As a writer of contemporary literary fiction, I had never considered serializing my work. Character-driven, introspective stories don’t often lend themselves to chapter-ending cliff-hangers. Then, a few years ago, I wrote The Last Storyteller, a speculative novel that contains some literary elements but also plenty of action.
Last spring, as I was deciding how best to bring the book into the world, I began hearing about the imminent launch of Amazon’s new Kindle Vella platform, which would offer, as Amazon puts it, “stories told one short episode at a time.” Readers would purchase tokens to gain access to installments of between 600 and 5,000 words. The first three episodes would be available for free.
I was simultaneously intrigued and wary. Like many indie authors, I have a somewhat fraught relationship with the behemoth of bookselling. At the time, I could find little information about how the service would work or even exactly when it would launch. I decided to approach with curiosity and a healthy dose of research and ended up becoming one of the early adopters. I prepared and staged The Last Storyteller in advance of Vella’s official launch, which turned out to be in mid-July.
For authors who may be considering distribution via Kindle Vella, here are a few of the considerations that went into my decision, what tipped me over the edge, and some thoughts about my experience so far.
How I decided to take the plunge
I’m not getting any younger—and neither are my books. You may laugh, but impending mortality has been a motivator for me as I’ve embraced the indie/hybrid life in the last ten years. I have chosen to self-publish some of my books and work with small presses for others. While The Last Storyteller may have had a better chance than some of my more literary works to attract an agent and eventually a traditional publisher, I wanted to get it out sooner rather than later. It’s near-future speculative fiction that takes place between 2020 and 2052. In waiting too long to publish, I would risk it becoming irrelevant.
My research reminded me that serialization has a long—if not always venerable—history. I knew Charles Dickens began as a writer of what were known in the Victorian era as “penny dreadfuls.” I learned that other esteemed writers of the past like Alexandre Dumas and Fyodor Dostoevsky also wrote novels that began as serials. The trend didn’t stop in the 19th century. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was originally serialized and two bestselling contemporary novelists, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, also have written in this form. (Hey—If it’s good enough for Margaret Atwood, it’s good enough for me.)
What tipped me over the edge
It’s Amazon. However you may feel about this publishing giant, Amazon has been in the tech business for a long time. I self-published my first novel on Amazon in 2011 using CreateSpace, at a time when putting together the digital assets necessary to self-publish was a royal pain. Still, the process was easier than many other online experiences. Since then, I’ve continued offering my books through Amazon even as I’ve expanded to other platforms. So I trusted that Vella would be easy to work with from a tech perspective. I did look briefly at some other serial platforms, including Dreame, Medium, Radish, SerialTeller, and Wattpad, but ultimately decided to stick with the known quantity.
I’m a bit of a tech geek. And, because I don’t expect to earn my living from fiction (that’s another whole article), I can afford to experiment. I figured that a few readers on the Kindle Vella platform would be better than no readers at all, which is what I would have if I kept the manuscript in a folder on my computer.
A new platform would mean a less competitive market. Exact numbers aren’t available for how many books Amazon offers, but there are ways of guessing that the numbers are enormous. For example, the first book I ever published in the early 1990s (not a novel but a tech how-to book) is currently ranked #22,634,221 in print books on Amazon, which gives some indication of the number of titles you’re competing with in print. I figured that getting in early with Vella might have some advantage simply in terms of numbers, in the same way that offering an audio book puts you into a market with fewer competitors than print titles.
The experience so far
Navigating the technology went smoothly. Setting up an account, adding a cover image, and creating episodes took minutes. I had a few decisions to make; for example, how frequently to release episodes. I began at the pace of one a week, then modified it to two a week since the book is relatively long. Between mid-July and mid-November, I have released 42 episodes and expect to finish releasing all episodes by the end of 2021.
I have made a little money. Amazon’s terms are straightforward—authors earn 50 percent of what readers spend on tokens to purchase episodes—and they also offer monthly bonuses based on “customer activity and engagement.” For me, so far, those bonuses have outstripped royalties. This was a pleasant surprise. Of course, since there’s little transparency into Amazon’s future business plans, I have no idea how long the bonuses will last or exactly how they’re calculated. But I’ll take them while I can.
My book is a near-fit. As I anticipated, The Last Storyteller is a bit out of place among the majority of Vella offerings, which, like much serialized fiction, lean toward sci-fi, fantasy, and romance. This may be a detriment to me in terms of the type of readers who are attracted to the platform (thus limiting discoverability). However, as with any publishing platform, your book will not sell itself, so you’ll be doing marketing no matter what. For now, Amazon does not seem to offer an equivalent to its Ad Central (available to authors selling Kindle books) for Vella authors, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they introduce ads at some point.
So, should you or shouldn’t you?
Here are some things to consider about publishing a novel in episodes on Vella, from both a writing and publishing perspective.
- Does your writing compel people to keep reading? This may sound like a silly question, but if your story unfolds at a leisurely pace, with lots of setup and background, then Vella may not be for you. Vella throws the harsh reality of today’s reading culture into stark relief: hooks matter. Without them, readers may decide they don’t care enough about your story to pay to continue.
- Take a look at the Vella categories listed at the top of the reader portal. If you write in one of these genres, you’ll fit right in. If your book doesn’t align with these groupings, you won’t want to shoe-horn it into a category that doesn’t match its content. At best, you’ll be ignored. At worst, you’ll alienate readers who are expecting one kind of reading experience and end up with another.
- Don’t write as you go. It’s certainly possible to offer up chapters from unfinished work, and some authors seem to be doing this. However, if you are a professional author, you should take your serialized work just as seriously as the work you publish in full-book form—which I hope you’re not putting out until it has gone through multiple drafts and a rigorous self- and professional editing process—and proofreading! You’ll do your long-term author career a disservice if you put up unfinished work.
- There are some limitations on what you can do with your Kindle Vella story. You can simultaneously publish your Kindle Vella story elsewhere, as long as it is in serial format and not available for free. Authors don’t need to unpublish their Kindle Vella story to publish the story as an ebook, paperback, or hardcover. However, if authors choose to publish a Kindle Vella story as an ebook, it must contain a minimum of 10 episodes, and the episodes need to have been available to readers in the Kindle Vella store for at least 30 days. For example, if an author were to write a 30-episode story and turn the first 15 episodes into a book, they could bundle those to make a book and continue adding new episodes to the story over time.
- The platform is likely to evolve. One certainty of the publishing world is that it’s going to change. I’m afraid you won’t find certainty and stability in many places, and certainly not with an organization as data-driven and fast-moving as Amazon. For example, the Vella account portal currently is separate from your KDP account, although the KDP Reports Beta dashboard gives access to all Amazon sales figures, including Vella, giving an indication of where reporting may be headed. Check back in six months and the landscape is likely to be different.
The bottom line is this: if you write in a genre that lends itself to serialization and are interested in exploring a new—and potentially lucrative, though perhaps not life-changing—way of getting your work into the world, then Vella is definitely worth a look.
Audrey Kalman writes fiction with a dark edge, often about what goes awry when human connection is missing from our lives. She is the author of three novels: What Remains Unsaid and Dance of Souls (both available on Amazon) and The Last Storyteller, available on Kindle’s Vella platform. Her fiction collection Tiny Shoes Dancing and Other Stories came out in 2018. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online journals and she is at work on another novel. She currently teaches the Birth Your Truest Story monthly workshop series (next sessions starting in January 2022) and serves as community liaison for the Brilliant Writer Community. Connect on Twitter, Facebook, or via her website.