The Math of Serialization

Like SgL, my writing roots lie in fandom/fanfiction and I noodled around at various points with sites like Fictionpress, an offshoot of the much more popular The problem with Fictionpress and similar sites, however, was always that the ratio of writers to readers was incredibly unbalanced and there was no sense of the community inherent in fandom. I touched on this a bit in a blog post from last year, and may revisit the topic at some point from a different angle.

But I’d like to kick off this blog with something a little different. (and rambly.)

Back when I first started looking into serializing original fiction online (outside of archive sites like Fictionpress), one of my main points of comparison was webcomics. Webcomics are arguably the most visible/popular form of online fiction in the English-speaking sphere. Many of them are quite successful in the sense that they’ve been able to grow a stable audience over many years. This was something I saw replicated only very rarely on the textual side. It did happen — there were writers who did become wildly popular at Fictionpress in its early days (I suspect but am not sure that many of them picked up readers before the site split off from*), quite a few of whom have since been picked up by publishers — but it wasn’t nearly the same sort of visibility even mid-sized webcomics have. Or, to be honest, the sort of visibility of popular fanfiction.

* initially hosted original fiction as well. I can’t find confirmation of this tidbit of internet history on a brief search, but I swear my memory is not totally shot and that I’m not just imagining things. 😛 I don’t remember why the split happened (if we ever got a reason for it), but I imagine the site had gotten too big/they wanted to keep the legal issues separate.

Existing “webfiction” attempts seemed to be emulating the webcomic model to a certain extent (independent hosting, direct comments on updates, regular schedule, fairly consistent update sizes), pursuing a somewhat different approach from the archive sites. But for the most part, they too were far less successful than their comic counterparts. This got me to thinking about the sustainability of prose fiction on this model.

Because, see, I realized suddenly that mathematically, it doesn’t really work out.

First, consider traditionally serialized manga. Different magazines have different rules or standards, so for ease of discussion, let’s take a look at Shounen Jump, which publishes one chapter a week per series. For any given series, that’s about 20 pages a week, or 20 * 52 = 1040 pages a year. And fine, take a couple of weeks off for various breaks/cushions for illness: 20 * 45 = 900 pages a year. About 4-5 compiled volumes a year. Most successful series last about 4 years, if not more. That’s several thousand pages for a single series — 12-20 volumes is a pretty good run in general.

But to put that into perspective, each of the three most popular Jump series (One Piece, Naruto, Bleach) has now been running more than ten years.

Now compare webcomics. One of the more popular update schedules is MWF, or 3 pages a week. That’s 3 * 52 = 156 pages a year, assuming no missed updates. About the size of a single compiled volume, maybe a bit less. To finish the equivalent of a short Jump series (say, one that lasts only a year/4-5 volumes), it’ll take you 5-6 years. Or in other words, webcomics have the ability to pick up and build a loyal audience over the long run, for a single project. Like the popular Jump series, some webcomics have been going on for close to a decade or more.

So… images are worth a thousand words, right? 😛 Well, math time again:

The average traditionally published adult novel is 80-100k words in length. Let’s be generous and say you write epic fantasy doorstops that go for 200k.

If we take the saying literally, the equivalent of 3 comic pages a week would be 3k a week.

You’re done with the whole book in little over a year. If you wrote a trilogy of doorstops, you’re done in less than four years. And then you’ve got to move on to your next project, and hope that your audience will keep following you.

That update speed is actually pretty nice for readers. And fairly in line with historical newspaper/magazine serials (though those were generally monthly rather than weekly updates as far as I’m aware). The amount and regularity of content would definitely attract an audience in my opinion — it’s just that you don’t have quite the same long term advantage of comics.

But not every novel is going to be an epic doorstop. At 3k a week, a book at around the 80k length would finish posting in half a year. Barely enough time to get any traction as a serial.

Of course, in practice, most writers don’t spit out 3k a week (although it is totally doable). Even if they can, there is a line of thinking that short and easily digestible is better — the ideal blog post is supposedly 500-750 words, for instance (not a rule I personally care for :P).

That’s about 2-3 pages in print.

So you might think, hey, comics release 3 pages per week, why not for prose as well? That would give you the benefit, also, of drawing out the length of your run.

But here’s the thing — a blog post is a distillation of a single idea. A comic page is a sequential arrangement of panels — adding up, in their own way, to a single complete thought. We simply don’t read prose fiction in the same way we read a blog post or a comic page. We read in scenes, not paragraph by paragraph, line by line. And it makes for a very choppy, monotonous narrative if all your scenes or “beats” are exactly 2-3 pages long. (Notably, people writing on Fictionpress/Wattpad et al. post chapter by chapter — as did, I believe, most historical serial publications)

And I guess this may be the point I’m ultimately driving at. The contemporary 3 act novel is not at all structured “for the web”, whatever that means (I’m aware there are different structures, but for the purposes of this post, I mean the generic beginning-middle-end/setup-conflict-resolution). And… I don’t think one should force the traditional novel to adhere to a different model. Better to write something geared specifically for the web medium. For example, long, involved arcs that can be compiled into volumes like TV seasons, but don’t necessarily follow a traditional “series” pattern — allowing regular but meaty updates that will last for a long time. Alternatively, short, episodic updates/loosely linked stories.

Anyway… just a lot of rambling food for thought. SgL has a post scheduled for tomorrow that will discuss light novels (more or less the illustrated equivalent of pulp serials, and still highly popular/culturally influential in Asia, in sharp contrast to the current state of serials in Western countries) — which are very much the kind of fiction I think would be suited for the web.


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