Showing posts with label serials. Show all posts
Showing posts with label serials. Show all posts

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Are Serialized Ebooks a Bad Idea?

Charles Dickens didn't invent serialized novels, but he's certainly one of the best known authors to use the serial approach.

Whereas the traditional story has a beginning, a middle and an end, the serial novel is often characterized by the never-ending middle. The author starts the story, and then releases new installments over time.

I wonder what Charles Dickens would think of serialized ebooks. The topic is on my mind today because when I woke up this morning and looked at the Smashwords home page, it was dominated by five installments of a single ebook, each about 10,000 words.

The other day, I asked another author to stop posting his series of 2,000 word ebooks.

At Smashwords, we have a strict policy of only publishing complete, finished works. If you want to publish a partial book, or a work-in-process, we don't want it, because it doesn't fit with our mission of connecting a reader's eyeballs and wallet to the finished works of our indie authors and publishers. If a customer purchases an unfinished, incomplete or partial work, they feel ripped off.

Yet we face a quandary with serialized books. They occupy a grey area. They technically don't comply with our terms of service, unless each serialized chunk can stand alone as a complete story. But whose job is it to judge whether a story is complete or not, or long enough to qualify as a standalone work?

I created Smashwords to eliminate gatekeepers, not to become one. I don't want to stand in the way of an author's creative expression, or fail to serve a reader's desire for serialized works.

So I wondered, are readers interested in serials? Am I wrong to discourage serials on Smashwords?

To gauge reader interest, I posted a short query over at Smashwords Site Updates, inviting Smashwords customers to share their opinions. Concurrent with that post, I posted an online poll at MobileRead, where I asked readers to share their opinions on serialized ebooks.

The early results surprised me. With only 36 votes recorded so far, 91% of respondents claim they either avoid reading serialized ebooks, or they never read them. It'll be interesting to watch how the numbers shake out once the vote count approaches a more statistically significant sample size.

The comments at MobileRead are even more interesting. Many readers there are passionately opposed to serialized ebooks.

The initial results indicate I'm probably correct to continue discouraging serialized ebooks at Smashwords. We're unlikely to outright ban them, because we don't want to get into that gatekeeper role of determining what's complete, and what's not.

My hunch is that Darwin's natural selection, powered by reader preferences, will prevent serialized ebooks from catching on. Most writers write to attract readers, not repel them.

Why do most readers hold serialized books in such disdain, as my unscientific poll appears to indicate? If I distill the essence of the initial MobileRead comments, as well as the private emails I've received today, it boils down to these four reasons:

  1. Lack of immediate gratification - If you enjoy a book, you want to finish it now, not later.
  2. Risk - You fear investing money in the serials, only to have the author abandon the project and leave the story unfinished.
  3. Cost - A serialized book can be much more expensive than a complete book.
  4. Inconvience - It's easier and more convenient to download a single file than multiple files.
One Smashwords publisher, who asked to remain anonymous, emailed me this interesting idea:
If serialization of ebooks is permitted, it should only be after the author submits the entire book: then, and only then should the online publisher allow the chapters to be sold piecemeal... possibly on some standardized/automated periodical basis, like once a week.
If we were ever to embrace serialized books at Smashwords, I think his approach is equitable to all and makes sense. It would free us from gatekeeping and allow us to enable distribution and merchandising with a fully automated, author-opt-in technology solution. We like automation. However, given the apparent lack of interest in serialized ebooks, for the time being we have bigger fish to fry. And on that count, stay tuned. Cool stuff in the works.

Click here to cast your vote in my MobileRead serialization poll. The poll will close in two months.

Image credit: Wikipedia, photo of a young Dickens. For more on Charles Dickens, see his Wikipedia page. Click here for the Wikipedia page on serialized literature. Learn about Stephen King's well known ebook serialization experiment on the Wikipedia page for his book, The Plant.