EXTRA ETHER: Serial Iterations

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press


It takes an incredible amount of effort to persuade a reader to buy your book. But what if you have to persuade the reader to buy the book six times? Or ten?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press

Jason Ashlock

That’s Jason Ashlock, president of Movable Type Management, writing about serialization and Amazon’s unveiling late last week of Kindle Serials.

It may sound like a quiet bit of news, less flashy than the back-lighting and and 4G. But if you’re in the business of writing or publishing fiction, it was the most exciting part of the day.

Ashlock’s comments, Amazon’s Best News Has Nothing to Do with Devices, dropped too quietly into the Digital Book World Expert Publishing Blog.

Most of the surrounding noise did indeed trumpet the coming suite of new Kindle Fire models.

An aside on those new Kindles: Within three days, Amazon reversed ferret on the ads-only original plan, and now will offer no-advertising versions of the new Kindle Fires HD and entry-level models for a $15 opt-out fee. For more on this point, see CNET’s John P. Falcone in Amazon backtracks, will offer $15 opt-out for ads on Kindle Fire tablets.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressI appreciate the salute Ashlock is making to Kindle Serials, and I want to bullet out for you his smart points:

Amazon is continuing to open up markets for new forms of storytelling–even if they’re old forms that we’d forgotten.

  • They did it with the Kindle Singles program, which has sprinting toward 3.5 million short ebooks from a standing start.
  • They did it with Kindle Direct Publishing, which continues to surface quality storytelling from the self-publishers.
  • And now Amazon again endorses a new market, this time for the serial work.

This is clear thinking, expertly parsed, something not always available in the industry! the industry! that loves no sport better than the hurling of stones at Amazon.

In a moment, though, I’ll ask you to put aside the Amazonian component of this development, so we can consider not only the rich writerly potential to which Ashlock rightly points, but also some of the technical pitfalls and a potential literary vulnerability I think I see ahead.

  1. We first will quickly review the prime elements of Amazon’s program.
  2. Then we’ll hear from a serialization veteran, Roz Morris.
  3. Then from the data-aware Sarah Kessler.
  4. And finally, I’ll ask you to mull a potential, related concern.

1. The basics on Kindle Serials

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressWhat Amazon is releasing is an initial set of eight Kindle Serials at an introductory price of $1.99. They are:

In an especially nice touch, Amazon is offering free downloads of the serial-novel experience with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. Seattle is publishing these using recreated covers and original illustrations, and parceling them out in the same installments Dickens issued them. Sweet.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressFor his part, Ashlock’s agency has an acute interest in this news, which he readily concedes, although it’s not a direct connection with the Amazon project:

We’re now just a few weeks away from the launch of our virgin serial effort with St Martin’s: Jamie Brenner‘s serial novel The Gin Lovers, an inventive story set against the turbulent and glamorous backdrop of Prohibition and the rise of the jazz age.

And that’s a key reason that Ashlock and his associates are more readily up to speed on the trickiness of serial marketing issues than many others may be. He writes:

Prior to this (Amazon) announcement, you could sell serial novels, of course, but you had to sell each piece individually.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressThe Amazon apparatus suddenly changes all that, if only for those who are serializing on its program.The Bezosian engines will be roaring with serial installments for customers who have, in fact, subscribed up front, paying a fee for the whole ride of a serial.

But outside such a digitally reinforced ride across this Lake Constance of a literary format? Ashlock:

When each installment is a separate sale, there’s a lot of room to lose a reader. Wooing them back for each subsequent release, however well-timed, is a serious challenge.

We know more about this. Read on.

 

2. Roz Morris: Serial Veteran

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press

Roz Morris

Ashlock is echoing the apparently prescient London-based author Roz Morris, who was writing a post about her own serialization experiences when she got word of Amazon’s new effort.

You can see her scrambling at the end of her post, Serialising my novel… what to do when the show is over, to add a footer:

STOP PRESS – just as I put this post to bed, Amazon announced the Kindle Serials Programme. If you are chosen for it, it looks as though this takes a lot of the faff out of it.

But without that program under you?

Nobody knows the faff Morris has seen.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressI watched with interest, one year ago, as she experimented, more graceful under pressure than I’d have been, with the four-part serial release on Amazon of her novel My Memories of a Future Life. This is the book, as Ethernauts will know, with which Morris has been kind enough recently to sponsor the Ether. She writes:

Although serialisation was exciting as a launch pad, I’m not sure that readers appreciated being interrupted mid-stream. Some told me they wouldn’t buy until the final episode was up. Others told me they’d knocked stars off their reviews for the inconvenience of waiting.

If anything, having worked very hard to create four discrete sections from what was written as a single, unified novel — in effect, four standalone books — Morris then found herself desperately trying to get the full-volume edition ready.

I released my complete edition as quickly as I could to grab the interested readers before they decided I was making life too difficult for them.

And to this day, there are five versions of My Memories of a Future Life on Amazon, each with its own reviews. This can be confusing to unsuspecting readers who are looking for the complete novel and run afoul of a partial without realizing it.

Here’s what you see when you search for Morris’ book by its title. You’re looking at one complete novel (the top listing) and Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressWhat’s more, Morris writes:

Amazon understood that the complete book had the same content as the episodes, but regards them as different publications and won’t transfer the reviews. That seems entirely fair to me – but it does mean that you launch the full book with a worryingly naked star rating.

When Morris released the full book, about a month after the first installment ran, she had some strong reviews and high star ratings — but only on the separate sections. The whole novel had to start at ground zero with readers and gain its own responses.

Suffice it to say — and as I think Ashlock and his team will agree — should you feel inspired by the advent of Kindle Singles to rush out and do a little serialization of your own, do read Morris’ post first and realize that the “faff” she struggled with last fall is all yours to surmount, unless your effort becomes part of Amazon’s new program.

Now, let’s move to another viewpoint.

 

3. Sarah Kessler: Little Dorrit’s Data?

Throughout its 17-year history, Amazon has helped change the way that books are sold, the format in which they’re read andhow they are published. Now it could change how they’re written.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press

Sarah Kessler

That’s Sarah Kessler writing at Fast Company, her article is headlined Amazon Changed Reading. Now It Could Change Writing.

Among responses I’ve seen — and I’d like to thank Jenn Webb at O’Reilly Media’s radar program for flagging Kessler’s write — this one comes the closest to voicing my concern.

Here’s Kessler, emphasis mine:

Dickens didn’t have the Internet. Or data about how readers responded to each of his chapters.

“[Kindle Series] Authors will be able to follow along with reader reaction and adapt the next installments based on the first ones,” Bezos said.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressDon’t worry that it’s Jeff Bezos or Amazon talking, my point is larger, and the authors involved are lucky to be with a company like Amazon that can pull this off.

In fact, let’s hear this from the press release on the serials, a little different wording, same emphasis from me:

Readers can also join the conversation on Amazon discussion boards as the stories unfold – allowing the authors to learn from readers in real-time and perhaps influence a story’s path.

One more time, here is the very able Jeff Belle, VP of Amazon Publishing, talking it this way in the release, me doing the underlining again:

Readers can discuss the stories on Amazon discussion boards as they’re being written – like virtual water cooler conversations – perhaps even influencing where the next episode may go.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressLet’s go back to Kessler at Fast Company:

Publishing one segment at a time will enable authors, like app developers, to make decisions based on user activity. Data analytics will push that ability to another level. Do readers have high drop-off rates when a certain character appears? Maybe he should appear less in the next episode. Do they share a certain idea with their social networks? Maybe that idea comes up again.

Feel that chill? More Kessler:

Digital has transformed all media to some extent. News is a different beast online.

And there it is.

 

4. Doubt Amid the Data

One of the reasons I’m not a great believer in crowd-sorcery is the effect that crowd-sourcing has had on the news media.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressBy the time advertising pressure and digital capability colluded to cause editors to choose coverage based on what readers wanted — rather than on journalistic importance — the newsrooms of my own career had changed forever. I can grossly simplify the issue for you in four words: Security Council versus Bieber.

And when your readership is at that virtual water cooler, giddy about the latest installment in a given serial, suggesting that this character be killed off or that character have sex with the other one … does it start to feel like something about Twilight characters and fan fiction? And does the area between author intent and reader “interaction” get a few more shades of fuzzy?

The quick research I’ve done indicates that Dickens did indeed incorporate some reader reactions into serial installments as he went along. But this was, perhaps, a friend or family member, a business associate, a chat over luncheon. Not a global digital forum.

Kessler writes this:

Amazon publishers are currently little better off than Dickens in the data department. Amazon only gives them access to data regarding sales figures and royalties.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressShe goes on to mention startups working on deeper data, including Hiptype, with which we’re familiar, of course.

But with discussions in progress among readers, those Amazon publishers will have much more input to work with, with or without the help of startups.

Maybe we simply need to agree that this sort of writing — and reading — establishes itself, of necessity, as a class by itself.

Maybe the reader-“influenced” serial novel is just that. We enjoy it for what it is, celebrate the data and the formidable genius of Amazon that make this possible.

Kessler, it turns out, had another story queued up at Fast Company: Closer Look at Amazon’s New Kindle Series: Part Dickens, Part TV.

In that one, she looks at “a literary studio for digital serial novels called Plympton.” Not a publisher but a “studio,” please, Plympton has published — or studio-ed — three of the eight initial Kindle Serials.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Guy Gonzales, poetry, Handmade Memories: Poems & Essays 1997 – 2011, Free Verse Media, chapbook, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road Press

Jamie Brenner’s “The Gin Lovers” serial is being prepared on Amazon for an October 8 release of Part 1. Not a Kindle Serials project, note how much this looks like Roz Morris’ array of serial installments online.

And Kessler, in talking to the three authors involved — Anderson, Rachlis, and Amore — writes:

All of them we spoke with say (writing serial fiction is) different than writing a book.

Now, that’s an interesting line, isn’t it?

Kessler and the authors seem to want to compare this work to television and film. Rachlis notes that the episodic element makes it closer to TV.

And Plympton editor and co-founder Yael Goldstein Love lets Kessler know that, in fact, two of the three serials from her shop are already finished — not much room for reader influence there.

Nevertheless, Kessler writes:

Plympton is taking the idea of reader input a step further and allowing anyone who pledges $25 or a more in its Kickstarter campaign to become a voting member of its advisory committee.

Author Dani Amore seems to be a bit more cautious about reader input:

“How much I’ll factor it in, subconsciously or not, I don’t know,” Amore says about reader feedback. “I’ll definitely try to read it and see what happens.”

And maybe it’s for the best if serial authors think of what they’re doing as “different from writing a book.”

The strongest material in literature probably has not been written by committee, nor voted up or down by Kickstarter donors.

We’ll just keep our eyes open, if that’s OK with everyone.

Because sure, these are serials. Fun stuff. Nobody said we’re going to build a better Michael Cunningham or Ian McEwan or Andrew Miller or Ann Patchett, did they?

After all, serious literature will never be compromised by this kind of audience-influenced entertainment.

That’s what we said about the news, too.

How do you feel about the reader-input part of the new efforts in serialization? Does it sound like a healthy trend that brings readers and authors together? Or can you see situations in which expectations of readership influence could compromise a writer’s control of her or his own material?


Join us Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com for Writing on the Ether, presented this week by Ether sponsors Darrelyn Saloom, and Dave Malone, whose Seasons in Love is a recent release; and, starting Thursday, by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, author of Handmade Memories: Poems and Essays, 1997-2011.

The books you see here have been referenced recently in Writing on the Ether and/or installments of Extra Ether.

I’m bringing them together in one spot each week, to help you recall and locate them, not as an endorsement. And, needless to say, we lead our list weekly with our fine Writing on the Ether Sponsors, in gratitude for their support.

 


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Images: iStockphoto / Main: 4×6

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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