There's never been a better time to be a writer

A brief history of serialisation

Have any of you subscribed to Chuck Palahniuk’s Substack newsletter? It’s exciting that he’s serialising his novel in this form, but phewf does he post a lot of newsletters. If that works for his readers that’s all good, but it does highlight that most of us are still working out how this stuff works.

As such, a bit of housekeeping - did you know that you can customise which bits of this newsletter you receive? On Mondays I send out writing craft-related tips and techniques, while on Fridays (and occasional bonus Wednesdays) I send out the latest chapter of my fiction. You can choose to receive both, or just one, depending on what you’re most interested in. To do this simply jump over to your account page, where you can easily update things. Hopefully you enjoy both, but I love that Substack makes it easy for you to choose. I don’t want anyone to be getting something they don’t want.

I’d love to know more about what you’re interested in reading, and how you came to be subscribed in the first place. So if you have a mo, please do:

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Did you hear about the TV show Babylon 5 being rebooted, with the original series creator on board? It was a formative show for me, as anyone who has read my fiction will already know, and I can’t wait to see how Straczynski uses the new show to examine politics and society in the 2020s. I was exceedingly fortunate to interview JMS for the Writing Life podcast, so do give it a listen:

A brief history of serialisation

Or: This is a good time to be a writer.

The history of the novel is one of serialisation, something which is easy to forget when browsing bookshelves of neatly completed novels. The way people think of literature now is as The Novel, in the form of a singular, finished tome which only becomes available upon its final completion. Rewind back to the 1800s and it’s a different picture, with Charles Dickens a sensation in England with the serialised publication of The Pickwick Papers. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo also began life in serialised form, as did Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga. Very few of these are remembered as originating as serials, instead referred to only in their final form, collected into novels.

Their serial origins are part of their DNA. Asimov’s work, now considered a defining work of grand SF, started off as a series of loosely connected short stories in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and it’s still easy to detect that in its unusual pacing and episodic structure. As John Mullan points out in The Artful Dickens, the serial nature of several of Dickens’ books is still evident in the collected versions we are familiar with today, with unusual narrative shifts revealing the author’s changing priorities over the weeks and months of the story’s on-going publication. These books were written for serialisation - they weren’t conceived of as novels which were then sliced up for magazines and newspapers.

Incidentally, you can listen an interview I did with John Mullan on the Writing Life podcast. It’s fascinating stuff:

Point is, serialisation in literature used to be common. What we’re doing is nothing new, it was just forgotten for a while. The 20th century saw immense upheaval in popular entertainment, with the introduction of entirely new forms: radio, cinema, comics, television, games. At the same time print technology was increasingly able to cope with larger bindings, making it easier and cheaper to produce large, self-contained novels. The appetite for serialised storytelling never went away, it just transitioned into radio, TV and comics. Occasionally movies play with serial structures, most recently and successfully with the seemingly unstoppable Marvel output.

Literature, though, turned its back on the serial. Prose fiction was split firmly into two distinct forms: the short story, and the novel. Short stories could be brought together for a collection, but the notion of publishing first in serial form before combining into the novel format, as Dickens and Asimov had done, was no longer seen as desirable. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of appetite from audiences, who clearly continued enjoying serialised storytelling in all other forms of entertainment. The cynical part of my brain suspects it may have something to do with how authors are paid - a writer of serialised fiction is paid by instalment, meaning a regular and healthy income, similar to a journalist, regardless of readership. An author of a novel might be paid once in an advance, if they’re lucky, and then may receive royalties but only if the book is successful. The serial format is author-friendly; the novel format is publisher-friendly.

If you’re interested in the numbers, do check out Elle Griffin’s newsletter, where she has analysed the financial state of affairs in the publishing world and compared it to the historical income of serial fiction writers. It’s startling in its brutality. I interview Elle on the podcast, too:

Do check out Elle’s Substack:

Throughout the 20th century this was simply how it was done.

Then, the internet.

Now, there was a time when I thought the internet would be a wholly positive thing for humanity, a naive notion which has rapidly evaporated in the post-2016 universe we’re all stuck in. Still, the internet has been as big a shake-up for publishing as the Gutenberg press, and we’re still seeing the consequences and ripples. A resurgence of serialised literature is one of them.

While everyone’s attention was on ebooks and Amazon’s hostile take-over of the traditional publishing scene, slightly out of view was an arguably more interesting development. Writers and readers were rediscovering the joys of serialised fiction, in literary backwaters such as Wattpad (which launched in 2006) and on blogs. It began with fan-fiction, of course, with Wattpad’s early days dominated by One Direction and Twilight-themed material. It was exactly what a certain type of young, female reader wanted to read. Crucially, the platform supported effortless serialisation: when a reader started reading a story, they would then receive notifications whenever a new instalment was posted. A short story might get a handful of reads, but a 50-part fanfic epic would experience a cumulative build of momentum, each chapter bringing readers back and drawing in new eyes.

Fifteen years later and those teenage readers are now adults, having grown up enjoying serialised fiction. The writers, too, have evolved and broadened and matured, so that every genre and style is represented alongside the fanfic. Wattpad is estimated to have over 90 million users but they’re by no means the only player in town any more - there are new platforms appearing all the time, such as Royal Road, Inkitt and, all with slightly different offerings.

Serialised literature is a big deal again, even if it exists around the fringes of mainstream consciousness. Traditional publishers don’t seem to have noticed, though Amazon in 2021 launched their own setup for serials, Vella. It’s disappointing and inevitable that yet again Amazon are the first to be capitalising on opportunities in literature.

As this was happening another internet-driven shift was occurring, in the burgeoning creator economy. Kickstarter was founded in 2009, giving enterprising creators a way to fund unusual, niche projects by reaching out directly to highly specific customers. Patreon started in 2013, tweaking the crowdfunding model to function as a subscription model for individuals. Publishing platforms such as Medium and Substack now have built-in systems for writers to earn income for their work.

Not to say that it’s easy to make money writing serials. Writing has never been a sure thing when it comes to finances; if making money is your priority, then being an author is probably not the best career move. That said, there are an increasing number of success stories, including runaway successes such as Zogarth’s £14,500 per month income from 2,753 readers. As Elle Griffin has pointed out, you don’t need a huge number of readers to find success in this form: you just need a relatively small number of highly enthusiastic readers. The trick, as in Zogarth’s case, is that those 2,753 readers aren’t giving them a one-off payment for a single book (or a series of books over the course of years) - they’re coming back each month for more. They’re committed. As I’m writing this, more and more writers are dipping a toe - big names such as Rushdie and Palahniuk, plus a host of incredible comics writers and illustrators.

As the two systems and cultures of serial fiction and crowdsourcing have merged, so writers and readers have discovered entirely new ways to find each other which bypass both traditional publishing and ‘classical’ self-publishing. While self-publishing has long been regarded as a disruptive force, the new movement of creator-focused, patron-backed niche serials seems like something altogether more exciting.

What I’m saying is: you’ve chosen a good time to get on board.

Have a good week, all. I’ll be back on Friday with a brand new chapter of Tales from the Triverse, and a little bonus will be going up on Wednesday as usual. If you haven’t been reading you can jump to the first chapter here:

Simon K Jones writes
#1 Prologue: Two Hundred Years Earlier
This is the beginning of my new weekly serialised novel, Tales from the Triverse. Newsletter subscribers receive early access to chapters and bonus stories. The first four chapters will be free to read so that you can see if it’s your sort of thing…
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