Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Return of Serialization?

In a Tupac-style move, author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s new collection of short stories, Look at the Birdie, will be published by Random House this October. Ahead of the scheduled publication date (10/20/09), the big house will be releasing some of the short stories individually. No word yet on electronic format or pricing.

I think this is brilliant.

Although I recently decried the short story collection as a salable medium, that was largely assuming print sales, and, insofar as I accounted for e-book sales, I assumed the e-book would be sold as a whole (e.g. fourteen short stories, indivisible, for $9.99).

I've been championing the sale of e-short stories as individual units for awhile now, and I really hope this movement catches on. I've oft been on a short (hour-long or so) plane/train/car ride and wished for a short story or two to help pass the time; if I had a Kindle, I would buy individual short stories (say, at $0.99 a piece) in a heartbeat.

I also think the idea could be extended to full e-books, resurrecting the idea of novel serialization (à la 19th century literature). Imagine—you could be a twenty-first century Charles Dickens, serializing your novels on Amazon and getting paid relative to how many installments you produce. (Sorry—that was exceedingly optimistic compared to my usual tone, but I think e-books have tremendous untapped potential. I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year!)

Therefore, my predictions for the World of Tomorrow:

• Over the next decade, overall book sales will be driven more and more by e-book sales, which (at first) won't really cannibalize print book sales. My feeling is, at least until the end of the decade, they'll be two separate markets. I think this will change as the price of e-reader technology falls precipitously and color screen technology becomes available (remember what happened with television?).

• The release of e-short stories and the advent of e-serialization will be a crucial step forward in this process. I'd have to crunch the numbers on it, but I think $0.99 per short story and $1.99 per book chapter/installment would be decent price points (not accounting for inflation).

• Now that I'm thinking of it, poetry could also see a major resurgence in the e-book format. See? All my tried-and-true publishing advice, which holds so well for print books, goes out the window with e-books.

• Piracy will, unfortunately, become more of an issue as the e-book market continues to grow. However, I'm not convinced the book industry will suffer to the same degree as the music industry.

What do you think?


  1. I'm building up to buying an e-reader. I think it's the future, at least for fiction. But I wonder how children's publishing, specifically picture books and early-reader chapter books, will be effected by the rise of e-books. It's hard to imagine telling a bedtime story from a screen, but then again, why not?

    But it would have to be a BIG screen.

  2. I agree with Thomas. There will be a few genres that won't be conveyed electronically.

    But the serialization thing sounds fun! And it's kind of the same as what they did with music. People who normally wouldn't even think of stealing something were pirating music because they only wanted one song and didn't want to pay for the whole CD. Well, now those same people are willing to cough up a whoppin' 99 cents to get just the song they want and it's kind of helped.
    I mean, seriously, why steal a song, chapter, or poem, and risk the legal ramifications when you could just spend 99 cents on it? I like this idea.

    Also pleased to think about how e-readers are making previously unpublishable material publishable, like poetry and short stories.
    My goodness. Every thing's changing. It's exciting and weird.
    And yeah, I can't wait for a color e-reader here in the US. I've heard the technology exists, but only in Japan and it's really pricey.

  3. As an outlet for many a short story writer (like myself) it sounds great. I mean we already have dozens if not hundreds of e-zines so e-publishing for shorts sounds like the way to go.

  4. This does sound like a viable future for e-publishing, though bibliophile that I am I will probably never make the switch to an electronic reader.

  5. Hi Eric,

    LOVE your blog - just started reading about a week ago.

    I'm not usually the promotion type, but I'm an intern for a company called DailyLit that is actually built on the premise of serialization. Right now we don't have a ton of new books because there's the whole issue of acquiring the rights and all of that, but we have a ton of public domain books available (for free!) and newer books that range in price from $.99 (short stories) to $4.95-$9.95 for full-length books.

    The whole concept is that we serialize the books, then you receive an installment at a frequency of your choosing, and you can click ahead to read more if the 1,000ish-word snippet doesn't cut it for you.

    You might check it out - sounds like what you've been talking about.

    Bailey Thomas
    DailyLit Intern
    @DailyLit (Twitter)

  6. If I recall correctly, Joe Hill had a book of short stories that were released individually in audiobook format... two stories were free, the rest were $1.49 or so each.

    I thought that was simply awesome. I would happily pay a buck or two to test out a variety of new short story and poetry authors in audio (I currently have an iPod but no eReader), and I imagine Kindle owners would feel the same way about ebooks.

  7. You know, about the colour thingy - a possible re-emergence of those gorgeously illustrated works with plate art in them? Except dispersed throughout the text.

    Now that I'd get an ebook reader for. I always love beautifully designed things. Ebooks would be no exception.

  8. With all the endless media jabber about e-books, stats published this week suggest that e-book sales are a whopping 1% of all book sales.

    I think coverage online is skewed by the high percentage of early adopters among those who blog about books. Since most of those who BUY books are older ladies, though, this may be leading to poor decision making by people who follow online discussion too closely.

    I have sold both e-books and print books for over a decade and I currently sell a book that is available in a free online version. That book is doing extremely well and tops an Amazon category bestseller list. People who read books--most of them--still prefer real old fashioned books. I sure do.

    And library sales being the important part of the market they are, the impact of e-books is even smaller than represented by that retail 1%.

  9. Many SF/Fantasy writers currently release their short stories as (free) e-books - it's a fantastic way of trying out a new writer, and I'd be very willing to pay a dollar for a story if it could let me determine whether to plunk down 9.99 for the whole set. I find that shorts tend to end just as my eyes are getting tired from reading (for Europe's lack of Kindles, I resort to my mobile phone...).

  10. I think serialization is a great idea. Stephen King did it with THE GREEN MILE and it was well received. In part, of course, because he is Stephen King, but I think it could work for other authors.

  11. As a writer trying desperately to hack it, I agree with several of the previous commenters: I think that physical books won't die out or at least will take a very long time--we'd need a generation of readers to all but wholly embrace the e-book format in order for the love of books as physical artifacts to not be passed on to the following generation. The color reader may help with this, but I'm not sure it'll be as big a deal as the color television.

    Now, that said, I think that selling e-book formatted short stories for $1 or $2 is a brilliant idea, and may be a great way for new writers to get exposure and generate buzz online. Free is also good, but the $1 or $2 standard is one of those "practically free" prices, while simultaneously waiving some of the judgments that literati can level on truly free writers, and giving the writer access to numbers and accolades they can cite to potential agents and publishers (e.g. "My short stories have sold X-thousand copies on").

  12. I sure think/hope you're right! I've been experimenting with that model myself, by publishing an episodic fiction series via Amazon's Kindle platform (which can be read on iPhones/iPods too).

    "Twenty-Somewhere" is sort of Sex and the City meets Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Each "bundle" of episodes is 99 cents -- as you suggested, I thought that seemed like a good price point. You can check them out here:

    Episodes 1-4:

    Episodes 5-8:

    Episodes 9-12:

    Now, as an unknown I'm not expecting to make bank, but it's been a fun learning experience. And I hope that people enjoy reading it, because I sure do enjoy writing it!

  13. @Jenny: I think you have a point... to a point. A couple of things. First, yes, ebooks are still a very small part of the market, but I don't think it's difficult to imagine that, like other new technology, there's eventually going to be a tipping point where very quickly the sales numbers shift. A price drop in e-readers could do that, or a drastic change in the market (for example if a couple of the big houses went under).

    Second, I believe that when prices of ereaders do drop, many older readers are going to be at the front of the line to buy them. Why? Font resizing. I love my books and can only imagine how awful it would be for my vision to deteriorate such that I can only read large print editions, which (correct me if I'm wrong) are probably more expensive and difficult to find. My entire book collection might end up completely useless, except for my ebooks.

  14. I agree with you re: serialization. I think also that a new era of pulp fiction will arise. How else to get readers to buy the next installment than to end chapters on a cliffhanger. The recent Gabriel Hunt books follow this pattern with most chapters ending in a way where you have to turn the page. This will bring more readers, I think, and more fun back to if it already left.

  15. Very interesting predictions--and not too depressing. As long as you're predicting, any feelings about books selling in this market? I feel like there is all this opportunity for more people reading given the electronic format-- which would seem to mean that more books should sell--but it doesn't seem like publishing companies are viewing it that way when you look at the declining sales (especially on debuts)
    Looking into your crystal ball, do you think it's just a matter of time? And if so, how much time?


  16. Should clarify--I'm talking fiction.

    Anon 12:23

  17. Well, I'm certainly no author of any repute BUT I am actually doing exactly what you suggest. I use what I call episodes (each being 5 chapters long) that I produce per month. After having completed and largely polished five of those (out of an anticipated 26), I'm just about ready to start pushing them out to kindle, and the idea was actually to offer them at $0.99. This is all self-published, without professional PR or much previous proof-of-concept either for my abilities as a writer or my ideas on how to get the story out there. Still, it's nice to hear that someone things the methodology (in part) has merit.

  18. I was actually just talking about something like this with my father-- he was telling me that to break in to the publishing industry, I should create my own medium by selling audio chapters. He suggested I sacrifice my first book to the gods of industry and ipods, and serialize it as an audio book, chapter by chapter, and then sell it on itunes or whatever in pieces to get a foot in the door of the market of people who can't be separated from their mp3 players. I'm not entirely sure that the same people who are glued to their mp3 players have the patience to listen to audiobooks, but it's an interesting idea, and who knows?

  19. As I head toward the publication of my first novel (July 2010) I'm going to try using audio and free e-versions of short stories. I may not get paid for the stories themselves, but the exposure will be payment enough, I think.

  20. @Jenny: curous about what you consider an "older lady". I'm on the far side of the half-century mark and I buy e-books. And I was doing it long before the Kindle came into being (I still read books on my Dell PDA).

    And @Amalia: My even-older-than-me husband listens to audio books on his MP3 player. That's also what we stick in the car for the road trips. Consider that older people not only appreciate the ability to resize font that e-readers give us, but for us-not-dead-yet folks, audio books are great while we're doing the ten-million other things we get into. And serialization is great for those whose time is limited due to activities or just short attention spans. And 99 cents nicely fits into a fixed income budget.

  21. @Kat: Thanks for the input! I'll keep that in mind!

  22. When the price of the technology goes down and it is "perfected," I think more people will go to the Kindle-like format.

    It's quite possible, newer technolgy will be introduced as well, sooner than we may think.

    Piracy, no ideas on how that will play out.

  23. I think the ebook format will promote the rise of shorter novels. Or be concurrent with. Our brains, our culture, are rewiring, and it feels like the bias is toward speed. Everything opens with a bang now--movies, books, the lead news story.

    But the book as text-based is also a format in decline. It may never totally die out, but humans are intensely visual creatures, which explains at least some of why MUSHes are anemic and WoW only gets bigger.

    And, personally, I am never going to pay $9.99 for an ebook. If the publishers cut out a lot of the insane distribution approaches (like returns), then I expect to see ebook prices at or under $5.

  24. Hi Eric!

    I was going to mention this in next Wednesday's post (in part two of my The Difficulty of Pricing eBooks) but you beat me to it. I do think serials will be a viable platform in this eBook age (and with the current distribution model). However, whether publishers actually go for it is another matter. I think this strategy is more viable for authors (as opposed to big publishers) as they get to keep more of the profits and aren't bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape of bigger publishers.

  25. I think the Random House publishing the short stories IS brilliant!! I'm trying to find a good publisher, perhaps that's a good one?I am also looking for follwers of my blog. Could you please visit and comment on some of my posts at ? Thanks. I'm a writer too, so I'm trying to get my voice heard. Please follow if you like!

  26. I like your new way of thinking. Short stories and poetry FTW! :)

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