Writing Serial Books, Short Formats for a Distracted Audience

Good things, when short, are twice as good.
—Tom Stoppard

I have the theory that we read more than ever. Book reading is slightly on the down in the last decade, but we don’t know how online reading is doing. Like with TV, the audience might be moving to streaming, or in the case of books, to online sources (news sites, blogs, web fiction, etc). But we don’t know, because those who measure these numbers don’t know/want to look to new media.

So we might disagree on whether or not we read more or less, but what it’s clear is that reading habits are changing rapidly. Writers and publishers are now catching up on the trend to satisfy those that demand immediate gratification. Short attention span might be to blame. Or not, because the demand for short story formats is really not new.

Serial fiction writing trends

It happened before

In the early 1800 novels were serialized in paper journals. Dickens being the most known example. He is kinda considered the father of the serialized format in papers. Another example? Dumas’ The Three Musketeers serialized in a Parisian magazine, or in the US, Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was released in 40 installments and published by an abolitionist periodical.

The 19th century had penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short-fiction magazines, that apparently were all the craze back then. The early 20th century saw the success of the pulps, short magazine-like publications of fiction. Interestingly enough, pulps covered mostly genre fiction and it is known today for its exploitation themes. It looks like sensationalism sells and has been doing it for over a century now. Until WWII pulps were the most popular avenue for short fiction.

Serialization was popular in the US as in Europe. The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published in 27 parts by Rolling Stone magazine. And more recently, the popularity of sites like Watpadd have pointed to a possible resurgence of the format.

New initiatives

And, as if to test the theory, James Patterson is new publishing a whole series of short books under a new (not really) format called Bookshots. Books that run around 30,000 words and that, without the marketing, are simply Novellas.

They’re fast reads that pack a lot of punch in a little package. It’s usually hard to find novellas in print. They’ve become the darling of the ebook world. BookShots, on the other hand, are being  published in print with wide, and I mean WIDE, distribution. They’re designed for readers on the go who want to be thrilled or romanced in one or two sittings.
—What the heck are BookShots

Serial Box is another example of this same short format for quick consumption, in this case inspired by tv show habits.

[Serial Box] aims to be “HBO for readers.” Serial Box releases “episodes” (not “books”) over a 10 to 16 week season. Each season is written by a team of writers. […] The process is directly modeled on writing for a TV series. “We begin with the equivalent of a showrunner and three or four supporting writers,” Barton explains. Together, they break down the plot, talk through the characters, and map out current and future seasons.
—Can Serialized Fiction Convert Binge Watchers Into Binge Readers?

Serialized fiction is nothing new, and has always have great support. As a new writer short stories and novellas are very attractive. Plus it is quite common to hear writers recommend series of books as a way to keep readers engaged. It’ll be interesting to see how the independent publishing industry, much more welcoming of changes and experimentation, evolves the concept.

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