Kindle Serials (Part Two)

This is part two of a three part series. Part one is here.

In April, 2012, I purchased GAMELAND Episodes 1-8 for the Kindle. Designed to be an eight episode serial, the experience has proved to a lot different than what either author Saul Tanpepper or customers like myself expected it to be. Because of this, I asked him to comment on his early experiences trying to publish a serial on Amazon before Kindle Serials and his thoughts on the new program . I thought his comments were important and interesting enough to post in their entirety as a guest post.

At a press conference on Thursday to introduce the new Kindles, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos announced—almost as an afterthought—that their digital publishing arm Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), will be offering a new kind of ebook product. Kindle Serials are book-length stories delivered to customers’ Kindle reading devices over a period of time. A customer buys into the concept early, pays once, and gets future installments without having to dish out any additional cash.

I admit, I have mixed feelings hearing this.

First off, let me just say that I’m thrilled Amazon is exploring this approach. The serialized novel is not a new concept, but rather a format whose popularity has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout publishing history and which only recently had fallen into relative obscurity. What I am unhappy about is how long it took Amazon to recognize this opportunity and to offer this publishing option to authors in the first place. Six months ago would’ve been nice. A couple years, even better. After all, digital content has been delivered serially for years; and yet, for some reason, books have not been included.

 It’s about time.

 I approached KDP back in early April of this year (it may actually have been sooner; I can’t remember and I just can’t be bothered to wade through all my emails) with the idea of offering a book to customers as a serial. As I envisioned (and explained to them), the idea would be that customers would only have to pay once and would get a steady stream of reading material over some set future period of time. Sort of like a magazine subscription, only with books.

Sorry, they told me. Not doable.

Instead, I was told to consider using their Blogs and ePeriodicals publishing program. What is this option? Basically, anyone with a blog can deliver their content to subscribers’ Kindles when it becomes available. The caveat? It has to be published on-line. For reasons that aren’t relevant here, this wasn’t a viable option for me.

Despite this setback, I set out to publish a serialized novel anyway. Without Amazon’s blessing, I signed customers up. How could I deliver on this promise? By publishing an ebook and updating it monthly with new content. This workaround was available to me only because Amazon permits customers to receive (at no extra charge) any updates to an ebook they have already purchased. (Generally, an author might update for reasons of formatting or editing, for example.) Unfortunately, updates aren’t automatic, and customers aren’t automatically notified of their availability.

Why not?

 Amazon is extremely resistant to notifying customers about updates and instead requires an author request the notification as well as to provide extensive details outlining the changes in the request. Updates, they say, must be “significant” in order to warrant a notification. The vagueness of this standard essentially means Amazon can decide to notify customers or not at its discretion.

To some degree, I understand their hesitancy. I know many authors who constantly fiddle with their books, rendering tiny changes on a regular basis. Amazon would spend a lot of time just notifying customers, and customers’ email inboxes would constantly be flooded with notices.

 But there are other, more practical, reasons why updates and notifications aren’t automatic. First off, while sending electronic files is extremely cheap, it isn’t free, and Amazon foots the bill. (The initial “transfer” fee following a purchase is charged to the author in most cases, but updates aren’t).

 Additionally, Amazon hasn’t yet figured out a way to update an ebook without a customer losing bookmarks, notes, and highlights. Consequently, when they notify customers of the availability of an update, or when a customer requests to receive an update, the customer must acknowledge that they understand that these things will be lost. Amazon says they’re working on this, and maybe the launch of Kindle Serials means a fix is close to being implemented.

Despite all this, I was determined to offer my urban thriller novel, GAMELAND, as a serial, and to allow customers the option of buying into the entire project early, something I had never seen before for an Amazon ebook. To incentivize customers to buy into the experiment (and because I was a relative unknown), I offered the “subscription” at a huge discount (over eighty percent off the individual episode price). What those first customers received in April, the month before the first episode was even released, was essentially a cover, a welcome note and instructions for updating the file. With each new episode, I raised the price. For latecomers, the package is still cheaper, and will always be, compared with buying the individual episodes (or even multi-episode packages).

 But there has been a tradeoff for early adopters: along with the savings, they’ve had to deal with the monthly hassle of Amazon updating reluctantly and notifying sporadically. But the end of this grand experiment is now in sight, if only because there are just three episodes remaining. The launch of Kindle Serials hopefully bodes well for future projects.

Will customers buy serialized ebooks?

 If GAMELAND is any indication, I think they will. My sales are still relatively small to be attempting to make grandiose generalizations, but the feedback has been nothing but positive. I can also say this with confidence: if my readers get half as excited as I do engaging in discussions about a story while it’s still being written, then they will buy into the idea of the serialized novel. Just imagine how much more popular this format will become once the obstacles are removed!

So, yes, I’m thrilled that Amazon has finally developed a process that enables authors to publish this way. But for me and my fans, it’s a bittersweet moment, the culmination of an arduous journey while simultaneously a validation that the journey itself was worthwhile. I have been blessed with readers whose enthusiasm is matched by their patience. I like to think that our struggle—and our combined and unrelenting dedication to the serial format—has finally made Amazon see the light.

In Part Three, we’ll discuss pricing and customer expectations about the serial format.