The following article could not have been made without the help of PublishDrive author Gabriel Wolf. We are grateful for his insight on the topic of book serials.
Series of books or book serials: What is the difference?
Categorization of multiple episode television programs is fairly common: everybody knows that the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, the sitcom Friends, and Stranger Things are all substantially different formats, and viewers start them with different expectations. The same is true for books as well. However, there are still many people who don’t know the difference between a series of books and a book serial.
As an author, you have to be aware of whether you are writing a series of a books or a serial, and have to follow (or break) genre expectations.
In a series of books, each book can be read individually. They are usually built around a certain character who doesn’t age or set in the same world, and you can get away with reading them in any order you wish (eg. Discworld by Terry Pratchett). No mysteries or questions go unanswered between two books.
Book serials, on the other hand, have an overarching story line. The characters age and change: like in Harry Potter. Often, they come in episodes or parts shorter than a novel: 80-100 pages long instalments. Episodes (whether novel-sized or chapter sized) are separately published in ebook format and get their own cover. Once a story arc has been finished, the author groups the parts together and publishes it as a novel (often called a ‘season’). The book receives a title, a new ISBN, and usually also appears in print form.
Book serials: a short history
1800s: The Victorian Era
During the 19th century, cheap printing and distribution made magazines the most popular format for wide distribution of literature. Newspapers and magazines were affordable for people who wouldn’t be able to pay for a complete book. Last but not least, monthly or periodical magazines provided steady income for authors. Most famous example of serialized fiction from this age is Charles Dickens.
During the Victorian era, serials were popular all over Europe, but also in the United States. According to the Scribner’s Monthly, only the best writers were able to secure a spot in a magazine; second and third rate writers had to resort to publishing a novel.
The serialized format has reformed not only the way publishing works, but also the types of novels authors were writing. Cliffhangers became popular, and the pace of the novel has changed to keep up interest in the course of a whole year. Authors and publishers were also receptive of the audience’s reactions and changing the direction of the story if they needed to.
Early 1900s: Sherlock Holmes is born
The tendency has continued through the early 1900s as well. In the United Kingdom, it peaked in 1901, with the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story after The Final Problem.
In 1901, The Strand Magazine published The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The novel was first published in the magazine in a serialized form, monthly updates keeping up the attention around the msystery.
And attention they kept: The Hound of the Baskervilles was so successful that people were standing in queues on the streets waiting for the magazine to be published.
The 20th century: New genres
After crime, the next genre to discover serialized publication for itself was science fiction. In 1930, the Astounding Stories of Super-Science magazine was born. (It has been in publication ever since, under various names.) During the golden age of science fiction, many serialized novels were published in the magazine, including the world famous Foundation by Isaac Asimov.
Soon, radio and television broadcasting has largely replaced serialized magazine publications until the revival today.
Serialized fiction now
No surprise: the internet boom in publishing didn’t leave serialized fiction untouched. No longer relying on magazines, serialized writers have a direct way of reaching readers fast. There are currently two mainstream directions in serialized fiction:
- Using a dedicated platform for publishing the episodes (eg. FanFiction.net or Wattpad). Once the novel is finished, it is often taken off the website before it gets published as a complete ebook and print book.
- Publishing episodes as separate novels in ebook format (eg. on Amazon Kindle and on other platforms), then group them together for print.
In the following, we’ll bring examples for both directions.
Bitesize fiction – popular apps and platforms
Although bite size fiction will unlikely to go to the length (or shortness) of Asian cell phone novels, Europe and the United States also had the need for a genre that is suitable for reading on the subway or while standing in the line.
This type of fiction is popularized by apps like Radish (charging readers micro-payments) or Wattpad. Amazon’s Kindle Short Reads is a steady player in the game, although Amazon automatically selects stories in this category based on the number of words.
You can find a great selection of apps and serialized fiction books on the Den of Geek website.
Publishing episodes as separate books
One of leading examples of serialized fiction is the post-apocalyptic thriller Yesterday’s Gone by Sean Platt. In 2011, following the success of the TV show Lost, he started publishing a book serial in which the episodes made the reader longing for the next book. He offered the first episode (the pilot) for free to hook people in, then offered the rest of the season at low prices as ebooks. Once six episodes were out, he rounded them up as a ‘Series’ and offered it as print. You can listen to (and read) an interview with him on The Creative Penn.
It wasn’t only him who was inspired by TV series: other popular authors include Hugh Howey with Wool. He started the series in 2011 with a short story published on KDP, which was then followed by four sequel novellas and published as a novel upon completion. The complete series is made of three novels, all first published in a serialized form. Omnibus editions also available. You can read more about Wool on Wired.
Popular authors include A. R. Wise (of the Deadlocked series), and our guest author, Gabriel Wolf. Serialized fiction in this form is most popular in English speaking countries, but is gaining traction all over Europe.
The author’s point of view
We have asked PublishDrive author Gabriel Wolf about the advantages and disadvantages of writing serial fiction, and some tips and tricks for writing serials.
First of all, he thinks that publishing shorter stories has the advantage of reaching more price conscious readers. Additionally, potential “unhappy” readers might be less unhappy, as they have only paid a couple of bucks. If they didn’t like it, they won’t buy the rest of the series.
Additionally, publishing serialized fiction has the advantage of “staying in the game” throughout the year. While even the most successful writers cannot publish more than a book or two a year, serials help authors keep up the “buzz” with constantly producing and publishing new content. If people constantly see your name, it is more likely that they’ll remember you.
The third big advantage is the variety of covers. While you could always create an illustrated book, most adult fiction writers limit illustrations to the cover. If you have more books, you can create more and more covers: showcase all of your characters, if you wish.
Although serials are often published as a complete novel at the end, as an author you have to be aware of the different reading style due to periodical publication. As a few months can pass between two episodes, you have to make sure that your readers can easily pick up the story where they left off without rereading your book. If it takes more than a few pages for your reader to feel ‘back on track’, you should reconsider your writing choices. You can also add a few pages to explain what happened previously and help orient the reader. (These pages can later be removed.)
Additionally, you shouldn’t forget that your episodes should be equivalent to parts in the book. For example, your “pilot” should introduce the world and the characters, the second chapter introduce the main conflicts etc. Don’t forget to make sure that all your chapters are filled with something exciting and raise new questions: your readers must stay hooked until the end of the book / serial.
You can only do this, if you already have your main story arch (main events, and most likely the ending) planned before starting your novel. It is okay to change some things as you go, but you have to make sure that you are going somewhere.
Entering serial metadata
When entering metadata (when uploading your book to a store or to PublishDrive), you have to make sure that possible readers know that your books are part of a serial and cannot be read as a standalone novel. You also have to show the reading order of your books in an appropriate and obvious manner.
Title, subtitle, and series fields
Ebook stores are well prepared for series. The following fields are present at any book upload surface: Title, Subtitle, Series Name, Volume (numeric). (To learn how correctly entered metadata looks in major stores, check this article.) The appropriate usage of series and volume field does not only help readers identify the books, but most stores also group books together based on series name, and automatically offer the next episode to the reader. Forget binge watching: binge reading is here, and the only thing you need to do is enter your metadata properly.
As this is a field, multiple options are possible. Some authors use the title fields to list the episode title and the series field to show the name of series. (Data entered in the series field is used for search by most stores, just like the title field.) For example:
Title: Episode title
Series: Serial name
Volume: Book number
Once your book is complete, that will be the first epidose of your “series arch”.
It is very common to display the reading order in the description. To make sure that all of your readers know where to start (and nobody ends up disappointed), it is suggested to add a line similar to this to the description:
This is Book X of ‘Serial name’. This book is best read as part of the series, and not as a standalone novel.
Having more books equals – more book covers! Yay! Although more covers means more work, it is worth it. Book covers are a fantastic way to showcase the subtleties of your genre, to introduce multiple characters or scenes. Make sure that all covers in the same serial look similar: your readers should know the moment they look at it that it is the next episode. Use well designed visual cues to guide them. Just check out the books below: it is obvious (even in thumbnail size) that they belong together.
Don’t forget to display the series name and the volume number on the cover as well.
Keep the first book – your pilot – permafree (permanently free). This works for most people under most circumstances. If people are hooked up, they are more likely to pay for the next book. Episodes are supposed to be priced low: for example, you can keep them all on 0.99 or 1.99 (depending on length). If you are offering an incomplete novel for the price of a full one, don’t be surprised if you get some unhappy customers.
Once a book is complete, you can price it from 2.99 up. It is common to keep the price of the first book low and constantly raise the prices. For example, 2.99 on your first book, 3.99 for the next etc. It is also common practice to keep the first book in a series permanently free, once you have at least three books in the series.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this article on writing serials. Are you writing serialized novels? We would love to hear from you!