New ways for books to reach readers?

I was intrigued to read this article a couple of weeks ago.

Substack, an online subscription platform for popular writers like Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, appears to be setting its sights on disrupting the book publishing world.

Former Forbes media and entertainment writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg has revealed to Media Ink that he has received an advance to write a book for Substack titled, “We Are All Musicians Now.”

The book will be released on Substack later this month in a serialized format — with chapters dropping once a week.

. . .

Greenburg … opted to go the Substack route for his next book because it offered him more financial upside, he said.

“All in all, with the advance money being in the same ballpark, I’d rather go to a place where I can be my own boss with a higher upside than try to force it through an old business model that I think is broken,” he said.

Greenburg declined to say how much of an advance he received, but said it was comparable to what he’s received for more traditional book publications. On top of that, he will be charging $5 a month or $50 a year …

. . .

“Zack is among the first of what appears to be a growing number of authors serializing books, both fiction and nonfiction,” a Substack spokeswoman said, without providing specifics.

One lure might be that Substack gives writers total control over their readership, including email addresses. The online platform … makes money by taking a cut of the revenues the writers generate.

There’s more at the link.

I find this an intriguing development.  I subscribe to a couple of independent reporters on Substack (Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald) whose journalism I find valuable and whom I’d like to support.  However, I never thought of that Web site as a potential avenue to publish a book in serial form.

If the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, Substack may be on to something.  Amazon is about to launch its new Kindle Vella subscription service, which appears to offer something similar to what Substack is talking about (albeit in a typically Amazonian interface).  I don’t know which came first in terms of planning that approach, but if Amazon thinks it can make it work (and, more important, make money at it) then Substack may be on to a good thing.

I’m not sure I want to write in a serialized format.  It imposes different demands on story structure, plot and development, which will require a learning curve to master.  However, it might be a viable alternative to traditional publishing – the whole book at once – for those who can adapt to that format.  What say you, readers?

 

26 comments

  1. I know some people do very well in writing that way– both fanfiction and serialized-to-a-blog stories have done very well.

    Someone who can’t write that way could write a book and then put it out a chapter at a time.

  2. It used to be (as in, during the 19th century) that serial publishing was the primary way to get your book out there. If the reader feedback was good, people would start printing bound editions once the book was done. (Note that I do not say “the publisher”–literary piracy was a major contributor to authorial financial woes at the time).

    As you mentioned, writing a serial is a very different beast than writing something that’s meant to be released all at once, especially these days, when you can find out how readers are taking the story nearly instantly. It will be interesting to see if Vella, Substack, and the various other serial publishing services adopt a model similar to that of the olden days.

    Nothing new under the sun…

    1. IIRC, most of Dicken’s novels started out as serials – with lots of advertising! (I have a facsimile of the original Nicholas Nickleby, complete with ads).

  3. Serial format has been pretty big for Chinese web novels, and I think maybe also Korean.

    Can somewhat pair with cellphones as reader, etc.

    I’m not sure if Japanese webnovels are more serially updated or not. I know some of the Japanese light novels were originally published as web novels, but I’m not sure if the LN chapters in the volumes correspond to the WN updates. Sword Art Online might be one of the most famous/lucrative of these, and the Web Novel was put up between 2002 and 2008.

    Korean web novels are apparently more often on the shorter end, with runs of a round a hundred chapters for some titled.

    Chinese web novels apparently often run very long, into thousands of chapters.

    I’m reading a title, based on a Chinese web novel genre (xianxia) and a western genre (epic fantasy) on Royal Road. Royal Road is not charging me anything, but it is possible that they pay something to some of the authors? I’m pretty sure the author of it is not turning a profit, because they are a western academic of some sort. Anyway, Memories of the Fall on Royal Road has been running for about nine months, 103 chapters/107 updates, and about 1.7 million words including author’s notes, and old versions of edits preserved in author’s notes. Much of it was written before it started getting put up, we are maybe close to the end of book three, there is more story to go, and I have no idea how long it goes on.

    For an American writer, Klinh at honyakusite dot wordpress dot com is doing serialization to web with patreon support.

  4. I imagine that for readers who don’t use the adjectives “fast”, “voracious”, or “addicted” to describe their habits, a subscription service would work. I could also see something like this for a non-fiction scholarly work where the ability to read part of the story and then think about it before moving on would be beneficial (one reason why I prefer dead tree for this type of book – I am more likely to notice a chapter ending so I can stop and re-read to pick up what I might have missed). But I could not imagine reading the fun stuff a chapter at a time with long stretches between (nor paying $50 a year for the privilege of doing so).

    1. Yeah, there is exactly one fanfic series on AO3 that I read in spite of it not being complete. Otherwise, even if it looks intreaguing, I wait until it has the green checkbox. Of course, that one author has many completed works in the series, which is how I got sucked in.

      The only other thing I do that’s similar is beta reading for Pam, which usually she feeds out parts daily, but that’s different.

  5. I imagine that for readers who don’t use the adjectives “fast”, “voracious”, or “addicted” to describe their habits, a subscription service would work. I could also see something like this for a non-fiction scholarly work where the ability to read part of the story and then think about it before moving on would be beneficial (one reason why I prefer dead tree for this type of book – I am more likely to notice a chapter ending so I can stop and re-read to pick up what I might have missed). But I could not imagine reading the fun stuff a chapter at a time with long stretches between (nor paying $50 a year for the privilege of doing so).

    1. The Chinese/Korean model is apparently daily updates, or maybe I’ve even heard of twice daily.

      I’m reading three things now on Royal Road. One updates every week day, one is M W F, and one was about twice a week when it was updating actively. The last hasn’t updated in about ten days, and has had some longer periods between updates, as the author is having a difficult time at work, and is trying to add a prologue and rewrite the first four chapters.

      When it was updating twice a week, I could fill some of the in between time by rereading the previous updates and parsing out some more clues about what is really going on.

      When Embers was updating on FFN, I recall being in the habit of being attentive to updates on Wednesday or Thursday. (Ninety one chapters, so the weekly/biweekly update periods when it was heavily being updated were during different years.)

  6. Didn’t Amazon try this a few years ago, under a slightly different format? I remember a lot of talk about releasing novels a chapter or two at a time, and then readers who had subscribed to the serial got a discount on the novel when it was published whole, or something. If memory serves, the problem then was that readers noted that paying $0.99 US/ episode led to books costing more than the $4.99 or so “all at once” price.

    Again, this was some years ago, and I might be misremembering things.

  7. I kind of do this now; or I was. I published a chapter a week of the work in progress on both Wattpad and AO3. The same chapter on both platforms. My three readers enjoyed them (six in all!). It was all first draft and I rewrote my manuscript as things changed so when I press [publish], the finished book will different. Sometimes not much, sometimes quite a bit in terms of character and emphasis.

    I don’t know if this leads to finding new readers or if those online readers will ever buy the finished novel or if they’ll recommend it to their friends.

    It was something to try and an encouragement to keep at the writing as I didn’t want to let down my readers. I tried very hard to stay at least three chapters ahead of my readers. Life kept getting in the way. I’m now on hiatus as I have to catch up on other stuff. When I’m several chapters ahead on The War Dogs of Barsoom, I’ll start serializing again.

    Once more: did this lead to new readers? More sales? Not that I could tell but we’re really bad at marketing.

    I think if you already have a fanbase AND you can market your unique vision, this would be worth trying. Anything that breaks through the immense cloud of chaff can only be beneficial.

    1. I do much the same, and the dozen or so regulars point out continuity errors, plot holes, confusing bits, and after it’s all done they go Grammar Nazi on me. Absolutely invaluable, but not a marketing or sales tool. Doing something similar with a finished, polished book and get money for it is . . . something to think about.

  8. readers who don’t use the adjectives “fast”, “voracious”, or “addicted” to describe their habits
    So, not me.
    The gaps between books in a series is bad enough; gaps between chapters? No way. I’d completely lose track of what was going on. I cannot read in parallel. I addictively, voraciously, and fastly read an entire series then move on. If I catch up to the author, it is hit-or-miss if I ever return to the series. Promos here (and at ATH) help y’all, but the non-Mad authors just fall off my radar (or I stumble on something years later and catch up, again).
    It is possible that I would read non-fiction this way. A new Thomas Sowell or Theodore Dalrymple book might be fine this way. For fiction, it would drive me crazy (the one or two times I attempted it before giving up).

  9. I’ve got a unpublished Urban Fantasy I’m thinking about using to test the waters with Kindle Vella. I’m a little dubious, just because that’s not how I read, so I’m not going to commit a book in an on going series to the venture.

  10. Oh, speaking of new ways for books to reach readers, I’m in the middle of getting Conscious Choice, which is on something new-to-me: eBookIt. I’m in the middle because I need to do all the account creation stuff and I haven’t felt like doing it, yet.

  11. Is there potential?
    Sure there is.

    Is it a wise use of your time?
    Probably not.

    You’re effectively writing an extra long blog entry every week (or less).
    Users lose the habit of checking for updates very quickly.

    Because reading requires the active participation of the reader, there is much less opportunity for the audience to enjoy it as opposed to podcasts and the like. (e.g. you can’t read while driving to work.) So there’s an intrinsic comparative disadvantage.

    For those of us who do read somewhat compulsively, we generally have a backlog of books to be read.
    Interrupting that every so often for a single chapter is almost certain to fall by the wayside very quickly.

  12. Isn’t this Perry Rodan? Serialized story arc, comes out every week, each issue is a little novella all unto itself…

    Sounds like something you hire a crew to churn out. One guy to set the story arc and the characters, then many little beavers to do all the writing parts.

  13. Re: losing the habit — Most of the Chinese webnovel/translation sites have some kind of update site that links to them, and the update sites usually have apps for both reminding and keeping track of what books you’re reading and what chapter you’re on. So your phone tells you that a new chapter is out, and you click on it, and bob’s your uncle.

    A lot of the webnovel sites and translation sites allegedly pass along “gifts” or “donations” to the authors and/or the translators, as well as accepting ad money and donations/subscriptions for the websites. Some websites have “locked” chapters that you can only read if you’re a member of the site, or they lock all the chapters beyond a certain point in the novel.

  14. Um. Well. It looks like “Kindle Vella” is going to be _very_ expensive for anybody who reads copiously And it’s going to be very hard for writers who write long to interest new readers. And webnovel readers are very very very voracious readers.

    Seriously? What the heck??

    1. Okay… apparently Kindle Vella is following the same model as webnovels.com, but Amazon seems to have ignored the fact that the webnovels model is widely flouted by most readers. You’re talking novels that are basically soap operas, lasting several hundred to a thousand chapters. So the fans don’t want to pay webnovels 10 bucks for 50 chapters out of 500, or 1000. People who are new readers trying to catch up to the current chapters are particularly unhappy about paying large amounts of money in a short time.

      People who are really fans of webnovels.com novels seem to pay money to the actual translation sites, or throw their money to sites which give them access (less than legally) to more chapters.

      Apparently this is also why there are a lot of computer-voice audiobook versions of really long novels which were acquired by webnovels.com.

      In the past, webnovels.com had a subscription model, which apparently gave access to all chapters of all novels. Now it’s subscription = tokens. I saw an estimate that the tokens included in the monthly subscription were enough to keep up with about two novels in a month, and then the normal thing was to pirate all the others. People want to support the writers and translators, but don’t see a way to do it feasibly.

      Obviously, the problem is that “free with monetary gifts” or “share subscriptions with authors” produced some kind of habit of fans spending money, whereas the new model reduces the incentive for fans to spend money, or for authors to update frequently or to write really really long serials.

      The other problem is that this reduces the incentive for advertisers to advertise on websites, or for fans to pay any subscription/upkeep to the supposedly-legal websites.

      Arggggh.

      1. Apparently there are a fair number of Chinese and Korean authors who have Patreon or other donation sites, and so a lot of people donate directly to foreign authors in that way. (I suppose the exchange rate would matter a lot.)

        Of course, some webnovel authors are slowly starting to publish their books as ebooks in various formats, as well as the lucky few who have traditional manga, light novel, and television drama adaptations.

  15. I couldn’t do it without having the whole story in hand. I wouldn’t trust myself to finish.

  16. It’s something that’s been part of the field for a long time — with new variants.

    During the 30s-40s (and even into the 50s), magazines were the place that new SF got published — books were new and people were used to getting their novels in the magazines. But a magazine won’t hold a novel (particularly since it’s also got a novella or two, a few novelettes, and some short stories) — so novels were generally serialized. Short novels might fit into two issues, but others might run 3-5 issues, depending on what space was used by the shorter works.

    In more modern times, we’ve had authors produce novels chapter by chapter, with people paying off their web sites.

    Of course, with that, you need to trust that the author will finish the book. Some have, and others haven’t. So people got wary — they really had to trust the novel would be finished.

    And there are more modern things — I’ll list a few variants that I’ve been actively reading.

    We have Lois McMaster Bujold producing Penric novellas, which come out from a small press. And then Baen has published collections of several of those novellas as a single book.

    Another variant is currently being used by Charles Gannon for new works in his Caine RIordan universe — originally published by Baen, with new novels that he writes there continuing to come from them. He’s now got a number of writers producing stories in his universe. So he’s got a program now (not from Baen, although Baen has no problems with it), where various authors are producing stories (in line with an overall plot structure), and the novellas are published individually. And, shortly after the last novella in the story is published, then he writes a braided novel, including all of the original novellas, with original material that weaves all of the stories together to produce a single novel, which people can then buy separately. He’s already done that with the first six novellas (combined into a novel), and the next story has three novellas already published, with the braided novel to come out shortly).

    So we’re seeing new models coming out, because of the availability of publishing models and methods of reaching readers that weren’t practical in the past. It opens new possibilities for writers — with the challenge, as is true for all the current environment, of getting visibility to the readers who would like the book.

    I’ve read works with all those models, ranging from magazine serials of novels to all of the modern variants. As always, the hard part for me, as a reader, is finding out about the books I’d enjoy reading.

  17. I think a lot of this started with Royal Road, which has been around for a comparatively very long time. A lot of indy authors got their starts there, and more than a few have even gone back to having a presence there.
    Then of course we have Patreon, which also caters to that model.
    That substance is paying advances however, that’s a warning flag to me, and a big one. That means they’re more about marketing and advertising – which means ‘you’ are the product – not the stories or news articles they are selling, because are they -really- making enough money from subscriptions to be able to offer ‘advances’ to other people?

    (I also wonder what he considers a ‘traditional advance’. That’s like 3K to a normal person, and 500K if you’re a politician in office).

  18. I’m partial to having the whole book to read at once. But serialized format has been around for well over a century, so it’s not exactly a new format, it’s just getting to us in a different way. Instead of finding the stories in newspapers or magazines, they’re being pushed out on-line or to our e-Readers. I think it has a definite appeal to a certain portion of both readers and writers. I’m just not into the format myself. I wish them well.

  19. For a long time, the serialized version was the way most SF was published. Up until the 50s, most SF appeared in the magazines, and, when you included a novella or two, plus some novelettes and short stories, most novels ended up being serialized in at least two issues, and 3-5 was more common.

    Of course, the reader did know the novel was finished, before starting to read it.

    One of the weaknesses of modern serializations is that authors haven’t always finished the book, and you can end up having bought part of an unfinished novel.

    And we’re also seeing modern variants on serialization now.

    For example, Lois McMaster Bujold has bene having Penric novellas appear (and be sold) individually. And later, Baen has published collections that include several novellas.

    Another variant is what Charles Gannon is doing in the Caine Riordan universe he’s been writing for Baen. He’s recently been having other writers doing novellas in that universe (as part of a master story), and then has a braided novel published which includes the novellas, with new writing by him to produce a novel including the novellas.

    So we see there are, and have been, ways of telling a serialized story that the field has used. The key thing to make it work is to trust that the author will have a completed work at the end, and not leave you with an incomplete novel.

  20. Kindle Vella goes live this week, and I’m releasing my current WIP on it. I’ll have some concrete results to pass along by this time next weekend.

    I used to struggle with the chore of writing anything longer than a short story or comic book plot/script. (I wrote comics in the 1980s, and was even the first online comics pro back when “online” meant Usenet.) The serialized fiction format was my solution to my inability to write longer works. I approached each “chapter” (Vella calls them “episodes”) as its own little project. My goal was to resolve the previous cliffhanger (I wrote a LOT of cliffhangers) and move the story along to the next cliffhanger. The ultimate resolution of the story was always there in the back of my mind, but my only concerns were the current chapter and my obligation to present it on schedule for my handful of writers. I’m releasing my 19th book on July 20, so it obviously worked.

    All that means Kindle Vella is right in my wheelhouse. At worst, my story won’t attract any more readers than those first draft chapters I posted for free on my website. At best, I’ll actually make some money while writing my 20th book. Meanwhile, I’m having fun and admit I’m excited for the launch. I wish Amazon would give us a specific date, though. Some advertising for the platform would be nice, too.

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