The Sunday Salon: The Serialized Novel

The discovery that Robin McKinley’s Pegasus was the first half of a novel floored me; yes, I thought the ending was abrupt, but the idea that Robin McKinley, a much loved author who could probably get away with publishing a hearty, predator-repulsing tome, found the “freller too fricking long” to the point that she thought it better to hack a novel in half (her word! Not mine!) kind of threw me for a loop. (To be fair, Ms. McKinley does have deadlines to reach.) In fact, she describes Pegasus’s eventual sequel to be analogous to the way The Return of the King is the sequel to The Two Towers, which is to say not a sequel at all, but the rest of the story. It’s almost as infuriating as the term “literary fiction” to be quite honest. As the very wise Brian Cronin puts it, “serialized fiction is judged – as a whole, yes, but also as each part individually”. This sort of amputation has been running wild through speculative fiction recently–so much so, in fact, that it’s time I stopped complaining and listened–does this sort of thing suggest that some authors ought to go in for serialized novels instead of traditional ones?

(To preface, I am not talking about publishers deciding to separate out a novel, such as the overseas publications of some of the novels in A Song of Fire and Ice and The Lord of the Rings, which, if you’ve been paying attention, is a single novel. I’m talking about authors making that decision for themselves.)

The serialized novel is a novel published in parts in periodicals, something we tend to associate with Charles Dickens and my beloved Alexandre Dumas. Like many great things, the serial began as a tax dodge. When English newspapers were asked to pay a high tax on traditional newspaper, newspapers owners decided to use bigger paper in order to classify themselves as phamplets and get out of paying the tax. With all that space, however, they needed something to fill it, and serials stepped in. The first serial novel was Ned Ward’s The London Spy in 1698, although the form reached the height of its popularity with the start of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers in 1836. The best thing to compare serial novels to is television; when it comes to structure and fandom, it’s much the same thing–a loose structure (at best!) and fans speculating wildly on what will occur next. While I usually look to Lady Trekkies as my fandom foremothers, but fans of Little Women hold that title just as rightfully; their prim rage over Jo rejecting Laurie echoes right on down to the shipping wars of today.

While the serialized novel became less popular after Dickens’ day, the advent of the Internet renewed interest in the medium. I can’t find the very first book to be published serially online, but the first prominent author to do so was Stephen King with his novel, The Plant, in 2000. Readers paid a small sum for each installment. But as the story went on, people lost interest and didn’t pay; King left The Plant unfinished, its last installment published in December of 2000. While King has said he may return to the novel, it’s been a decade since that statement. But the online serial novel lives; Tracy and Laura Hickman, successful fantasy authors, are currently publishing a novel in weekly installments for subscribers. Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch was initially envisioned as a serial novel–while installments were published biweekly, readers were hesitant to pay for the rest of the novel beyond the free first five chapters. The main problem, it appears, when it comes to online serial novels is getting readers to pay for little chunks of digital content. But it can be done.

So, should authors whose supposed series feel more like installments of one novel turn to online serial novels? I think they ought to consider it. A single book ought to be fairly self-contained; while you may not get everything out of a mid-series book, you should be able to follow along and enjoy the story. Snapping the poor book’s plot in two defeats the purpose of the medium (and can feel like a blatant money grab)–so why not look into a new medium where serialization and installments are the point, rather than an obstacle?

I’ve been having a pretty decent week. I’ve gotten through Polly and the Pirates and Sixpence House this week–I should probably write my review of Sixpence House soon. I’m still getting through Persuasion, as it needs to be finished by Thursday. My Friday was quite excellent, as my favorite independent bookstore was cleaning out stock–which means a freebie table that’s picked clean. I managed to walk away with Bright Young Things and The Year of Living Biblically. I’ve also started on the second story draft of the novel I’m working on, so I’m quite pleased.

Don’t forget to comment to enter to win my Chronicle Books haul! It’ll close on December 10th. Allie at Hist-Fic Chick is giving away two copies of The Mischief of the Mistletoe until Friday and a copy of Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women until an unknown date. TJ at Dreams and Speculation is giving away an audiobook bundle composed of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and Blackout until Friday. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away the works of Brandon Sanderson and Dance in the Vampire Bund volumes 1 through 9 until next Monday, an Orson Scott Card package until December 2nd, a ridiculous bundle of 25 fantasy books and an equally ridiculous bundle of 25 science fiction books until December 6th, and a steampunk prize package until December 12th–you must register to receive their newsletter to enter all of these US only giveaways. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. You can currently view the first season of BBC’s Sherlock for free on PBS’s website (US only). The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of online serialized novels?

10 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Serialized Novel

  1. I think serialization is brilliant actually. I know that a big part of my response to the Harry Potter books was having to wait so long in between books, so that waiting for Harry Potter and talking and speculating about Harry Potter took up space in my life for nearly a decade. I think serialization (TV shows with complicated long-term plots are another good example of this actually) can create a strong sense of community among fans, and that’s something I love as well.

    So yeah. I’m in favor. I wish newspapers still did that.

    • As an very active participant in fandom, I completely agree. 😉 I’m talking more about making sure that each installment is a complete offering–if smaller (or larger!) chunks than the average novel work for the author in question, they ought to at least try for it!

  2. I see Jenny’s post, but I also see your point about it feeling like money-grad when an author does that to a book. I guess that with a series like HP, we know it’s going to happen all along. But I can’t imagine being too happy if I read a novel and then discovered that it was only half a story after all.

  3. Curious to see what you thought of Sixpence House! And congrats on starting the second draft of your novel. 🙂

    I feel like I don’t have super-strong opinions on serialised novels, but I enjoyed your thoughts!

  4. I’m someone who doesn’t even like reading a book that turns out to be part of a series if I don’t know up front that the story won’t be resolved in a single book. That happened with Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink. So, I really would not enjoy having to wait a year or so just to finish one story. I’m fine with series, but a serialized novel would, I think, drive me crazy. Especially if I didn’t realize initially that the story had been split. I’ve not encountered novels serialized and distributed online; that’s an interesting idea. I might be interested if it meant the installments came faster than a year apart. You’d think that especially with eReaders getting so popular, some author would experiment with some sort of weekly subscription that would download straight to a reader’s eReader.

    Congratulations on starting the second draft! I’m jealous of your freebie table raid–I’ve never seen a bookstore just give books away!

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