn around and buy the book when it’s published!