The Terminology Debate Part 2 of ? – Amazon muddies the term "serial" (and what I’d be doing if I was in charge)

I’m sure by now most of you already heard about Amazon.com and the announcement that the company was launching serials for their Kindle user base. Or perhaps you saw media surrounding the Plympton Serial Kickstarter or heard about its partnership with Amazon in various media outlets.

If not, I suggest checking out the many articles on this already out there.

While I think it’s a rather interesting concept to attempt to float in front of readers who are largely accustomed to receiving whole books/products on their e-readers… what I thought was far more interesting was the debate that emerged over several sites as to whether Amazon was really publishing serials at all.

In some of the comments that surfaced in the blogosphere one chief quibble was whether the works Amazon was releasing were truly being written on the fly or were, to some degree, works that were really done (“in the can”) and  would sliced up for “this serialization model.”  Perhaps this clarification emerged more recently. It appeared at least one or two of Plympton’s announced works were “complete books” with no clarification on the other works by other publishers that are feeding into the serial program.

To echo the main point made in a blog from some time ago by Claudia Hall Christian at Tuesday Serial (see http://tuesdayserial.com/?p=2334 )  — it seems that the term “serial” has become a mix of things.

In essence she tried to draw a line in terminology, pointing out that there is a difference between

  • A book already completed, but broken for distribution into several pieces.
  • A book not completed and is being written nearly in the public eye, with the content being published close to time of writing, pieces at a time.  

And yet Amazon and Plympton seem to be invoking Charles Dickens (and Tolstoy and Hugo, etc.etc.) in describing both types. Yet – we know that Charles Dickens largely followed the second mode.

So here’s the part where I express some mild irritation.
 As a reader and buyer of ebooks, I admit feeling cheated by the idea that both types fit into this “categorization.”  The first type appears to be about making you buy the book in pieces (and holding a complete work back and possibly paying more for the pieces than the whole) .  I think this could become annoying since I don’t like spending more money on a “complete work” than I would have for the paper/dead-tree version.  Unless the book was the next Harry Potter and my excitement level remains high, I really DON’T want to be shelling out more money over the long-run for a work that I will later want compiled or will toss (if it’s not worth it).  I’d rather not see the first type entering into this space. At the best it misleads, at the worst it ruins the market for the second type.

But as an author, I do not want to see a culture of offering excessively up-front low prices on a serial that you do not know when it will end.   That means authors could commit to giving readers a 10 dollar book for 99 cents.

According to the conspiracy theorist (or analyst) within me, I realize the risks and benefits must balance out.  Inevitably, Amazon serials will end up mysteriously ending around a certain page number because the profit model is not very good except at that specific “sweet spot.”

It’ll be funny when the publishing world gurus run the numbers in a year or two on average length and sale price of serials.  I bet we’ll see the number of pages normalize into a very  narrow bell curve.  If so, you all owe me a no-prize.

Some other points to ponder.

If a book is not only being written in pieces, but takes user feedback is that somehow even better as a serial? 

I was thinking about the Amazon press release and am kind of in the camp that this is simply an attempt to make readers excited about serials, ignoring the fact that some were already complete books before they were subsumed into this grand experiment.

On the other hand, some authors seem quite perplexed by Amazon’s concept of “feedback” being used to inform work.

It seems some authors who are unfamiliar with serials think “feedback” is a scary thing.

However, I’m guessing that the current world of publishing produces books mostly in a vacuum. An author doesn’t get feedback until they’ve finished something and handed it over to an editor and then an audience.

This is where I find great amusement in discussions on “feedback.”   Those writing serials “in the wild” already know that we’re already writing with feedback in mind. We just don’t WRITE what we’re told.

Each week I read the comments of my readers.  Most of them know not to give me plot points, but most talk about what annoys them or bothers them.   Their feedback is a barometer. I try to balance subsequent installments with revelations or more detail if people express confusion.  Or I take a tangent to play with characters that the readers really enjoy.  None of these are changing the fact that I”m still writing a novel with the ending and major guideposts clearly marked on some map I keep hidden away in my files. It just fills the writing path with a few detours, or slows down the speed a bit in getting to a destination.


Should Amazon only serialize “novel” type stories?  

I hope not.  Several authors have already tried to write “tv shows” as serials already on Amazon.   (As usual, I refer to those not already reading David Gaughran to do go to his blog: https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/tag/serial-fiction/ ).

Serializing “novels” shouldn’t really differ from TV broadcasting “open ended shows.”    And those of us who have been reading or writing webfiction know quite well that both the online novel and online drama  already coexist within the webfiction realm.  One of the most arguably successful webfictions (in terms of reader traffic/unique visitors) is more or less a school drama set over the course of several years.

More or less, soap operas can be written with a meta-plot and many seasonal plots that work together to keep readers entertained.  The “seasons” can be compiled into volumes that become “ebooks.”

The problem is whether our audience here in North America can tolerate this relatively low frills experience.  Serial fiction will be lacking in certain things that make serialized tv dramas sexy for consumption — i.e., the attractive actors, cinematography, and musical scoring.    Whether our society who prefers video games to books would be okay with naked uadulterated text remains to be seen.

I think it might be difficult to capture the TV generation, but not impossible.

The term transmedia hasn’t really quite taken hold of the public’s imaginations, but transmedia — whereby an intellectual property exists in many media spheres (and interacts with others) is a buzz word amongst content creators these days.  Amazon (with a mind of developing a serial consumer) could work with Hollywood writers/famous authors and their guilds and come up with a very good serial fiction model that builds off TV shows format.   They could be experimenting with networks to integrate serial text stories into programming. Slap up an Amazon.com/BonusMaterial   url at the end of every show.   Push transmedia onto us until we consumers become primed to expect it.  Get a Neil Gaiman to write more Doctor Who novellas, and we’re ALL there with you reading.

In time, people in North America will understand the online novel(la) or webfiction for what it can be. Not just as an extension of a transmedia experience but an experience also in itself.

Monetizing this is not impossible. There are alternative formats that Amazon and others can explore.

Whether the content is standalone or “bonus,” somewhere in the various blogs made a really good suggestion for a hybrid subscription concept that Amazon could consider for long-running serials that don’t follow the novel format.  Amazon could build in a a renewable subscription element that can be altered at some time-interval. (This  would be no different from iTunes “season pass” for TV shows.)

Wonder if Amazon is already working on that idea. If not, Amazon, call me when you do.

Would gladly serve on your focus group 🙂 . For Free.

ETA:  As an addendum, while surfing the “Google Play” store, I noticed that their “Short Reads” series officially includes novellas and serials.  Oddly enough these were published in June 2012, well before Amazon’s “big news.”   If you do have a chance, surf through and look at the reviews for some of these multi-parters (as seen on Goodreads).  It would seem that readers are quite unhappy with a few things that have happened with length/quality of the installments.  Take note Amazon.

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2 comments

  1. The more I think about it, the more obvious the subscription element becomes to me. I know the internet had been kind of moving away from subscription formats for a while to more ad-based formats, but that was mostly for nonfiction. I suspect we WILL be seeing a move back to that model for fiction, because it's not so much that subscription is outdated, but rather no one's found the right hybrid model to make it work yet.I remember seeing somewhere that Amazon has a division either snapping up film/TV rights or shopping them, so I think they're definitely thinking along the transmedia lines… Wish I could remember off the top of my head the exact reference. But they've definitely been approaching "content" from all sorts of directions, which should be really interesting to watch.

  2. Yes, Amazon has been monkeying around in film land for a while, but there a few horror stories lurking there. http://www.nffty.org/explore/your-say/amazon-the-movie-studio-yeah-right and http://www.deadline.com/2010/11/that-amazon-studios-screenplay-contest-heavenly-or-hellish-scribes-weigh-in/ . Just keep going and you'll see why I always view Amazon with caution. But the subscription model can work but requires patience and certainly won't be for everyone. I already play with that model for my serial comics (Shonen Jump and until today, Yen Press). Apparently most of us are just too impatient to wait for the paper hardback volumes to come out through our retailers 🙂

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