Serial and Series Books in the New World of Publishing
A number of things have converged in my mind, of late. There's been a renewal in the short fiction world, for one. People are selling shorts - and doing decently with them! - for the first time in quite a while. Dean Wesley Smith points out how it's possible to set up a solid residual income selling short stories as ebooks. Joe Konrath was blogging the other day about a novelist friend he convinced to write his first short story, publish to Kindle, and he's already in the top 500 ebooks for a 6600 wd story selling at $2.99. That means he's getting a ton of readers. Lot of other folks are hopping on, writing from true short length through novella/short novel length.
I wrote a short novel that will be out soon. I've also written two (so far) short stories associated with that novel, one of which will be in an anthology for charity, the other will be an ebook short soon enough. I'm working on a sequel short novel, and enjoying interspersing the short stories between the novels. It's a good way to mix things up, and I plan to sell the shorts as 99 cent leaders for the $2.99 novels.
I read a blog post by Zoe Winters not too long ago where she was talking about her frustrations with short stories about her novel characters. She was trying to write 10k stories about peripheral characters from the novels, and having trouble. The length seemed to be an issue for her. And she was having issues about either giving away so much that she'd undermined her novels, or giving away too little for the stories to work well.
I've also been watching a lot of "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer". My wife subscribed to Hulu, and is going through the entire sequence. All seven seasons. I've been watching a lot of them with her. Aside from being *great* fodder for writing urban
fantasy (!!!), they've also got me thinking about short work, serial work, series work, and how they all tie together in ebook-land.
People have shorter attention spans today. We're trained to focus on things for 15 minutes at a clip by TV. We're trained to enjoy one hour stories by TV, and even shorter by YouTube. We're also phenomenally busy people, and often grab reading time in bits of five or ten minutes here and there, during breaks or commutes or while waiting in a line. So I think our cultural psyche is perfectly poised for short works. I don't really think this is new, either - think about the stories told around the campfire by our ancestors 10,000 years ago, and you'll probably agree with me that they didn't last for fifteen hours of telling, most of the time!
Now, in the past there's been a couple of powerful ways to write series fiction - that is, multiple stories about the same characters. One is to write a *serial* story: one storyline broken up into multiple publications. The Lord of the Rings is in essence a serialized super-novel, broken up into several print books. Back in the pulp fiction era, novelists used to serialize their work in magazines, so the
latest Skylark or Lensman book would appear in sections, one each issue, over a good length of time. More recently, we often see trilogies (or sets of four, or five books) which contain a single story arc spread over a number of books.
But there's also the series which is not serial. This model uses the same characters, but completely different events with no crossover. There's no real order to the stories - they can be read in any order about equally well. Again, think about the Star Trek TV shows - either the original or Next Gen had episodic content which was not connected to the previous or later episodes in most cases.
Lastly, there's the blending of the two models. We see quite a lot of that today. It's extremely popular, and has been for the last decade or more. The Buffy shows I mentioned above are a great example. Jim Butcher's Dresden File novels are another. But we do tend to see more of this sort of thing in TV than in written fiction. I think that's because in the past, books had to be longer (and thus meatier than a TV show), were harder and more costly to produce, and there tended to be a limit on how fast a publisher wanted to put them out. Even if Butcher could produce six Dresden novels a year, it's unlikely his publisher would want to produce them all. And six 500 page books a year is a lot for anyone to produce!
But ebooks change everything.
Readers are enjoying shorter works.
Writers can produce works when they're done, at a number limited only by how fast they can write.
Which means I think there's a new opportunity for fiction writers to study and learn from the experiences of TV script producers. Write a good story - be it 10k words or 40k words. Get it out there. Write another. Send it out. Continue working.
Writing two hours per day, a 10k word novelette takes about five or six days for most writers. If you wrote it in five days and edited it in two, you could write one per week, every week, with a commitment of only two hours a day. Likewise, writing two hours per day, a 40k short novel takes twenty days to write. And if it takes another ten days to edit, you can finish a short novel per month, every month.
Even if you're only writing an hour a day, you could produce 26 novelettes or 6 short novels a year. Every year. Talk about staying in front of your readers! I don't even want to think about what a real full timer could produce by spending 6-10 hours a day on the work.
And because you're writing about the same characters, there's less research to do, less new building of worlds, less time spent doing things other than actually telling the story to the reader. And because you (hopefully!) have hooked your readers into being invested in the characters, they're going to want to continue reading about them.
But I don't think this works for just any story idea. Some stories are meant to be told some ways, and some in others. Some stories just need to be full sized novels. I think if you want to look at this sort of long series of shorter works, you need to look closely at what sorts of stories will function well as episodic content. And I'd look at TV for inspiration, because that's what most TV is all about. There's some TV (like "Heroes", for instance) which are really a long story each season broken into segments for TV. That's a serial. And there's other examples which lack any continuity between episodes.
But I think the sorts of stories which will work best are the ones which are episodic in nature but also reflect a story arc over time. Changes happen. Characters evolve, die, are added. Things occur which change relationships, or which alter the world in some way. So in each story, things can happen which do have great meaning to other stories; but despite this, each story is also written to make pretty good sense all by itself. Readers can pop into the series anywhere and enjoy the tale. But readers who do pop into the middle should be able to sense the story arc, and want to go hunting for the past material, to learn about what happened before, in addition to being hooked about what happened next.
In a true serial, coming into the middle makes very little sense. You need that previous material, and if you missed it, the story won't work well.
In an episodic series, each unit stands alone AND gives strength and support to all of the other stories out there.
I think it's an ideal medium to explore in a publishing world where ebooks are becoming more the norm every day. I'd really enjoy hearing feedback about the concept. Are you already doing this? Thought about doing it? Did this jar loose some new idea for you? Let me know.