Length and form in genre storytelling: The Kraken King and other experiments

The first installment in Meljean Brook’s new serialized novel, The Kraken King, was released this week. Brie has an excellent review of it at Dear Author (i.e., I’m sure it’s excellent, but I have to admit that I skimmed it while peeking through my fingers because I want to approach Vol. 1 with as little prior information as possible). I’d heard chatter about the story on Twitter because some of the installments have appeared on Netgalley, and a couple of the commenters agreed with Brie’s positive take on the first four installments.

But the vast majority of comments on the review were negative about the book, the format, the idea of serials more generally, and even toward Meljean. That took me aback, especially the author-directed criticisms, since if anyone has earned the right to experiment with story forms because of past performance, it’s this author. She’s written very high-quality books that respect genre boundaries while exploring them to the fullest, and she takes all kinds of worthwhile risks in her writing. For me, following her to the serial format is a no-brainer even if I weren’t predisposed toward the form.

I asked on Twitter why serial stories got such a strong and often visceral negative reaction and the conversation took off right away. The most common complaint was about price, specifically the fact that buying all the serial installments usually came to more than the price of a book of the same length. There were also a fair number of people who said they don’t like reading in installments, whether these feature cliffhanger endings or not, because they want to read the whole story all at once. And the third criticism was that serials aren’t really serials but are most often a book that’s been chopped up to allow for a cash grab by the author and/or publisher; this is related to the too-expensive argument but not identical.

All of these criticisms are fair, and we certainly see examples of serials that aren’t really serials in romance, erotica, and probably other genres as well. But at the same time, these are criticisms about execution, not the format per se, and they make the instantaneous rejection of The Kraken King (by people who haven’t read it) hard for me to take.

I should stipulate that I refer to Meljean Brook by her first name because she is such a warm and nice person that even I have trouble calling “Brook” in the normal academic fashion, not because we’re friends. I think I’ve seen her once in person (maybe?) and I’ve never corresponded with her or had any one-on-one interactions. TheHusband is a fan of her work, so I always alert him to her books, and I’ve read a couple of books in each of her big series and think they’re excellent, but I’m way behind. So I don’t really qualify as a Meljean fangirl except that I wish more authors had her professionalism and her risk-taking tendencies.

Oh, wait. I do have to count myself a fangirl. Not because anything I wrote in the preceding paragraph is inaccurate, but because she wrote this. Anyone who can think up something like this and then blog it for all to see and enjoy has my permanent, undying gratitude. For those of you who don’t usually click through on links, you have to on this one:

Woke up. Googled self. Found a new positive review. Sent quote on to publicist.

Compiled all quotes ever received and sent to publicist. Just in case she lost the last quote. Cc’d to editor, and editor’s assistant. Bcc’d to self, in case they pretend they never received them later. I will know.

Put the best 25 quotes in my e-mail signature, and the signature for all of my Yahoo loops.

Opened Google reader. 1000+ review blogs to read. No mention of me or my work, except one who said “If you like M.B.’s work, you will like this new author’s work, too.” WTF? No one is like me. Made note of blog name. Would delete it from my feedreader but I need to know if she spreads more falsehoods and compares me to another hack.

And that is just the beginning of Diary of an Author. Read all 5 days. Put your coffee cup down before you start, and make sure you’re not eating.

Reading the antagonism to her new serial and to serials more generally reminded me of other price/length comparisons and criticisms, specifically those involving novellas and short stories. Novellas are all over the place in the romance genre these days, the longstanding tradition of category-length novels in Harlequin and the Regency trad lines having been amplified by the rise of ebooks.

But while contemporary and historical category novels adhered to many novella conventions, the new e-novellas frequently don’t. Sometimes they’re not even formally structured stories, i.e., with a beginning, middle, and end, but more like vignettes. And don’t get me started on short stories. A vignette is not a short story, no matter how much you call it a “slice of life.”

I think there are a couple of reasons why novellas are so prominent. For one thing, they seem easier to write because they’re shorter and tighter in focus. An author doesn’t have to do research in as many different areas as for a more complex novel, or keep track of as many characters and plot threads. Genre advice posts talk about novellas as a good style choice for beginners:

If you’re a beginning writer, I definitely recommend trying your hand at some novella length work. A 30k novella is a lot less intimidating than a 70k YA novel or a 100k work of women’s fiction. It’s easier to practice craft, and even if you don’t like the end result, it was only a month or two of writing, instead of a few years.

Romance authors point out the difficulties as well, but I have a feeling the argument that the books are more quickly written is a big draw in today’s market, where authors are expected to churn out multiple pieces of product a year if they are going to stay in the reading public’s eye.

I love novellas. And I love short stories. But I get frustrated when I read them in genre fiction these days because so many are not classically structured novellas or shorts. They are stories that are short, or novels that are short, which is not the same thing.

A friend and I were talking about short stories and the skill needed to write them, and she pointed out how much more demanding they are to read. You can’t look away or stop concentrating, because every word counts and the cognitive effort is more intense. Novellas are slightly less stringent, but only slightly. Think of James Joyce’s The Dead, which falls at the boundary of the short story/novella length distinction. I am not a Joyce aficionado, but that story is one of the most powerful works I’ve ever read. I’ve read it several times, and even when I know what is coming, it never fails to move me. I know the last line by heart, and it’s still shattering every time I remember it, because I can’t think of it without thinking of everything that has come before. And yet, what goes on in this story? Not much in terms of plot, but so much in terms of everything else. Every word counts.

Can you think of a genre novella or short story that has anywhere near that effect? I can definitely think of a few that are very effective. But if you use the “can your mind drift” criterion, the majority won’t pass that test.

And yet, if the novella is cut-priced, we’ll buy it. We’ll reject the short story, the novella, or the serial if it’s not “value for money,” but the value metric is almost entirely determined by price/length ratio. Many readers believe the argument that novellas are “easier,” and obviously they don’t provide as many minutes/hours of reading time, so that makes them worth less.

I don’t agree. There are 1000-page books I won’t read even if they’re free (my time is worth something to me, after all) and I’ve paid $2.99 for a genre short story and not regretted it. Was it “worth” $2.99? It was to me. Not only was it a very good example of the form, it contained in miniature many of the characteristics of the author’s longer stories, and because it was written before those, I felt as if the story provided a window into the creative process.

I paid similar prices for the short stories that comprise Petit Mortsa set of interlinked stories, of which the best are as good as anything we find in our genre. I’ve recommended them to others, but as with The Rifter, the price usually means they don’t buy them. I respect the decision but it saddens me. Another set of linked stories that I found to be exceptional, not exactly a serial but more than a set of shorts, is Dark Soul. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started, but that was fine, because it was more interesting than I would have been able to imagine on my own.

None of these stories are perfect, but they have all stayed in my head long after I’ve finished reading them. Isn’t that one of the core definitions of a good read?

I don’t know how good The Kraken King is as a serial. But while I frequently mistrust the genre as a whole when it comes to formats other than the traditional novel, in this case I trust the author. For me, Meljean has earned my trust, and following her to a new form is absolutely a risk worth taking. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll chalk it up as an honorable failure. And honestly, $16 for 800 or so pages isn’t exactly mortgage-money level risk, if we’re talking price considerations.

As readers we’re frequently bemoaning the lack of innovation and the prevalence of same-old, same-old in the genre, and I’m definitely one of the complainers. So when something new comes along, I’m going to give it a shot. Innovation isn’t free, and it isn’t a sure thing.

54 thoughts on “Length and form in genre storytelling: The Kraken King and other experiments

  1. This is the kind of thing that drives me up a wall. I *do* like Meljean’s books a great deal, but I *don’t* like serials. So I haven’t read any of her serial installments. That seems like a no-brainer to me. Why would I read something I don’t care for when I can, instead, wait for them to come out in omnibus form and read them all together?

    I come from a mystery background, where short stories have a long history and are treated with a great deal of respect. Magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Presents have been printing award-winning mystery shorts for years. I’ve written three crime shorts, two published one as yet unpublished, and they are no easier than writing long. In fact, for one of them, I was aiming at about 6k words (the guidelines were 6k-14k, same payment no matter how many words) and I couldn’t do it. I ended up with 11k words. Writing short isn’t easy.

    On the other hand, I find that you can tell a smaller story in a short story or a novella, and sometimes that’s what you want to do. Sometimes you want to tell a story where there’s only one conflict instead of many, only one hurdle instead of many, or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that, and one of the nice things about ebooks is that now people have the ability to publish things that previously might not have found a home because they *are* simpler stories (less complex, not necessarily easier to write). For myself, I am not a fan of category-length books. I would rather read either a novella or a single-title and that’s precisely because I find that category-length books frequently try to take on complex or deep conflicts without enough space to do it in, where novellas and shorts know their limits.

    But whatever you’re writing, I think it’s part of understanding your audience to know what the appropriate price is for your work. I am stunned when I see novellas priced at $2.99. To me, that’s the price category-length ebook. It’s not that I absolutely won’t buy it, but it takes a *lot* of recommendation/reason to make me do it. (Plus, there’s a substantial difference to me between a 30-page read and a 150-page read, but there doesn’t appear to be in the way people market–I’ve seen both marketed as novellas.)

    But all those decisions are mine. If I look at a book and I think it’s overpriced, I just move on. It’s not a reason for anger or outrage (unless I feel as if a publisher is really pushing buttons, like when they release in HC, then in TP, then in MMPB, so it takes forever for a book to reach most people’s cost.) MOST of what I buy is in the $5-$10 ebook range because *most* of what I read is Big 5. Not all, but the majority. So the whole “absolute price” thing is beyond me…people who say “oh, I would NEVER pay more than X for an ebook.”

    Anyway, all this is a long way of saying that the things that make people freak out in anger confuse me. If you don’t like serials, don’t read them. If you don’t want to pay $2.99 for a novella, don’t do it. Don’t abuse some author because she’s doing things the way she wants to.

    • I definitely agree that people’s anger is bemusing and frustrating. The word that really bothered me was “manipulative.” Really? You went there? (not you, obviously, the commenter)

      I do become frustrating at the price/length argument. We have substitute price/length for price/quality, and we do not recognize the former’s pernicious effects. Quality is so imperfectly signalled by price, yet collective price decisions become anchor points, and the presence of Amazon’s “permafree” muddies the waters even more. None of this is good for the genre, or for fiction more generally. I have no problem with someone saying they won’t pay $2.99 for a short story. I have a problem with the idea that $2.99 should never be the price of a short story.

      I do wish that we valued short stories more. There are some very fine examples in the genre, and anthologies used to be a way of drawing deserved attention to them. But anthologies are frequently very uneven, especially the self-published ones in my experience (obviously there are exceptions), and we see fewer of the NY-pubbed ones. And we don’t have the same magazine options that SFF and mystery do. It’s a shame.

      • I did, I went there! I’m totally ok with authors and publishers charging what the market will bear for their work. I don’t judge a book’s value on a cent/word basis, I’ve read too many super craptastic books that were inexpensive and wasted my time (which I find the most precious these days). I’m also not angry at the author for trying something out, I don’t feel that as a reader I own an author. I do think the experimentation is primarily financially driven, and that’s ok. It’s a business and why shouldn’t it be treated as such. But if that’s ok, than it should be ok for me to make decisions about purchasing as both a reader and a consumer.

        To me, reading is a manipulation of the mind, and in the hands of a good author, I can totally be ok with that manipulation, as long as I feel like it’s within my power to exert control over it at any time (in my case, if things get too tense for me, it’s by reading the ending and deciding if I want to continue on with the book). A book published as a serial removes the ability to judge the whole arc at once, which is huge for me as a reader. Further, the time gaps between publications are supposed to heighten the anticipation of the next installment, yes? And that anticipation is supposed to drive demand up, and where demand goes up, in general, price goes up, if my rudimentary understanding of free market is correct. Hence the format is “too manipulative” for me as both a reader and a consumer, and I’ll wait for the complete work before I buy. If manipulative is a problematic word to use, then I’d love to hear other options.

        • I didn’t even realize you had said that (I was talking about a different comment), and when I went back to the DA thread I realized why. It’s a textbook example of how the precise framing of the point matters.

          You know how in Conflict Avoidance 101 they remind you to say things like “I am uncomfortable with what you did” rather than “you did this”? Your comment doesn’t say manipulative; you talk about being manipulated, and then you reiterate that this is your position by referring to your desires as selfish (which they’re not, in the me-me-me-and-no-one-else-matters sense). So I read your comment and thought, OK, I can understand that, and moved on.

          The comment that motivated my reaction (also by a regular DA commenter whose contributions I like a lot) said “No matter the reasoning behind adopting this format, I find it manipulative.” Of course it’s her opinion and she has an absolute right to voice it, but it set up my hackles because there was NO reasoning that was legitimate, and “manipulative” feels more declarative and general than “manipulated.”

          I agree completely that we are all manipulated when we read (or experience any art, really), and we all have our own boundaries and rules about what types of manipulations work for us.

          Thanks so much for commenting. ;)

          • Wait, what? It’s not all about me? Thanks for the clarification. You’re right, it’s all about finding the manipulations that work.

  2. I’m going to guess that the earned trust may really inform reponses. I’ve tried (and failed to finish) two books and one novella by Brooks. So the risk of a form I’m not excited about to start with is too high. I don’t think I’d be pleased if one of my autobuy authors published a serial (when Ilona Andrews did a serialized release on her site for free, I waited and just bought the book, which I still haven’t read), but I readily admit I might be tempted to try it.

    • Yes, I really think it does. With The Rifter I didn’t have priors on Hale (except for positive reviews from people I trusted on her other work), and I bought the first installment on a whim. I was so taken with it I bought the rest.

      There are certainly genre books that conform to the chopped-up-book format, so I understand the hesitation. I just want people to make case-by-case decisions (which you have), rather than reject them outright.

  3. I am not usually a fan of serials – not because of price but because I like to read the story all in one go (this frequently applies to whole series as well as books); and far too often, they aren’t well done. In this case, however, I am willing to trust Meljean Brook because she has already proven her ability to write short stories. Even as she is constantly overwriting her word limits, she knows how to structure herself in a shorter format. I trust (from what I have read in her blog and from the first part of Kraken King which I have already devoured) that she has taken each part as both an individual piece and as part of the whole. Not everyone can do that.

    • I totally agree. Writing serial installments is a skill. There is definitely a structure (or structures, given that stories vary) and if it isn’t followed the reader is really left hanging and frustrated.

      I think that the desire to read the entire story in one sitting is especially strong in genre, because of the reasons we turn to genre in the first place. So I understand why readers don’t want to do it.

    • I would guess that her comic book experience would make her ideally suited to the serial format.

  4. The only conversation I participated was at DA. Of course I do not agree with criticizing author for trying serial format – that’s her right to write and experiment and she is so talented I am sure she would do it well. I cannot bring myself to like it however. Comment from Mara just arrived at my phone ( from DA conversation I mean) and I think she said it perfectly why I do not like serials. I am curious though if you could elaborate about why the criticisms you mentioned are about the execution not the format. I have read some serials as the separate stories but most I have read when they were completed – Clean sweep by Ilona Andrews, Magic mansion by JCP, Rifter by Ginn Hale, some others. All and I mean all of them read like one long story to me – good stories do not get me wrong, you know how much I love most work by these writers, so doesn’t that mean that most serials are basically one long story which is cut off in the smaller parts (with more or less success depending on the reader)? I am asking because I want to learn and understand if I am missing something fundamental in terms of the meaning of the word “serial”?
    You liked “Rifter” right? Ginn Hale and I know I said it before is amongst my top five favorite m/m writers, when I read it when it was completed, if I did not know it was a serial, I would have never guessed. What I did see however was how many twists and turns the story took and how frustrated I would have been if I had to stop reading every time such twist happened. I mean I get that cliffhangers are not necessarily the feature of the serials – but the format makes cliffhangers sooo easy IMO. And I just don’t have patience for that – at all :). Instant gratification. I guess sure.

    Having said it, as I said at DA I appreciated link to her post – once a week and only one cliffhanger in part seven I may be able to handle – we shall see how I feel.

    • I absolutely respect not wanting to read a story until it is complete. I’m not like that (as you know!) but that’s an emotional reaction that is VALID.

      My understanding is that Hale wrote The Rifter as one long story, with interlocking but separate time lines, and when they decided to release it as a serial, Kimberling edited it with that in mind. If you think about the structure there is a lot of back and forth, time-wise, and the endings of each installment make sense given how that installment is structured. Compare this to a book that is really chopped up, to the point where the end of one and the beginning of the next don’t make any sense story-wise. Not that they stop in the middle of a scene, but that there is not much internal logic to each installment. Or, as you say, there’s a cliffhanger at each point, which feels totally artificial.

      • Aha I see what you mean – I bought Rifter in paperback and when I get to rereading it, I will pay more attention to it. The serial I reviewed was exactly like that – not much internal logic to separate installments IMO but doubly frustrating that it was a really good story just cut up and these stops drove me crazy, they really did. Oh and yes, I remember reading “Diary of the author” – hysterical.

      • I have vague recollections that Hale originally wrote The Rifter as a trilogy.

        • Hale has said in interviews that she wrote The Rifter as a single story. And if you click the link to my old post about it (here it is again), Kimberling commented about why she wanted to release it as a serial. I’m pretty sure she acquired the book as one giant manuscript and then edited it into the serial installments. It has been published in 3 volumes in the print version, but those volumes retain the original installment breaks.

          I remember reading something about a trilogy too, but I think that was Hale’s thought on how to make it more marketable, since it runs to about 1300 total pages. It wasn’t, as far as I know, written that way.

          • I remember reading something about a trilogy too, but I think that was Hale’s thought on how to make it more marketable, since it runs to about 1300 total pages. It wasn’t, as far as I know, written that way.

            Ah, I see! I think I was confused because the first time I saw Hale reference The Rifter, back in 2008, she made no mention of having written it as one story, but referred to it on her site as an epic fantasy trilogy. The copy on her website has since changed, but I found this comment of mine from when I reviewed Wicked Gentlemen that mentions it.

  5. I am behind on Meljean’s series (both of them) and I prefer to read a story all at once so I will wait until the book is out as one book before buying. I will also buy it in paperback because that’s the format of my other Iron Seas books and I’d like to have the collection (apart from the eSpecials of course).

    As someone who has trouble writing *anything* short, I have a kind of awed respect for authors who can write a complete story in a short word count. I love reading stories of all kinds of lengths – but I absolutely agree that writing short takes a special talent and not all authors, even ones whose writing I adore in a longer format, can pull it off well.

    I do plan to buy the Rifter one day…. :D

    • I write very tersely in my scholarly writing and have to go back in and put in more words because I’m very bad at elaborating my points. That may be part of why I like short form fiction. Although it’s also because there’s something so intense about the compactness when it’s done well. One person can convey in a sentence what others take paragraphs to communicate.

  6. I love short stories and IMO it takes a great deal of skill and time to craft a compelling short story.

    I, like you Sunita, do not only define value in terms of money. My time is equally,, if not more, valuable to me than spending a couple of extra dollars to get something that is going to give me pleasure during the limited time I have available to read. YMMV. I haven’t read many serials; however, being. a longtime fantasy reader, I have read many series and therefore I do not have any issues with getting a whole story told in instalments. The only difference for me between a serial and a series is that a serial involves shorter stories told over a shorter period of time. I have heard the same criticisms of series in all genres as are being posted about The Kraken King (I recall a similar discussion in DA not too long ago about Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green Series – several commenters mentioned that they quit the series because the felt manipulated and that Ms. Long was “dragging it out” only so that she could make more money and we can’t forget the brouhaha of comments that led Neil Gaiman to make his infamous “George R,R. Martin is not your bitch” post).

    I admit that I was a bit leery at first about the serial format for The Kraken King and thought that I would wait for the omnibus edition (that I would buy the book in some format was never in doubt). In the end, I decided that I would try the serial format because I trust Ms Brook to do it well. I downloaded and read Part 1 last night and it was terrific! I also found an advantage to the serial format. I am a horrible self-rationer when it comes to reading. If I am enjoying a book, I will frequently stay up far later than I should and I pay for it at work the next day (and sometimes feel stupid and guilty for doing so). With the serial format, that doesn’t happen and with only a week to wait between instalments, Ii also get that feeling of delicious anticipation for the next instalment. On a philosophical level, I think that we have lost the joy of anticipation in our “on demand” culture and I kind of think that’s a bit of a shame – having something pleasant to look forward to can get me through some very hard days.

    IMO kudos to Ms. Brook for trying something different.

    • “I recall a similar discussion in DA not too long ago about Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green Series – several commenters mentioned that they quit the series because the felt manipulated and that Ms. Long was “dragging it out” only so that she could make more money”

      The issue there was that Long actually said that that was what she was doing–that due to it’s success she no longer had a set number of books planned and instead was going to keep writing the series for as long as it sold. The blowback was huge–it’s one thing to suspect that that’s what series’ authors do, but for one to openly admit to it annoyed a lot of people. And look at Sylvia Day–she split a book in half in order to extend her very popular series.

      I think that’s the concern when it comes to serials. Romland has been discussing series-fatigue for years now, how it seems that every book is part of a series, even if that “series” is nothing more than family members being created to extend the series. When a series starts out with a clearly defined overarching plot and then several obvious filler books later there’s no end in sight, readers get angry, and now we’re at the point where readers can’t trust authors. Serials seem like an even riskier proposition, because now we’re not even getting a complete story and how can we know that an author actually has a plan she won’t drop if the serial becomes a huge success? And while I don’t feel that strongly about it–if I did I’d never read romance because 99% of books are series–I can’t think of a single author who’s make me enthusiastic to try a serial.

      • I think that’s the concern when it comes to serials. Romland has been discussing series-fatigue for years now, how it seems that every book is part of a series, even if that “series” is nothing more than family members being created to extend the series. When a series starts out with a clearly defined overarching plot and then several obvious filler books later there’s no end in sight, readers get angry, and now we’re at the point where readers can’t trust authors. Serials seem like an even riskier proposition, because now we’re not even getting a complete story and how can we know that an author actually has a plan she won’t drop if the serial becomes a huge success?

        This hits the nail on the head so well–thank you for putting it into words.

    • I love the feeling of anticipation. It’s completely idiosyncratic, and I can’t explain it, but I like the rationing when it’s done well.

  7. It really does come down to trust, and I don’t think many readers trust anymore. Not authors specifically, but the publishing industry as a whole. While I don’t have strong negative feelings towards serials, I do have the same knee-jerk reactions towards other trends that sound similar to how you describe the comments at DA. I refused to touch any book that was given a 50-fied cover when that was all the rage; I won’t even read a blurb for a book described as NA. I don’t care who the the authors or publishers are, I’m not wasting my money on an author’s obvious attempt to cash in…which is a silly reaction on my part for so many reasons:

    1)There have always been trends in publishing. A particular trope, a character type, whatever–authors/publishers have always jumped on the latest big thing, I’m just more aware of it because of social media.

    2)I don’t actually care that much about the cost of books. I might raise a brow at $2.99 short story, but if it’s an author I like I go ahead and buy it. $10+ for a novel is where I start hesitating, but new-to-me authors is my only defined line. I’ve purchased $13.99 ebooks with barely a grumble.

    3)I would totally try to cash in on whatever the current trend is if I were an author. I WANT authors to make money. Get that money, authors! (Though I reserve the right to bitch when you do, because it’s all about what I want to read.)

    So, yeah. I recognize that my gut reaction doesn’t make much sense, but that doesn’t change it or my buying behavior. And I don’t even have any autobuy authors. I can just imagine how it would feel if an author I count on for enjoyable books picks up on a trend I dislike, like there’s now less for me to read.

    • I think your gut reaction does make sense, given the industry history (and not just the romance industry). Trends seem to be dominating not just the output but the conversation about the output, and maybe it feels harder to get away from it. When the 1970s Avon-style romances came along, for example, I hated them. But I was a lone romance reader and plenty of other romances were available in my library so I wasn’t really affected by them, I could just pass them by. It’s much harder to avoid trends when you are active in an online community.

  8. I read the first Iron Seas novella and loved it, but I have not, of course, kept up with the series. So a serial actually seems like a good, not daunting way to get back into it, and on the strength of Brie’s comments that it works well AS a serial, I have bought the first installment. Also, since I’m a Victorianist, and that period was they heyday of the serialized novel, I feel that I shouldn’t turn my nose up at the idea; some of the greatest novels in the English language were published serially (and generally planned that way, not written first and then chopped up). I like the fact that digital publishing allows for formal experiments, and in theory makes both short AND really long stories more feasible to publish.

    But like Las, I think part of the anger is that so often these things are done badly–as you say. So people are really wary. A lot of things done with shorts and serials DO seem like cash grabs with no attention to the demands of different fictional forms/lengths. Still, I’m angry at the fact they are done badly, not at the mere idea.

    When this came up on Twitter I asked “Don’t these people watch TV?” Sometimes waiting is fun. On the other hand, serial television is generally effectively serialized, so episodes complete but we’re also hooked on longer story arcs. Maybe if authors/publishers were doing it as well as good TV writers do, people would be more open to prose fiction in that format. (Although if it’s romance, I think you do need to know there are a limited number of installments before a planned HEA. I don’t need that in a single volume; it’s not like I finish most books in a sitting, so I don’t get an immediate HEA hit every time I read. Maybe people who read way faster feel differently?) Anyway, I started to question my TV comparison when I thought of the growing popularity of binge-watching shows on Netflix, etc. Maybe many people really DON’T enjoy the joyful, anguished anticipation of waiting for the next episode of a show you’re hooked on and would rather find out in a weekend of orgiastic viewing. Maybe they only watched TV serially because they had to, not because they wanted to. I find binge-watching, like glomming an author, tends to turn me off a show, so maybe I’m made for serial reading.

    • Sometimes waiting is fun.

      This is so true, especially when you’re waiting alongside other friends and can chat about it and speculate what will happen and so on. That’s what made HP fandom so huge – all the waiting in between books spurred so much creativity and community, that just wouldn’t have happened if they’d all come out at once. I think if an author can really make the form work for them, each instalment would become a highly anticipated event for readers, just as TV shows are.

    • Although I think the popularity of TV boxed sets does suggest that some viewers at least would rather not watch serially.

      • Box sets aren’t new, but there’s a lot more chatter about binge-watching. I have VCR box sets that are 20 years old, and TV stations have run “marathons” for decades.

        I think that binge-watching and binge-reading are quite different, more than people acknowledge. For one thing, in binge-watching, you get the same establishing shots, the same framing, etc. etc. over and over again. You don’t get the same exact words in binge-reading. And the cognitive differences in the consumption processes vary too.

        I’ve binge-read a lot over the years, but I found that binge-watching numbed my brain in a very different way. But that could just be me.

    • Maybe part of it is the tendency of internet conversation to make it sound like the new new thing is the only thing that exists. We used to talk about “appointment TV” as a sign of success. Now it’s binge-watching. It really is a “looking for keys under the lamppost” phenomenon. I’m sure there are still lots of people who watch serially, they just aren’t the ones being talked about.

      • Yeah, in saying that I was completely ignoring the nights when Twitter is swamped by people watching Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, etc. etc. There is still plenty of enjoyment of serial watching going on.

  9. My problem is with the people who are still bitching about the choice (made jointly by author and publisher) to release this as a serial. If you don’t like serials, wait and read the whole thing when it comes out. It’s a win-win-win — Meljean gets to try a format that I think she’s GOOD at (based on the first two installments) and that is appropriate for Zenobia’s particular story, readers who like serials get to read the story as it comes out, and readers who don’t will get the complete book when it’s done. Who loses? I just don’t get the anger; which I would understand a little more if separate installments was the only way to get the book.

    And I admit, I’m irked by this more because, besides being a huge fan of this series and of the serial format. I think Meljean is a really innovative author who very much cares about her readers’ experiences. I’ve only met her once in person (we shared a bottle of wine with a few other authors and bloggers at RomCon in 2010), but online she’s terrific — very open with readers about what’s up with her books and (as much as she can) why, tons of context and extra material on her web site — just delightful. It bugs me that this experiment is being treated so negatively by people who could just opt out and let the rest of us play.

    • Yes, the anger baffles me too. I don’t know this author personally at all and I haven’t read all of her books (though I’ve bought most of them – I’m pretty sure). But from what I know of her she’s not the “cashing in” type. I will wait for the omnibus edition for various reasons but I’m not angry about it.

    • What bothers me about the anger is that it conflates anger at the premise with anger at the execution and then it becomes “all serials are horrible and manipulative and too expensive.” What author and/or publisher wants to court that kind of backlash?

  10. Given Hugh Howey and several other success stories, is the anti-serial crowd a vocal minority? Readers have pretty much always enjoyed serials, likely since The Tale of Genji.

    • I really do think it’s a backlash more against the general publishing community (which as other people have noted above, readers have learned not to trust) than it *really* is a hatred of the form. Except for me. *grin* I don’t like serials and I TOTALLY prefer to binge-watch TV shows. I often save the shorter ones on my DVR (the 4-14 episode series) and then watch them all at once.

    • Earlier than that, even, in countries and communities with strong oral storytelling traditions.

      I think it is a vocal minority online, which of course is a minority in and of itself. The fact that there are any number of authors who are selling serial novels successfully (including the type I don’t think are good exemplars of the form) suggests that the market for them is strong. I always expect there to be readers on both sides, I was just surprised at the animosity expressed.

  11. I wonder if part of the difficulty is that we’re used to thinking of serialized entertainment as free. It’s not, of course. Every hour of network TV we watch comes with 19 minutes of advertising, the wonderful Lizzie Bennett Diaries episodes on Youtube are preceded by ads, and we’re paying outright for our cable viewing–but because we don’t purchase these installments individually (unless you avoid subscriptions and watch only on Amazon or iTunes) we don’t experience paying for them in the same way.

    • That’s a good point although I think those readers who do not like the price are saying that it is more expensive to pay for one episode rather than to pay for one book – not that they want it for free. I have read serial where the author made the separate installments free online ( your choice – you could buy it too or get for free) and then when it was completed charged for the whole book. That does not need to happen , but it was very nice of her.

      I mean I personally really don’t mind paying a bit more for the separate installments if I love the work ( I bought Rifter in separate installments AND bought the paperbacks) even I will read it when story is completed . Many readers can’t afford that and if they know that the single book would be cheaper, I don’t begrudge them being upset at all. I am speaking in hypothetical because we know that in this case the book will appear later and hopefully cheaper, I am just saying that if the book is only sold in the serial format.

    • That’s a really good point. Serials have generally come in some form that feels free (even though it’s obviously not). Even serialized stories in the old days came in magazines and newspapers, which of course we paid for, but we didn’t pay separately for the story. The more I think about this, the more right I think you are.

      And thanks for commenting, I was thinking about the video v. text difference and wondered what your thoughts were.

  12. (Sorry, I know this is awkward for me to drop in, but…)

    I can’t say that I’m really surprised by the anger. I’ve seen it before whenever a previously non-serial writer announced a serial. There are always the readers who simply don’t want to read it in chunks or pay for the price of the installments when the compiled version is cheaper, and then a smaller number who are angry and the comments about manipulation and greed follow.

    I’ve actually run into this before when my publisher included an epilogue novella in the reprints for THE IRON DUKE and HEART OF STEEL, although the problem then was that the ebook version of the novella was delayed. For the most part, readers were cool with it. Of course they wished that the ebook would come out at the same time, but there wasn’t a lot of anger. There were a few readers, though, who felt cheated by it, because they had purchased the more expensive trade version, yet didn’t get as much content as the readers who bought the cheaper mass-market version. And when the novella would finally be released as an ebook, it was $2.99.

    So I understand that anger — the “why do THEY get for free what I have to pay for?” I don’t really have a good answer for that. I think it would have been awesome if anyone who bought the trade version got a credit for the novella, or a code for a free download, but I’m not sure it would have even been possible to facilitate something like that, because it wasn’t planned in advance.

    That’s just the price issue, though, and the reason I’m actually commenting is because of an underlying theme to some of the angry emails I received (for both the novellas and the serial) is that releasing books in these formats is a betrayal of sorts. After they’ve supported me for so long, after they’ve bought overpriced trade versions of my books, now I’m going to take advantage of them with a serial? And will I at least be offering something special as an extra to those who a) bought the serial or b) were forced to wait? (because this question comes from both sides.)

    And I don’t think this is just reader entitlement — I think this is something that stems from an idea that SO MANY authors have fostered: that readers are somehow responsible for an author’s career. While that is true, in a sense –without readers, we wouldn’t have sales — there has been a widespread cultivation of this idea and a lot of pressure is put on *individual* readers, not just readers as a group. There are requests for reviews, or OMG, MY BOOK WILL DIE! There are requests to write good reviews, or OMG, MY CHILDREN WILL STARVE! There are requests to buy the books, or OMG YOU WON’T SEE ANY MORE BOOKS FROM ME EVER AGAIN!

    So I think that not only do readers feel this incredible pressure to keep their favorites afloat, they also begin to feel as if they are doing the author a favor because it’s in response to that request. So when the author turns around and charges even more for the next book, or gives other readers something for free, it’s like a slap in the face.

    Personally, I’ve made an effort to never never never make those requests (unless, of course, it’s directly promotional, like giving review copies in exchange for reviews — I mean, of course I ask for reviews then) and to explicitly state that the well-being of my career is not their responsibility (it’s mine and my publisher’s.) Yet it’s part of the culture online now, and so many authors make the same rallying cry of “support me!” that I think the anger is really understandable when viewed through that lens.

    • Not awkward at all, not for me at least. I’m glad you took the plunge, because it’s so helpful to hear this from the other side of the exchange. I had forgotten about that novella business, but yes, you did get plenty of flack for that, and as you say I’m not sure how you could have done it differently except not give *anyone* the free novella. Which is not out of the question; there are social science experiments where people will withhold resources/rewards from everyone if they feel they can’t make a distribution they consider fair.

      For years Robin has commented on the tight bonds that are created between readers and authors in romanceland, bonds that are fostered by both sides and by publishers. For a long time I didn’t get what she meant because it was so outside my experience in terms of how I read. To me the book’s author is *always* a persona, a slice of the full person behind the work. Even when I get to know an author, I mentally make a distinction between the book-writer and the person. But eventually I understood, and what you’re talking about is part of that relationship. It’s not just authors pressuring readers to take responsibility and invest in their success, it’s also readers wanting to have closer ties to the writers of the books they love. There is this sense of loyalty that is supposed to run in both directions: authors want loyal readers who care about their careers, readers want authors who are loyal to readers’ interests and preferences.

      The backlash against serials is analogous to the sense of abandonment and disloyalty readers feel when their favorite authors switch genres or in the old days, when they switched from mass market to hardcover. Even when it’s because the author wants to change directions for artistic or personal reasons it’s seen as a lack of appreciation for the readers who got her there. Not all readers feel this way, obviously, but I feel as if it is more prevalent in the romance genre than in others.

      • “I’m not sure how you could have done it differently except not give *anyone* the free novella. Which is not out of the question; there are social science experiments where people will withhold resources/rewards from everyone if they feel they can’t make a distribution they consider fair.”

        One reader did suggest this — that releasing it as an ebook that everyone had to pay for was the only fair way to distribute it. The problem is, of course, that it’s hardly fair to readers who don’t have access to digital devices and who need to read it in print, or who rely on libraries to supply their reading materials. I liked that it would be in print so that readers could pick it up super-cheap at a USB if necessary (if they bought the trade, for example, and didn’t want to pay $7.99 just for the novella in print.) So even if the price is fair, access becomes an issue.

        As for the author/reader relationship — hahaha. I don’t even know. Sometimes I think the focus on the book has been blurred by social interaction, and maybe withdrawing completely from that social interaction would make a difference (on a wide scale, not just one author, because obviously it’s a cultural issue in the readership.) But maybe that distance might create more problems, because then readers HAVE to speculate about motivations.

        So maybe the real answer is *more* interaction and better transparency. Like, would there have been any anger at all if I’d stated up front that I was making $0.00 on every copy of the novella sold in the print version, and that I would have made the same royalty for the mass-market version of the novel with or without that novella included? (Because there was that general thread of “greedy author” and laying out information like that could dispel some of those perceptions.) Or does that create a different sort of problem, where readers feel obligated to buy the ebook version rather than the print to “support” me, even though that was obviously a choice I made when I signed a contract because I thought there would be other, non-monetary benefits? And then what if I *was* making some awesome amount? Would that transparency just increase the anger?

        I don’t know. I’m all for reader loyalty; I’m personally loyal to several authors that I love. But I absolutely don’t want to feel obligated to do anything for them, and I’d probably stop reading them if I ever felt they were blaming me (or other readers) for some downturn in their career. If I knew that their sales were low, though? Gah. I probably *would* buy their books in whatever format I needed to, and mention how much I loved their work on social sites. So even as I say, “Readers shouldn’t feel obligated to do anything,” I still end up *feeling* it myself. I’m not sure if that’s because of social interaction or something else, or just my general selfish desire to keep getting more books from that author. But at the same time, I also don’t feel that they owe me anything aside from a good story.

        If it’s NOT a good story, though … grr. Fuck ’em. (<– and I absolutely expect readers to feel the same about my work.)

        • Interesting point about the author/reader relationship. I think I’d respond very badly to a “you must save my career” type demand from an author. But, when I heard about Jeannie Lin’s situation, I decided to buy The Lotus Palace instead of get it from the library – I did buy it on sale so it’s not like I was making huge sacrifices, but I am on really limited budget and I wouldn’t have made that purchase if I didn’t know about her low sales. And when I heard it made best seller list, I felt a bit of pride because I helped with that. And I did use some of my rebate money to buy the next one.

          • I’ve done this, too, with other authors whose work I wasn’t reading, but who were doing something that I wanted to support (not to support her livelihood, because that’s none of my business, but to essentially vote with my dollars.) I buy a ton of books that I’ll never end up reading, anyway, so if one just happens to feature characters that I wish more authors would write about, new settings, etc? It doesn’t really hurt me.

            But, yeah. The demands and the emotional blackmail? Not so awesome. Yet a lot of authors do it, so I think it really does create this harmful culture of “I owe you” between authors and readers, where the thing being owed is more than the book — and it includes an expectation of having the price/format be to the readers’ liking (because, WOW, I think I got off-topic.)

            • Exactly. There is a real difference between artists saying “help me pay my bills” and artists asking audiences to support under-represented stories, characters, and creators. Jeannie’s books are a great example. I always bought them for myself, but after I read her post, I took the time to email friends about the series. And in my day job, women write and direct less than 10% of box-office films. This number won’t change until audiences start voting with their dollars, so I make a point of seeing films directed by women in the theater on their first weekend of release–and I ask others to do the same. Voting with your dollars can be powerful.

        • I don’t think there is a solution that everyone will think is fair because everyone doesn’t have the same take on it (part of what makes experiments on bargaining and redistribution so interesting is how behavior can change depending on the framing of the issue). And while you can give up your royalties and assuage some readers’ feelings, others will just transfer their resentment to the publisher. Obviously I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. There’s nothing that will make everyone happy, but authors who are consistent and transparent earn my respect and trust because that provides consistency.

          Loyalty is such a weird thing in this context, because while we can give it pretty freely (as readers), we want it to be appreciated and when something happens that makes it seems as if it isn’t, we feel betrayed. Even though the author may not have a sense of who her loyal fans are (certainly not individually in the old days) or how many there are. Argh.

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  15. So, OK – leaving a comment late. But I wanted to write one since I love serials. Love them like crazy-cakes. LOVE THEM! I suspect it stems from my mostly-cured soap opera addiction. Some romance readers had mothers and grandmothers who hooked them on lusty historicals or Harlequin Presents. My mother and grandmother hooked me on soaps. The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, Dallas, Melrose Place, One Life To Live, General Hospital – seriously, I had a problem. So it makes perfect sense why I love serial novellas, and I think it goes a long way in explaining why other readers might as well. There’s nothing quite like getting hooked and that sense of anticipation you get waiting for your WhisperNet to automatically download the new installment on Tuesday….or whenever.

    What I don’t get about the hate is – don’t these readers read any series at all? I’d much rather pay $1.99 for 5 installments (which comes out to be trade paper prices in the end) and get all the installments quickly (usually one released per week) than say – wait months, sometimes years for the next book in say…..a trilogy. Or a series that is still on-going (like many mystery/suspense series are). Maybe it’s a combination of short format + price + just being cranky pants in general? Whatever. I love ’em – which yes, makes Wendy part of the problem ;)

    • I’m also a recovering soap addict, and there’s definitely that same kind of appeal. I love stories that go on and on, when I really like the characters, families, and world that have been created.

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