Is serialized fiction making a comeback?
And can it succeed on Substack?
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Let’s jump right into it…
Is serialized fiction making a comeback?
Salman Rushdie isn’t the first famous writer to join Substack, but he’s the first that I know of who’s joining specifically to publish serialized fiction. The New York Times reported last week that Rushdie received a cash advance to write on the platform:
Mr. Rushdie plans to start with some serialized fiction and possibly a few essays, all of which will be free at first. He will eventually charge ($5 or $6 a month) to unlock, say, later chapters of a continuing work of fiction, or the ability to interact with Mr. Rushdie himself.
I wouldn’t be surprised if other established fiction writers get nudged onto Substack. I remember reading a recent interview with one of the company’s co-founders in which he opined that fiction could thrive on the platform, and Substack certainly has enough money in the bank to offer up cash advances as bait.
I can see the logic for why Substack would be great for delivering this kind of fiction. Once a reader signs up to receive a serialized novel, they merely need to sit back and wait for chapters to show up in their inbox. Substack also makes it incredibly easy to toggle between free and paid content, meaning that a writer can offer up the first several chapters for free — enough to get readers hooked — before taking the rest of the book behind the paywall.
But are consumers actually hungry for serialized fiction? It’s been at least a half century since the format last thrived. Serialized novels used to regularly appear in periodicals — a famous anecdote you’ll often hear is of crowds amassing on NYC docks awaiting for the next installment of Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers — but they largely disappeared by the 1980s. It’s hard to say exactly why the publishing industry soured on serials, but it probably had something to do with the fragmentation of media driven by the rise of cable television and the internet.
That being said, there are a few signs that serial fiction may be experiencing a small renaissance.
Let’s start by acknowledging the elephant in the room: the rise of prestige television. For most of the 20th century, TV shows were mostly episodic, with each episode having little to do with the one that came before it. That’s largely because Hollywood studios couldn’t guarantee that 100% of the audience had tuned into previous episodes, and they wanted a show to be accessible to new viewers.
The rise of DVDs — and later streaming services like Netflix — made it easy for newer audiences to go back and binge their way through earlier seasons, thereby allowing for long narrative arcs that stretched over an entire season or series. Now, the vast majority of scripted series are serialized as a result.
But what about non-TV serials?
A few years ago, I interviewed a few self-published authors whose genre fiction thrived on Amazon’s Kindle. Almost every single one had the exact same MO: they’d quickly write several books in a series, usually over a period of months. Then they’d publish the first three or four books in the series simultaneously. The first book would be completely free to download, and then each subsequent book gradually went up in price. They were basically designing their series to be binge-read, much in the way that audiences consume the latest season of Stranger Things or The Crown.
Then there’s Realm, the company formally known as Serial Box. It’s a startup that not only serializes stories, but also specifically designed its story-writing process to mimic the writer rooms found within TV networks. It’s successfully recruited several high profile writers to create series, and while it hasn’t released any public sales numbers, Realm was influential enough to sign deals with major Hollywood studios like Marvel. I interviewed one of its co-founders over here.
You can find plenty of other successful serials if you know where to look. Elle Griffin, for instance, has interviewed several writers who generate well into the six figures with their serialized novels, usually through platforms like Patreon. And of course there’s the rise of fiction podcasts, some that have gone on to be optioned by major Hollywood studios. Some networks, like Gimlet Media, have even managed to attract A-list acting talent to narrate/voice these series.
Suffice it to say, a market for serialized fiction definitely exists. It may never reach the mainstream adoption that it saw in the early 20th century, but I definitely think there’s enough consumer interest there for Substack to make a go at it, especially when you consider how easy it is for authors to roll up all the chapters after the series is completed and sell it as a standalone book. If you’re an established writer, I see very little downside to taking a Substack advance and playing around with the format.
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Coming this week…
I’m pretty excited to announce the return of my podcast, The Business of Content. It went on hiatus in late May so I could focus on converting old episodes into web articles, but this week I’m posting my interview with Mike Donoghue, the CEO of a platform called Subtext. Content creators use Subtext in all kinds of interesting ways, but it basically is a text messaging platform that allows creators and their fans to exchange SMS messages. Look for the interview to show up in your podcast player of choice on Wednesday…