Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Serial Novel: Is it Right for You?

By Andrew Peterson

Just after Thomas & Mercer acquired the Nathan McBride series, my new in-house editor, Alan Turkus, asked if I’d be willing to participate in Amazon Publishing’s new Kindle Serial program. I was a little confused. “Serial novels,” I asked, “you mean like the cliffhangers of yore? Like that?” Alan said that’s exactly what he meant.

I knew the folks at Amazon Publishing were forward thinking, but this sounded incredible. It also sounded intriguing but I had some reservations. I knew I couldn’t say yes or no until I had a lot more information. Only 100 pages of my third book had been written but Alan thought it was perfect for the Kindle Serial program and he wanted OPTION TO KILL to be one of eight books for the debut.

This wasn’t a decision I felt comfortable making alone. I needed help. Jake Elwell is not only a terrific literary agent he’s also a good friend. We needed to weigh the pros and cons before committing. After we got the scoop from Amazon, we talked it over and concluded I should give it a try. There were a lot of unknowns but we felt confident the folks at Amazon had a plan to make the program a success.

The challenge:
One thing was certain from the beginning, writing a serial novel was going to take a chunk out of me. Although I had a head start, I’d need to submit around twelve thousand words every two weeks over the next few months.

In the purest definition, OPTION TO KILL was a true serial novel. Its episodes were being released as they were written which created a unique challenge I hadn’t considered. Because the serial format wouldn’t allow me to go back and do any revising, all the episodes had to be edited and polished before I submitted them to Thomas & Mercer. I needed to make sure that each free standing episode worked in conjunction with previous and future episodes. I wasn’t breaking a completed book into pieces; OPTION was a work in progress. 

The delivery:
We knew there would be some resistance to serials because the electronic generation places a lot of emphasis on speed.

Faster internet. Faster cell service. And of course, faster delivery of eBooks.

Within seconds, you can download an entire novel from the cloud. So here was Amazon—a company built around the concept of ease and speed, offering readers an alternative. People now had the choice to slow down and enjoy a novel over several months, rather than days. I’ll tell you why I’m using the word “choice” a little later. I’d heard the expression, “the pioneers take the arrows,” but I was about to find out first hand what that meant.

The launch:
I scrambled to stay ahead of the submission schedule and turned in the first episode of OPTION in early August of 2012. A month later, episode one was copy edited and ready for launch. The first twelve thousand words of a planned 90,000 word novel were about to debut on Amazon’s Kindle Serial page. I was excited, but uneasy. Were people going to embrace serials, or reject them? I’d have my answer soon enough.

The initial response:
Feedback started appearing on the day of the launch because it only took an hour or so to read the first episode. I’ll be honest, when unfavorable reviews on the serial format started appearing, they really bothered me.

Alan Turkus was a gem and pointed out that although people loved the story, they were just expressing their displeasure about the delivery format, not the content. Yes, that was true, but all those one-star reviews affected the overall rating of the book. I found myself taking arrows—by the dozens. 

"Getting" the serial:
It’s unfortunate some people were critical of the serial format, even after knowing exactly what they were buying. Granted, there was some understandable confusion over the term "series" versus "serial." Many people just thought they were buying the next book in the series, not the first episode in a serial. I can only imagine the dismay and resentment readers must’ve felt if they hadn’t realized they were buying a serial and found the story ending with a cliffhanger.

In fairness to Amazon Publishing, it’s important to note that no deception was going on. The price of the entire serial was just $1.99. It didn’t cost any more to receive the rest of the episodes. Also, in the Kindle listing, Amazon mentioned the serial format in three different locations, even in green font.

I'm certain there were more than a few Kindle customers who simply weren’t expecting a serial novel in the Nathan McBride series, so they didn’t think twice about buying it. They just saw a new Andrew Peterson book and ordered it.

Reader's choice:
Here’s where the “choice” I mentioned earlier came into play. Okay, a customer bought OPTION TO KILL and discovered it was a serial novel. All they had to do was wait for all the episodes to download before reading any more of the story. Right? I mean, if you didn’t want to read it in serial format, you didn’t have to.

In concept, it was like a pre-order, with the option to read the novel in episodic format—or not. After making the purchase, the process became automatic. The customer didn’t have to do anything. Kindle devices and apps were updated as knew episodes were released every two weeks.

Opportunity and collaboration:
We all need to remember that Amazon isn’t some nebulous thing, it’s made of people and those people have been outstanding through my journey with them. The folks on the Thomas & Mercer team have been terrific and very supportive.

Quite literally, Amazon Publishing treats its authors like valued customers which leads me to another point. Writing a novel is a solitary endeavor, but after it’s complete, it changes to a collaboration. There are many people who were involved in the process of production, marketing, and distribution of the Kindle Serials and I can’t say enough about them. I never felt like I was alone.

The serial process also presented an opportunity for an interactive conversation between readers and the author during the writing of the book. Conceivably, although it didn’t happen in my case, readers could’ve influenced the story through feedback given along the way. So the serialization, coupled with real-time communication, takes an old concept and adds a dynamic new twist.

Changing reader's expectations:
About halfway through the serial release, the feedback changed to positive. It was like a light switch was flipped. People began to anticipate the episodes with ever greater interest and eagerness. The jury was split down the middle. Some people said they’d never buy another serial, while others really enjoyed the prolonged delivery. Do you watch Homeland in episodes as they’re released, or wait to buy the entire season on DVD? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a personal choice.  

I think the role of an author is evolving with the times. Back in the day when serials first emerged, authors didn’t have the level of interaction with readers like they do today. It’s not a profession for introverts anymore. The electronic age has lifted the veil. Is it a good change? I think it is.

Andrew Peterson began writing fiction in 1990. He sold a short story, Mr. Haggarty’s Stop, to San Diego Writers Monthly in October, 1992. He continued to write, exploring both the novel form and screenplays. After attending his first writer’s conference in 2005, he became serious about writing the Nathan McBride stories. FIRST TO KILL is Andrew’s debut thriller which features Nathan McBride, the “brutally effective” trained Marine Corps scout sniper and CIA operations officer. He's since released FORCED TO KILL and OPTION TO KILL. New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry says, "Part Jack Reacher, part Jason Bourne, Nathan McBride is a compelling, conflicted hero. Option to Kill is a masterful thrill ride. Definitely one for your keeper shelf. I couldn’t put it down.”

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1 comment:

L McMaken said...

Serials are fun and frustrating at the same time. As in -- your favorite TV show leaving you hanging until next season. Frustrating! LOL

I do however, like the serial idea, as it gives me something to look forward too next month, and Nathan McBride is always looked forward to!

Plus, the frustration can create exciting gossip about what will happen in the next episode, generating new readers.

I agree in today's fast paced, instant world, many expect the book, all of it, right now.

It is nice however, to slow down, appreciate the story, and indulge.

Great post, Andrew!