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Kindle Serials : the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or What does it mean to serial fiction authors & readers?

By now, you've heard about Kindle Serials. If not, here's a quick recap of the facts:

Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon is going to serialize eight of the books published by their mystery imprint, Thomas and Mercer. Each book is serialized in five to six "episodes" of undisclosed length. The reader will pay only $1.99 for the first "episode" and get the remaining book. You can get Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens for free to try it out. The delivery is said to be "seamless and hassle-free" (but it's new technology. Is it always seamless? hassle-free?). Amazon is taking submissions right now from "previously unpublished, well-written stories by authors interested in engaging with readers through the unique nature of serialized publishing." (link)

(PJ Kaiser did a fabulous follow up of the chatter right after the announcement. If you haven't read it yet, go there. I'll wait.)

Back? Welcome! To celebrate your return, here's a little gossipy non-fact: There's been a lot of grumbly offline, private industry chatter about this announcement. If you feel grumbly, skip to the ugly section where I recap most of the grumbles I've heard.

I found out about Kindle Serials because the guy who takes care of all of my tech-stuff, Super Steve, IMed me. We watched the live cast together and then scratched our heads. What does this mean to us? He went about checking to see if we could start using their "seamless" technology. (No.) I went around reading the articles and leaving comments about my disgust of the cast back to Dickens while avoiding the greats like Armstead Maupin, Candace Bushnell, Stephen King, and well, us, the serial fiction community!

Back to facts:  

We are the serial fiction community. I believe it's in our best interest to see Kindle Serials in the brightest most positive light.

So what does it mean? Good question.

The Good: What Kindle Serials will do for serial fiction authors.

1. More people know about serial fiction. When Amazon speaks, people listen. Prior to Mr. Bezos's announcement, most readers had never heard of serial fiction. While we know about Dickens and Poe and Maupin and, well, us, most readers have never given even a thought to the concept of serial fiction. As Kindle Serials continues to serialize books, more and more people will become interested in reading serial fiction. In marketing terms, with a blink of the eye, Mr. Bezos gave us millions of new customers.

2. Amazon brought real money into the genre. As Amazon goes, so goes the industry. For larger, battered-by-Wall-Street publishers, the idea of drawing readers in a new format will catch on. At this moment, September 2012, no US magazine is running a serial fiction. By simply reintroducing the genre, magazine producers will be reminded that serial and serialized fiction were, at one time, their bread and butter. Of course, some publishers like Kate at Candlemark and Gleam already know about serialized fiction:

"We think the serial is perfect for modern tastes and reading habits - you get a chunk of story, with a great hook perfect to read on the go, instead of having to squeeze in a whole book. It's convenient, and engaging, and encourages you to keep up w/the story, keep engaged." (private conversation, shared with permission)

3. If you write serialized fiction, they are accepting submissions. What's not to like about that? They are looking for authors who are willing to work with them in a serialized form. According to Neil Pollack, his process of publishing was fairly painless and fast.(He details his process here.)

4. At some point, they will come a-knocking. True serial fiction is a lot of work. You know that. I know that. Even Plympton's Yael Golstein Love knows that:

"We have really come across a lot of what we’re calling the third episode problem,” she told me. “It’s a lot easier to write a brilliant first episode of something. In your second episode, you’re continuing that. In the third episode, you realize you have no idea where this is going. It’s a real danger with writing serially. We won’t sign anyone on fully until we see how the first three [episodes] go.” (link)

At some point, the publishers will come knocking on our doors. Writing serial fiction is a skill which requires years of practice. Serialized fiction requires a special eye for splitting the story in just the right places. Not everyone is up to the task. We have these skills. They will come.

Personally, I'm practicing my Queen of the Rose Bowl Parade wave. (In case you wondered: with a cupped vertical hand, draw figure 8s in the sky with your finger tips.) Joking aside, I'd have to take a careful look at their offer.

What about you? What will you do when they knock on your door? Are you going to submit a proposal to Kindle Serials? Let me know in the comments.

The Bad: What Kindle Serials isn't.

1. Amazon is publishing serialized short novels; they are not publishing true serial fiction: Serial fiction is published as it's written. Amazon serial's, according to author Neil Pollack's editor are:

"Each segment would be copy-edited, and edited for content if necessary. Then, when the whole thing was done, the book would get another complete edit, and would be issued in a full Kindle edition as well as a paperback one. The whole process would take about six months" (link)

That's not serial fiction. While Mr. Bezos says readers will be able to influence the nature of the stories through interaction with the author on Amazon forums( i.e, they will publish true serial fiction), Amazon is not doing it right now. (Confused about serial fiction vs. serialized fiction? Here's my take.)

2. They are experimenting with a type of publishing. Let's face it. If they had committed to the serial fiction genre, they would commit resources - editors, etc - to the process. When Amazon commits, they jump in with money, time, web resources and publicity. They aren't doing that with Kindle Serials. Right now, they are using serialization as a marketing and publishing tool for fairly new authors in their new mystery imprint. If this method of publishing is successful for them, they will accept submissions.

If we look at the history of Amazon, they try a lot of different methods to sell books and other items. They commit to very few. So, there is no way to know if  Kindle Serials will exist even a year from now. This does not negate the huge boost they've given to the serial genre by making their announcement and serializing these few books. It simply means they haven't yet committed to our genre.

3. Despite what they say, they aren't Dickens.

a. They aren't taking any risks here. Dickens took tremendous risks with his fiction. He poked at the upper class and dragged the poor kicking and screaming into the middle class. Amazon is serializing their best selling genre.

b. Kindle Serials is not true serial fiction. Dickens wrote serial fiction - published as it was written, one chapter at a time. At the time of his death, he was only six segments ahead in the serial he was working on. He only wrote two books which were published as novels in their entirety. He did not write entire books, go through editing and worrying, and then serialized them. Frank Herbert did that for Dune. Charles Dickens never did it.

c. Dickens published a chapter a month. Dickens didn't publish in "episodes." He published in chapters. He only took contracts for serials that were usually 20 to 24 chapters long. He believed a story deserved at least twenty chapters. His only "shorter" serials were originally contracted at 20 chapters. They ended early due to when publications failed or Dickens argued with the publisher. (One of the reasons Dickens opened his own publishing company.)

d. Dickens owned his own publishing company. Due to issues with publishers and magazines, Dickens created his own publishing company, All the Year Round. In this way, he helped launch the careers of other serial fiction authors. He also wrote some of his best work, such as Tales of Two Cities and Great Expectations, under his own imprint. The company and the magazine continued years after his death.

The Ugly of Kindle Serials

As a community, we deserve to emit of a unified, frustrating GAAH!!

GAH Frustrated

Feel any better? I hope so! On to the ugly truths.

Ugly truth #1:

In his presentation of Kindle Serials, Mr. Bezos acted as if he was personally resurrecting a genre that hadn't been popular since Charles Dickens died in 1870.

As Anna Baddeley explains in The Guardian UK said:

"Serialised fiction has fallen out of fashion since its 19th-century heyday, but that could be about to change with Amazon's Kindle serials range, just launched in America." (The link. I encourage you to go over there and give them hell. I did.)


How is it that Amazon could miss and an entire genre it makes money from day in and day out? Even a cursory Google search will bring up Superman (a serial fiction since 1938). Everyone has heard of Sex in the City (originally published as a serial fiction by the New York Observer). I can get that Ms. Baddeley might not know of Tales of the City or the Diary of V (published in Redbook every month for 9 years) or even that Frank Herbert serialized the best selling Science Fiction book of all time.

But Amazon sells a lot of these books! How could they not know?

Ugly Truth #2:

It's my contention that Amazon knows full well about the rising movement of serial fiction on the Internet. They know and make good money off of our efforts as well as the efforts of the greats.

Further, they believe in serialized fiction enough, to use the movement we've fought to create to boost their own sales.

Ugly Truth #3:

Kindle Serials has the power and potential to run all of us out of business if we let them.

There. I said it.

It's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen. We need to get great at our search engine optimization so that when readers are searching serial fiction, they find us too. We need to write razor sharp fiction that lures people away from Amazon. We need to be competitively priced so that people get more for their money from our work than theirs.

But more than anything, we can't give up.

The Amazon Serial wave can overwhelm us if we let it.

Don't let it.

We have more power as a community than they do as a company. We need to get out there and promote our genre. Get on Twitter's #litchat and other writer chats. Get busy at GoodReads and LibraryThing. Set up a Google Alert for "serial fiction" so you can comment on posts about serial fiction. Mentor new serial fiction authors. Participate here at Tuesday Serial.

You keep writing. I will too.

We can ride this out together.