by Kelsie Engen
Charles Dickens is perhaps one of the most influential authors in the world. He was a prolific writer in his day, publishing something like 15 novels, a handful of novellas, numerous short stories, both fiction and non-fiction.
With the advent of self publishing, there has been the return of different methods of releases, namely serials.
And we have Charles Dickens partly to thank for that. He was one of the most prolific writers of his time, and he routinely released his novels in parts. He would often publish a chapter at a time in newspapers every week. In doing so, he built an audience that constantly awaited his next release.
Other famous authors that released books similarly were the Frenchman Alexandre Dumas, and Americans Henry James and Herman Melville. Stephen King is actually one modern author who has successfully published serials using a traditional publisher (The Green Mile published by Signet in March-August 1996 in six parts).
It seems that we are returning to those “good old days” of the 20th century where novels were released in many parts. And what’s more than that–people who are not already wildly successful authors are having good luck with them, especially indie authors.
So what does this really mean? And what does it matter for the indie author?
When I began my newest novel, I had to consider how to write the story arc for my audience. I knew it was going to be longer than the average novel, as I had in mind at least three main POV characters, easily double that if I wanted.
These days, trilogies often feel like an overused way to extract more money from readers with a thin plot to begin with. (Need I say I’m reluctant to jump on the bandwagon?)
But with a book too long and complex for a standalone, if you don’t want a series, what’s left? A serial release.
Thus I began some research into the serial world. (Not serial killers, no, that’s a different sort of world. Serial book releases.)
And what I found boils down to this: A serial essentially breaks a longer novel into shorter, more manageable segments for your audience. (There’s more to it, though, which I’ll get to later.)
Nowadays with ebook publishing, we’ve seen a large resurgence in serials, with some authors getting their start by publishing successful serials, and other well known authors beginning to publish serials even through traditional publishers.
At first I was skeptical and mistrusting of these schemes, but it appears that serials are back to stay, as ebooks and self-publishing evidence the strong desire for manageable lengths of reading offered to readers.
Arguably, each series book must be standalone in story structure. This does not mean that it answers all the questions presented in the book, or that the main character’s character arc is completed in that novel.
What it means is that every book in a series has a complete story arc and the character overcomes some sort of character flaw which hinders his or her advancement through the plot in that book. Although you may be left with plenty of loose ends at the end of book 1 (and 2 and 3 if you have more books in the series), and the character may not completely overcome his flaw (but might have overcome it long enough to overcome the antagonist) the book ends at a natural point, it has all that is required for a complete novel: inciting event, pinch points, midpoint, climax, and resolution. See below for the breakdown of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (book 1 of a 7-book series)
A series book does not end on a major cliffhanger where everything is left unresolved and we haven’t had the major elements of a complete novel.
- James Bond books
- Stephanie Plum books
- Harry Potter (early books)
A serial could be a book released in several parts, such as Dickens and other authors of the day used to do.
Books like A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, Anna Karinina, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were all released in serial format, with installments being published in newspapers.
Today, we might compare something like Hugh Howey’s Wool or Andy Weir’s The Martian being originally released in parts. This could be a portion of 100K words or a portion of a 10K word manuscript (but more common with long works, outside of the typical word count for a book, thus making it more manageable). Howey released Wool in five parts, and The Martian was released by Weir on his blog in chapter segments, then sold as a whole on Amazon after the entire book had been originally shared on his blog.
Typically, these segments will end on a cliffhanger of some sort, and the next installments would be released on regular dates following. The cliffhanger acts to draw the reader back for more, whether to visit the blog for the next chapter or to buy the next part online.
Alternately titled How Charles Dickens Influenced Modern Self-Publishing Part 1 (Or Series versus Serials, Part 1).
Guest post contributed by Kelsie Engen. Kelsie loves to read and started her blog to share that passion with others of like mind. Check out her website for more of her work.