More On Serials…This Time With DATA!

On Sunday, I posted that I was thinking about serials–wondering about their success as a sales strategy, and also considering them as an audience builder via a platform like Wattpad.  Commenters indicated that they weren’t particularly fans and that they preferred to read something straight through.

Turns out the data bears that out.

Earlier this week, Mark Coker released the data he collected at RT in Chicago last year where in he conducted a widespread survey analyzing indie ebook sales.  He shared the results at this year’s RT in Kansas City.   The whole post is well worth a read if you’re in self publishing at all (or considering getting into it).  But the relevant section to this discussion is this:

2.  Viva Long Form Reading:  Longer Books Sell Better
For the second year running, we found definitive evidence that ebook readers – voting with their Dollars, Euros, Pounds, Krone, Krona and Koruna – overwhelmingly prefer longer books over shorter books.

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The top 100 bestselling Smashwords books averaged 115,000 words.  When we examined the word counts of books in other sales rank bands, we found the lower the word count, the lower the sales.

Now consider how authors can use this finding, combined with the knowledge of the power curve, to make smarter publishing decisions, and to avoid poor decisions.  Often, we’ll see an authors with a single full-length novel break the novel into chunks to create a series of novellas, or worse – they’ll try to serialize it as dozens of short pieces.  When you consider that readers overwhelmingly prefer longer works, and you consider that bestselling titles sell exponentially more copies, reach more readers and earn more money than the non-bestsellers, you can understand how some authors might be undermining their book’s true potential.

~Mark Coker, emphasis mine

That’s certainly food for thought.  I can’t fathom breaking up something that is truly intended to be a novel into chunks of novella. And breaking it up into dozens of short pieces, say, by chapter or some other subchunk seems likewise kind of foolish. But I have to wonder if such things are failing entirely because people want to read longer stuff, OR if its because each chunk (however long it is), isn’t a complete story unto itself.  If you take a longer work and just artificially break it into smaller works, then of course you’re going to have dangling plot devices and incomplete stories.   I think you have to plan each novella (or whatever chunk it is) as its own stand alone, self contained chunk that adheres to all the expectations of story structure in order to pull that off.  Each chunk would need to be its own self contained episode, like a TV show, wherein you have the rise and fall of plot arc and at least some kind of satisfactory resolution to the episode, while still leaving plot threads (essentially a series or season arc) to follow up on in future episodes, in order to avoid pissing readers off.  I’d wager that few people trying this serial thing actually DO IT that way.

Other factors that definitely support the data is that if people get something short that isn’t complete and they don’t realize what they’re buying isn’t complete, they get pissed.  It doesn’t matter whether you take out a virtual billboard on your book listing, explaining that THIS IS A NOVELLA or THIS IS A SHORT STORY (or THIS IS AN OMNIBUS OF X, Y, and Z), a huge percentage of people don’t bother to actually READ the description.  And then they get angry because they feel bamboozled.  I’ve got my fair share of reviews in which people were snippy because the book was “too short” (um, because it was a NOVELLA).  So under that circumstance, yes, I absolutely agree that people seem to respond better to longer works.  The traditional publishing industry has conditioned them to expect a certain length, and while epublishing has allowed for the resurgence of shorter form fiction like short stories and novellas, most audiences still aren’t expecting that.

I’d still wager that serialization of work in progress on a site like Wattpad are something different.  You’re not paying, for one.  And the entire site is built around the idea that stories are being told in segments, so users go into it with the understanding of what they’re getting.  There have been a number of people who have successfully used this method to build an audience.  What I would like to know is how much of that audience translates from free, serialized content on a site like that into paying customers who go track down the rest of our work.  Time will tell.

So, thoughts?  I’d love to hear what the rest of you think about the data, the concept, etc.

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12 comments

  1. I personally like longer books because I read fast and otherwise, it’s over way too soon. However, I don’t have a problem with serials 1. as long as I know in advance that’s what it is AND 2. it stands alone. Hardly anything ticks me off as much as reading something I think is a book and I come to the last page and it just stops with no ending and nothing resolved. I think it’s a cheap ploy by an author to force people to buy the next installment. What it actually does in my case though is makes me not want to ever buy anything else from that author because I don’t trust them to deliver a full story. I read lots of serials – both novella and novel length – and I have no problem buying the next one if the one I just read is well written and entertains me. I am not entertained when I’m left hanging.

  2. Data! Yay! It makes sense to me that people like reading the bigger books because, hey, I’m one of them. I don’t know if it’s a habit from Dead Tree books or what but the first thing I look at after the description is page count. If I wanted to read a short story, I’d buy an anthology of them…which might be cool for writers who like writing in the shorter lengths. Then, in the published version (if they revealed anything on their sites) add in some material to tie it all together if it’s one story masquerading as short stories.

    I’d love to hear from Carrie Clevenger on this because she shared pieces of her Crooked Fang and even had the main character blogging and tweeting. Did that aid sales? Do readers get off on interacting with characters? Does it make them feel like part of the story because they’ve interacted with the characters in a blog or on social media?

    The longer novels give the reader time to enter deeply into the world. They have the chance to learn more about the place, time, and characters and what’s at stake so they care more about what happens. Earlier in your blog you mentioned a series you were reading…black dagger brotherhood?…how long were they? What got you hooked? Would you have enjoyed it as much if they’d been novellas or broken into serials?

    1. The BDB books are long. I’d guess 100k+ apiece. We’re up to number 12 or 13 now I think. And no I wouldn’t have ended up sticking with the series if they’d been shorter because it took me a good 80-100 pages to get past all the annoying things she did with the characters and world to see where she was going with it.

      To be clear, I’m talking about serials in the old fashioned sense–like they used to publish Dickens. Book series are something entirely different.

      1. Ahhh…sorry. Then my comment above is probably totally irrelevant. As for the old fashioned kind – I signed up for one on Amazon recently just to see. I hated it. Not the story as it was okay. But waiting for a week between releases? Nope. Just not for me. I finally ended up at the half way mark just waiting until it was all out and read it in one sitting. I would have read at least three other books between each of those small bits and would find it difficult to remember what had happened in the serial up to that point.

  3. One factor these numbers don’t and really can’t address is whether or not the works are on the same level in terms of quality. How do I say this without being misinterpreted?

    It takes a certain kind of writing maturity to produce a good novel. If you’ve achieved that level, maybe you could produce a good short story or a good novel. (But maybe just a good novel and a really crappy short story.)

    If you’ve achieved less than that level, maybe you could produce a good short, but not a good novel, as part of that maturity is the stick-with-it-ness and big-picture-seeing that a novel requires.

    I don’t want to put short story writers down AT ALL. It is, in fact, an art at which I kind of suck. But, by it’s nature, and by the long-time suggestions of professional advice coming out of Writer’s Digest and the like, short fiction has long been considered a stepping stone for good reason, okay? Moving on.

    What the survey numbers don’t address is how many inexperienced writers are able to scrawl out and upload bad short fiction that doesn’t sell, vs. how many are able to stick with one story long enough to come up with a bad novel that doesn’t sell. Maybe the experienced writers, having been told that short fiction is “merely” a stepping stone type thing, have concentrated their efforts on longer works, so there are more good stories with larger word counts, and maybe there aren’t many great short stories to buy. Besides the fact that if the short story market comes to be seen as big sea of crap with little hope of catching a good one, that affects readers’ willingness to fish there.

    If you took all the works rated 4 stars or higher (corrected by throwing out any review complaining about the length itself), broke those down by length, and then looked at the sales figures, would you see something different?

    Wattpad is an interesting place. I haven’t spent time there in a long time, but when I was there, I found one thing that seemed to really affect views was title. The more sensational the title, the more it sounded like it promised an episode of Jerry Springer, the better. I wouldn’t advise breaking a novel into small parts unless each part were very compelling, preferably with a cliffhanger ending to each posting, because readers have to have a reason to keep coming back. A reason not to lose interest, go on to something else and forget your story where you left off. Additionally, it needs a very strong hook and very compelling content very early in order to get people talking about it, a somewhat different build than the way we think to construct a novel. And I think it requires learning the audience there and what it is they want to read.

  4. Is there anything in the data about e-books vs. print? I just got a Kindle about a month ago, and have observed and interesting phenomenon. The first couple of books I read on it were short – romance novels of the Harlequin Intrigue variety. And that was fine. The next book I read was around 600 pages, which I wouldn’t have even batted an eye at in print form, but it seemed to take FOREVER on my Kindle. So my completely unscientific and based on a very small sample observations suggest that I prefer reading shorter things on the Kindle, but longer fiction in print.

  5. When I was in my twenties, I would devour a short Barbara Cartland historical romance every night. They each took me about two hours to read, and I loved them. I still enjoy novellas, although I don’t think they were called that back then. But they had to be for me to read them in two hours. I think one of the main reasons I like novellas is that I get to read MORE books, and since my reading taste is so eclectic, I get to read DIFFERENT stuff more often. Does that make sense? However, if a story really gets to me and I’m deep into it with the characters, I can read really long books and be perfectly happy. So I tend to read both. I will say that I don’t like most short stories, but that’s because most writers don’t know how to end them, and I’m left going “Huh? What happened?” I’ve only published one short story, and I HOPE it had a satisfactory ending since that’s one of my big beefs.

    Incidentally, I think J.R. Ward could cut a lot of stuff out of her BDB books and they would be just as good, maybe better. I honestly think they are too long. But I keep reading them…. *sigh*

  6. This makes me feel much better about my 124k fantasy! I know fantasy is generally on the longer side anyways, but I have a feeling agents have been looking at that word count and saying no before they even get to reading.

  7. I think what Watt Pad shows is that there’s a market for everything, so maybe one of the reasons shorter works show lower sales is the expectation of the reader. When they buy a book, they’re expecting a 300-400 pager. Anything less screws with their expectation and even if it’s a complete story, they still feel cheated.

    But if you had a publisher who only published serials and they were of good quality, I think an audience would be found. They’d know up front what they were getting and be okay with it.

    As for transferring readers from a free reading to paying for the works, I think the amount is small. Free has one audience and pay has another. There’s crossover, but for the most part, I think they stay on their own sides of the sand. You’ve got one side saying, “It’s good, but I only read it because it’s free.” and the other side saying, “I figured it was no good because it was free.” Or something like that.

    It’s still a good idea to experiment with stuff like that. Like in your case, a Mirus serial might be a good idea to land you some new readers. Like webisodes of a TV show. It’s not required to understand the main story, but it adds to it for those who are interested. And for those who know nothing about you, it’s a quick way to sample your work with minimal risk.

  8. My thoughts are… Mark is right, when it comes to novels.

    He’s wrong, when it comes to serials. And by that, I mean TRUE serializations, not a novel with each chapter tossed up as a short story willy-nilly.

    I am seeing a LOT of short story through novella length serial fiction doing very well right now. My own Starship serial doesn’t fall into the “very well” category, but it’s sold a pretty substantial number of copies.

    I think novella @ $2.99 seems to be doing better than short story at 99 cents, both from readers’ perspective and income for the writer. But there are also short stories selling in serial form for 99 cents and doing nicely (John Scalzi – owned the top ten SF list in the Kindle story for ages with his serial).

    But I think it has to be a real serial. Think TV show, not chapter. Three major roads to take.

    1) Same characters, but new story each time, no real sequence. Think about the Star Trek Next Gen episodes. Same characters, but very little change over time. Viewers can watch in almost any order without much trouble.

    2) Same characters, new story each time, but character arcs and “season arcs” are built from episode to episode, so there is change over time and a distinct order to follow. “Buffy” generally fell into this type.

    3) Same characters, cliffhangers on each episode. “Alias” is the perfect example here. Every episode ended with a cliffhanger. Each new episode opened with a five minute resolution of the last week’s cliffhanger.

    All of these work. Mixing them works, too – Buffy had some stand-alone stories, and some cliffhangers for the next episode, too.

    TV does serialization really, really well. And people today are primed by TV to do “short burst” stories. Studying TV helps a lot, I think.

    And don’t forget, you can always compile a season into a single ebook, so that you can hit the “longer work” audience as well.

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