Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Are Serials Bad for the Self-Pubbing Image?

Back when I subscribed to a half-dozen or so magazines (like the 1980s -- many years before the Intrawebz became the "in" way to find something to read!), here's how I would consume said tabloids:

1. Leaf through the entire magazine just to get a quick overview
2. Then go back to the beginning pages and begin to read the shorter articles, etc. that got my attention during the quick overview
3. Then (and this could be days or even weeks after the magazine had arrived) begin to decipher the longer pieces, especially the "stories."

Yeah, that's right! I saved the best parts for last! Eating dessert came last -- like it is supposed to!

Even earlier in my tabloid-consuming career (the early '70s), one magazine I could not wait for every month was Boys' Life, a publication of the Boy Scouts of America! Now there's an eclectic collection of contemporary literature if there ever was one! And I relished the time spent reading and even re-reading the excellent short stories (at least at the time I thought they were excellent!).

But now, and I believe this is primarily due to the immediacy of the Intrawebz, I subscribe to no periodicals. But I still read short fiction now and then. That's right ... I satiate my appetite for short stories by reading ebooks!

And I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but I don't read near as many stories as I did back in my days as a Boy Scout.

But did I read longer pieces of fiction as well? Why of course! In my heyday, I was probably perusing a novel a week! Sometimes for my job at the MFA in Freeburg, I even read some non-fiction magazine articles! And did I even think about which kind of fiction I liked better? Not in the least! I wanted to read and I read ... read whatever was within my reach (to a certain degree, of course!).

So, what do the fine people of the Writers' Cafe have to say about this somewhat-related topic: are serials, as well as short stories, "quality" literature compared to full-length novels? And if they are, is it acceptable for short fiction writers to charge as much for those pieces of literature as others are charging for their novels?

For the sake of clarity, I've divided the commentary into two sections: "shorts are bad" and "shorts are good."

Now isn't that just an amazingly simple way to organize everything?

Short works are bad!

"Today I saw an author on Amazon. They had basically taken what really may have been good as one novel and split it into 4 books which were only 49 pages long and then tacked $2.99 on to each. Result? They had some good reviews but a vast majority of the folks said the same thing. It was too short and from what I can tell most grabbed it when it was FREE anyway. So the question is...
1. Should you just write a good novel that is 250 or 300+ pages long
2. Or chase the money and who gives a rat's *ss about the reader; let's just give them 50 pages of drivel and hope we can snag a few $2.99 sales?"

"I'd never read a book that was cut in pieces unless it was clearly stated that it's a serial. Well, and even then I'm not sure I'd be interested. Given the current eBook market $2.99 for 49 pages isn't acceptable. I would feel cheated if this ended on a cliffhanger, forcing me to keep buying more pieces. To me, it borders on the unethical (again, unless something is marked as a serial). While there are some writers who can churn out quality in very short time, I'm sure they're in the minority. I worry that the "write more books!" mantra is leading some to believe they just have to publish something, anything, and the dollars will come.The mantra should be 'write more good books!' Unfortunately, the slush is piling up and the readers are taking notice. I think this is the reason that some 'gatekeepers' like Bookbub are doing so well. With an overwhelming choice of titles, a lot of readers want someone to vet their material for them."

"My thoughts are:
- a story should be as long or short as it needs to be.
- too many self-pubbers are concentrating on the short term at the expense of the long term.
- Everyone has their own thoughts on pricing, but personally I feel that there is a certain point where XX pages for $X.XX dollars is just gouging people."

"I'm kind of torn on this one, but not for reasons that might seem readily apparent. First off, all of my books are full length books. I do have a couple of novellas I've published, but I've never actually split a book. Until now. Well, not exactly, so let me explain. I wrote a novel some years back that started a series I'll be writing for the rest of my life. It covers 3000 years of history, and each book is about 250 years of time. The first book was called The Tales of Reagul, and it ran about 500 pages. It was told in 'books' which were separated into chapters. But it was still one book. Not too long ago, I realized that the novel needed some fleshing out, so I reexamined it and realized that it could become multiple novels, although it would need a lot more writing. The three novels I split it into aren't just 1/3 of the 500 pages. I've been going through and developing each third into  full length novels that will probably hit the 400-500 page range. So, each book will still be rull length novels. This is the only way I would ever split a book, and I think the series will be that much richer for it. The additions I made weren't just page fillers, but entire adventures and further fleshing out of some very significant characters. At least that's my take on the subject."

"We complain about the old system of gatekeepers, but those gatekeepers were set up by readers in the first place. They knew that if XXXX publishing house put out a book, that it would be a good book. They knew that if XXXX bookstore carried the book, it would be a good book. They knew that if XXXX reviewer liked the book, that it was a book worth reading. Authors had to deal with those gatekeepers on a daily basis, but readers started putting them out of their minds. To a reader, it all blurred into 'if a book is published, it must be good.' Because the gatekeepers kept bad books from getting to readers. Now, we live in a different world. And while many readers are excited that they can dig through the slush pile and find a gem, the vast majority will stick to their tried and true authors and occasionally pick up a book a friend recommends. Most fear (yes fear!) the idea of reading a 'self-published' book UNLESS they can be assured that it is of quality before they pick it up. Who assures quality? (i.e. acts as a gatekeeper). It looks like Bookbub and the like are being set up by readers as the new gatekeepers. It used to be 'if I can get a publishing contract, I have a shot' or 'if I can make it to the NYT Best Sellers list, I have a career,' but now it is 'if I can just get Bookbub to pick up my book.' What we are doing is seeing the building of new gatekeepers before our eyes. We, as authors, see the tearing down of walls which keep us from connecting directly with readers as a good thing. Many readers, however, see the swarming hordes of barbarian writers coming at them through the crumbled walls and desperately want some gates and protectors to keep them safe."

"Personally, I don't like serials, especially with cliffhangers. I couldn't even stand watching TV shows like Lost for that reason. So I don't buy short books for that reason. But as a business strategy, I have no problem with it, as long as they're upfront and readers know they're buying chapters as they go along, then everything is clear. I like books so I do pay attention to page count."

"I hate serials and I'd never buy them because I prefer to have a whole book. I picked up some first parts that were free and none of them felt complete to me. It was just a book butchered into pieces that weren't even interesting. Now I mostly avoid serials. There are thousands of full books out there, so it doesn't matter. Actually, I'd buy one part of the serial if I knew the story was complete somehow and if I didn't have to read the next one just to get the ending for the first. I'm sure some people prefer serials, so I'm glad there's something for them too. I laugh at the idea of quality, though.  Who can define what quality is? Traditional publishers? Maybe, but they accept all sorts of books that they know will sell. Bookbub? Maybe, but they promoted books with homemade covers and without professional editing too. In the end, the only thing that matters is what people want to buy, so if they'll buy each part of a serial for 2.99$, give them serial. Who am I to complain? Can't blame anyone for offering serials. No one is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to purchase them."

"I've been told by every editor I've had that my second draft is basically what most publish. And I have been releasing the equivalent of one novel every six to seven weeks since I started at this 23 months ago. Perhaps I'm the exception. But as one, I take exception. I have done two serial trilogies. I will never do it again. My current one, The Delphi Chronicle, gets panned by readers who don't understand what a serial is. They just don't know. So they get annoyed. Astoundingly, they mainly get annoyed at the thought they would have to pay for the rest of the story. So they don't mind the form, they mind not getting all of it free. So that's a sense of entitlement wherein they want 160K of story for free, and get pissy when they only get 60K of it or so. I personally believe that's a very vocal and tiny minority, but who needs the problems? I don't. It's not worth the heartache, at least in my genre. Never again."

Short works are good!

"I also object, very strenuously, to the idea that short works are necessarily drivel. This is insulting to a lot of writers here, frankly. Plenty of readers and writers like shorts. They are particularly popular in certain genres, such as romance and erotica. Novels are not the only quality writing out there. Isaac Asimov wrote wonderful short stories. So did Daphne du Maurier, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury... the list goes on and on. 'Short' does not equate to 'drivel.'

"I like serialized stories as long as I know that's what I'm paying for. 2.99 seems fine to me. I pay more for a cup of coffee from McDonald's."

"Splitting up a book is not the same as writing a serial. I've written several books and I'm near the end of my first serial, and believe me, they are quite different creatures. At my price of $0.99 for 40-60 pages per episode, readers seems willing to buy and I don't get complaints about the price."

"Serialised fiction has been extremely popular in the past. People like ongoing stories featuring the same characters set in a persistant world. The Kindle, and other ereaders, are a nice distribution platform for this kind of work. Check out the Perry Rhodan series for something that takes it to the extreme... well over 2000 novellas published weekly. A lot of vintage science fiction was serialised in magazines before being released as novels and many classic victorian novels were first published as serials. There is precedent for this kind of thing. I quite like serials in some genres. For science fiction there is an element of nostalgia. I bought Wool (some people may have heard of it) as a collected volume after the fact but I would have loved to have been buying each volume as it was released. For an author who is engaged with their fans I think the shorter release cycles can be fairly exciting and fun and lead to a more intimate dialogue between author and reader. If each volume has some substance and a narrative arc and isn't just the equivilent of some chapter pulled at random from a larger work. I don't find the $2.99 (£2 for me) price point objectionable. I read for an hour a day over a coffee that costs me £2.20 and takes me half an hour to drink. On Fridays I get a cake as as well, that costs around £2.50, that takes me about 5 seconds to eat. If a short part of a larger work can engross me for two or three of those lunch breaks £2 doesn't seem like an unfair price. Of course if the complete book is available and works out cheaper I'm going to buy that, but I do quite like (good) serials, especially reading them as they are released and anticipating the next one and I don't object to paying a little more to consume books in this manner.... of course that's only if I enjoy them. Another advantage of serials is that the first part is often cheap or free, so if they're not good no one is going to fork out for the second and subsequent parts!"

"Robert Crane wrote, what, six books last year? I've read them and they're good (his Girl In The Box series is kind of what the X-Men comics would be if the X-Men didn't suck) and he earns around 25K per month on them. This year he plans on publishing ten books. He's a damned fast writer and he puts out quality stuff. The speed=crap myth is just that: a myth."

"I put my word and approximate page count CLEARLY stated on anything that isn't over 50k/full-length novel. Be less concerned with what other people are doing, and you'll be happier. Unless it looks like an awesome strategy you want to try. I'm doing novels now, but my serials were the first thing I ever put out that actually sold well/i.e. demonstrated that demand for that particular sort of thing exceeded supply."

"Most of the self-published books I've picked up are actually books I enjoy.  The ones that are crap, I can pick up a sample first and tell that it's crap within just a few seconds of opening that sample.  I love the variety and originality that self-publishing brings, because now I can read books that surprise and excite me, rather than the cookie-cutter stuff that comes out from New York. In my experience, people who complain that vocally about price were never really interested in picking up the rest of the story.  Taking a novel and splitting it into arbitrary chunks without a distinct beginning, middle, and end, that I can understand (and it's something that NY used to do all the time, especially in Epic Fantasy).  But if you've got a series of shorter works, such as novellas or novelettes, and each one is a self-contained story that takes exactly as long as it needs to tell it--I don't think that that's somehow 'drivel' just because of the length. If you're really trying to judge a book's value by looking at the dollars to word count ratio, sort of like the cents per ounce ratio at a grocery store, you're probably not into the story all that much to begin with anyway."

"Some readers like series, some don't. Some readers like serials, some don't. Some readers only read novels, some are more eclectic in their taste. Writers are the same ... they like to write different stories of different lengths. Some actually write the type of things they like to read as readers. But writing shorter works does not equate to 'chasing money.' Some of us are actually writing shorter works of quality. As long as the writer is up-front about what the reader is getting, I don't see a problem. There's room for all types and lengths of fiction in this world. After all, part of the advantage of having 'indie' works out there is that readers can get stuff that they wouldn't be able to read otherwise."

"The readers are the gatekeepers. If they want to buy a 40 pg story for 2.99, then they will buy it.  If they don't, they don't.  That's on them. Why censor ourselves?  I say write what you want, how you want, how long you want, and price it how you want and let the readers decide if they like it or not. I can write fast and I do.  I put out novels, novellas, and short stories as I see fit.  I'm in this to write what I want, when I want, and make as much money as I can doing it.  And I won't apologize for it either."

"Using Amazon's page metric, 40 pages is approx. 13000 to 14000 words, i.e. novelette length. I sell novelettes (i.e. between 7500 and 17500 words) for 2.99 and so do many other authors. And yes, they do sell. In erotica, there even are people charging 2.99 for a 4000 word short story and those sell as well. In my experience, genre is a far better predictor of sales than price. A lot of people don't like short fiction just as a lot of people don't like serials. However, plenty of people like short stories and plenty like serials and they are willing to pay for it. As long as the author is clear about what the reader is buying (e.g. I always put wordcount and approx. page length in the blurb), there's no problem."

"There are some authors or series for which I would (and do…) pay $2.99 for a short story or $11.99 for a novel. There are others whose work I wouldn't even pick up for free. Also, time ≠ indicative of quality. There was a video on here not long ago covering someone's cover design. If you looked at the time stamp, the artist put that cover together in an amazingly short amount of time, but that's not indicative of the final quality—it's indicative of the artist knowing what they're doing. The same concept applies to writing. While I agree that authors shouldn't rush in seek of a quick buck, there's nothing innately wrong with serials, or with splitting up a novel, or with posting all but the last three chapters and a blog and making folks have to buy to read the end. If readers dislike it, they'll vote with their pocketbooks."

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