Serial Killer: The Resurgence of the Serial Novel

Remember the serial novel? It was the way Charles Dickens and many other classics of western literature were originally published back in the day, usually in the newspaper (remember those?). Readers would read a short instalment and be left hanging for the next issue. A loyal readership formed and the serial would later be printed together as a single volume book. This was still happening as recently as 5 years ago in The New York Times. Will guess what, its back!

As you may know from reading my blog or following me on twitter I have recently been raving about Wool by Hugh Howey which is being published in paperback in December by Random House. However Wool is readily available now as an eBook and was also originally self- published as en eBook in 5 separate parts. The first part was a only 48 pages and each part got progressively longer although part five was still only 180 odd pages. The book itself reads perfectly as five parts: the pacing, the structure, the way the world is built and uncovered to the reader and how the big reveal is teased out.

Howey has written a follow up to Wool and the first part First Shift: Legacy (184 pages) is now available with the more parts to be released. John Birmingham, author of the Disappearance Trilogy, is also embarking on a digital only serial with Stalin’s Hammer (140 pages) which is set in the same alternate universe as his World War 2.1 series (aka Axis of Time series). Birmingham is planning on releasing more in this series and it remains to be seen if an omnibus edition will be printed in paperback at the end of his story arc, but we’ll see. (Both Stalin’s Hammer and the individual Wool books are available Print On Demand)

The serial novel is perfect for eBooks. As the industry struggles to come to terms with what an eBook is worth vs a printed book vs readers’ expectations a serialized novel is at an affordable price point (First Shift: Legacy is $3.99 and Stalin’s Hammer $5.99) and a digestible size. EBooks are perfect for a novella length story (50-200 pages) that is always a tough sell as a print book and the fact that it is digitally published means the turnaround can be much quicker.

Digital is also a great testing ground. From a writing point of view an author can iron any kinks out and get feedback while their story arc evolves. A reader can find out if they like a story or an author with less commitment that a full length novel. And a publisher can see if there is an audience for a book and decide to go into print with less risk than usual.

In Hugh Howey’s case he started with one story which he self published as an eBook. He got a response from readers who wanted to read more. He then built an audience which led to a publishing deal with Random House and film rights being sold to Ridley Scott. Publishing is a risky business and can be quite conservative. A publisher is much more inclined to publish an author who already has an audience than build one from scratch (not to say they won’t build one from scratch if they think the book is wonderful).

I can’t wait to read the next instalment in the Silo series from Hugh Howey or sink my teeth into more stories in the Axis of Time series. Rather than wait two years like we did for the sequel to The Passage or 6 years for a new George R.R. Martin novel the serial novel can wet and satisfy our appetite at the same time and I think has a harmonious place in both the digital and print world.

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