Tuesday July 31, 2012
New way into books
By ELIZABETH TAI
The serial novel may experience a renaissance, thanks to the e-book revolution.
WHAT if fiction was told like television shows? Instead of one novel, the novel is broken up into a series of instalments, with each part leaving readers hungry for more?
Actually, this method of telling fiction isn’t new. Charles Dickens is said to have pioneered the serialised novel in the 19th century by publishing his stories in instalments in magazines and newspapers. It became the most common way narrative fiction was read during Victorian times and authors such as George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Robert Louis Stevenson published their stories this way.
However, the format fell out of favour in the 20th century because publishers thought it was too expensive and financially risky to print books this way, though Stephen King did try with The Green Mile in the 1990s. (And not any author could’ve done this; a publisher would only take a risk with an author with King’s clout.)
Modern serial novelists
American writers Sean Platt and David Wright believe that the e-book revolution may just revitalise the near-extinct serialised novel.
“I think the model neatly fits in with the way modern readers are consuming their content, and I think it’s a trend that can only continue to grow,” says Platt, who is based in Ohio, via e-mail.
The two love TV shows like Lost and The Walking Dead and thought that it would be great to replicate the excitement and thrill of the shows’ cliffhangers in fiction.
“We’ve wanted to write a serial since we met in 2008, but at the time, e-books had not yet taken off, and it seemed like a distant dream since few publishers were working in the format,” Platt says.
Despite the barriers, the two began posting a vampire thriller, Available Darkness, in a blog in 2008.
They received a “nice” response to the story, but most people asked them when the book would be available in book form.
“Most people, I find, don’t enjoy reading on a website. Neither do I,” Wright says in a post at their blog, Collective Inkwell.com.
Fortunately, Amazon.com created Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007, which allows writers to sell their e-books to a worldwide market. The two quickly saw an opportunity and compiled Available Darkness into an e-book and sold it through Kindle Direct.
Then, they started a post-apocalyptic series called Yesterday’s Gone in 2010. Each “episode” is about 100 pages (or about 20,000 words) and is released weekly. There are about six episodes per “season”, and each instalment ends with a heart-pounding cliffhanger.
“Our novels aren’t paced like typical novels, they’re more of a hybrid between television and books, offering short weekly instalments of a continuing world with people you care about and worlds you’ll want to explore,” says Wright, who was a professional cartoonist and reporter before beginning his story-spinning career.
This allows Platt and Wright to explore and build their fictional world and to get to know their characters in a manner that self-contained movies and novels do not allow.
The format also gives them bigger opportunities to get new readers to discover their work.
“New readers are finding us every day, and I don’t know if that would happen as frequently if we simply had two giant books, Yesterday’s Gone One and Two,” Wright says.
The e-book is complemented by a host of features: A website (serializedfiction.com), an electronic newsletter, a web trailer (tinyurl.com/c746kp7), a Twitter account, and a Facebook fan page. It took time, however, for their readership to build.
“When we first published, it was slow going. It wasn’t until word of mouth got out and the second season began that the momentum really picked up and we realised we had something special that people were loving,” says Wright.
Soon, they were selling books and receiving e-mails from readers, who not only liked the story but the format.
“The phrase ‘to be continued...’ is like a punch in the gut. I love that feeling. I like that readers send me angry e-mails after they get to the end of the book and are left hanging! It means they are really into the story. There’s no greater compliment,” Wright points out.
Since then the duo has come up with the young adult series Fornevermore (six episodes so far) and science fiction series White Space (one episode).
Although they were reluctant to reveal actual sales figures (“You don’t ask your neighbour how much they make at their job. Same thing with writers,” insists Wright.), Wright says that they now earn enough to enable them to write full time.
“But not nearly enough that we can sit back and get lazy. In other words, we’re still working to reach our goals.”
Platt and Wright produce an episode every week. They begin with a brainstorming session and then proceed to write their respective halves of the story.
Once the story is done, they will create the e-book cover, edit the manuscript, and then convert it into an e-book.They also pay a professional editor to go through the manuscript.
“We can spend as much as a few thousand dollars on a season easily,” says Wright.
Platt says that the money isn’t the only thing they have to sacrifice. They have to turn down work in order to concentrate on their series as well.
“I took off my work-for-hire shingle, right when business had never been better,” says Platt, who is also a professional ghostwriter.
“So, even though we’re fortunate to have the skill set to handle much of our work in-house, our risk came from the fervent belief that this would work, and that it was worth turning down lucrative paid work to pursue the dream,” he says.
The future of the serial novel is bright, says the duo. However, not many authors have taken the leap yet.
“I read a lot of nay saying about the format – it won’t work, people don’t like the format, and so on. I was hoping we could prove the naysayers wrong, and we did with Yesterday’s Gone,” Platt says.
If writers deliver the story in a timely manner and market it well, serialised fiction could work.
“I’d love to see a renaissance in the format, as both a writer and reader. We’re certainly doing our part to try and bring it back!” says Wright.
Episode 1 and 2 of Yesterday’s Gone and White Space Episode 1 is available as free downloads on Smashwords.com.