Kindle Serials (Part Three)

This is part three of a three part series. The series begins here.

There’s been a certain level of excitement about Amazon’s Kindle Serials announcement, including articles like this one from Jason Allen Ashlock on Digital Book World (in which, by the way, Moveable Type is announcing a serial of its own).

But, like the serial GAMELAND that we spoke of in Part Two, in reality,  there are already many popular serials being published on Amazon–they are just being published one episode at a time: Look at Hugh Howey’s  Wool or Sean Platt and David Wright’s Yesterday’s Gone. Prices for the episodes usually range from 99 cents to $2.99 each and occasionally, even free. Generally, when these series are complete, they are published in either an omnibus edition or a boxed set.

But for the new Kindle Serials, Amazon is only charging $1.99 for the entire series! Right now, no one knows whether that  price point is only an introductory offer or a vision for the future.. In his article “Kindle’s Serial Killer,” writer Mike Cane viewpoint is that “Bezos has just lowered the floor for eBook prices again.” His advice to writers is to “pass on this.”

Kate Sullivan of Candlemark & Gleam notes:

It looks like the current Kindle Serials available are $1.99, which seems to be a standard Amazon tactic – it’s sort of a loss-leader, positioned exactly at the novel-selling sweet spot these days. From that point of view, it’s a great price – it’s cheap enough to make people willing to take the risk on an unknown author and/or a format they’re not familiar with. From the point of view of someone who likes to see creative types paid a fair wage for their work, though, I really despise the 99c and $1.99 price points for full novels. We charge $5 for a basic serial, with additional content and rewards available at other tier price points, and I think that’s fair. But promotional pricing can be anything you want, and I’m going to look at the current $1.99 pricing on the Kindle Serials as just that – a way to get market penetration through encouraging people to take a low-priced risk.

Authors like Saul Tanpepper express concern that “$1.99 is too restrictive, for both readers and writers.”

Compare the $1.99 price tag to the price for Baen Books’ Webscriptions, where for $15 a month, subscribers get serialized versions of upcoming new Baen titles.

But it is not only the price point that may be restrictive for authors: Like the Kindle Singles program, the Kindle Serials program is curated. Authors must submit samples of their serial and get accepted by Amazon in order to get published. The fact that three of the serials currently offered are from the same Studio hints that there are obviously some agreements already in place for serials material. Just how open the program is to new material remains to be seen.

Customers have some concerns as well. Many of those concerns have little to do with price. What if the author doesn’t finish the series? It is bad enough for a reader when an author doesn’t finish a series of books. (Consider Sterling E. Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey or Dean Koontz’s Moonlight Bay series or Anne Rice’s never-written sequel to The Mummy, among many, many others.) But an unfinished serial is actually an unfinished book! That’s certainly not a recipe for customer satisfaction!

And anticipation may not be for everyone! I read some disgruntled comments about Tor publishing the next book in the Old Man’s War series as a serial. Some fans would rather wait for the whole book to be available. (Personally, I’m one of those –  Remember how I said I bought The Green Mile and The Blackstone Chronicles serials in the 90s? I actually waited until I had bought them all so I could read them like a complete book!)

The serials market is clearly going to be an important ebook market, with content, availability, delivery and price all being dynamic issues going forward. And it may not just be the ebook market pushing the boundaries. I just stumbled on a website for a new print serial called Ora et Labora et Zombie. Written as an epistolary novel, the book consists of 4-6 page letters (on watermarked stationary and with a hand-printed cover sheet) that are actually mailed to your house.  With 72 episodes priced at $3 each, the total price of the book may actually make agency pricing look good.

Kindle Serials (Part One)

In the midst of all the announcements about Amazon.com’s new family of Kindles was an unexpected tidbit: The announcement of Kindle Serials.

Now, serials are nothing new. Dickens did them (and Amazon is giving a couple of those away for free  to celebrate the new program). Many of my favorite classic sci-fi novels started as serials back in the days of the pulps. Back in 1996, Stephen King  resurrected the serial form with his Green Mile series, with rival John Saul penning The Blackstone Chronicles shortly thereafter. (And, just for the record, I bought both of them….)

Tor Books recently garnered headlines  by announcing that they were going to be serializing the next installment in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. In reality, however, small presses and authors have already been digitally serializing books for some time now–without the credit given to Tor and now, Amazon.

Just ask Kate Sullivan, editor-in-chief and the mastermind behind Candlemark & Gleam, a small press in Bennington, Vermont. Just be prepared to duck (digitally, of course). The normally good-humored Sullivan had a few things to say  about mainstream publishers taking the credit for being “unique” and “innovative” by publishing serial fiction. Candlemark & Gleam has been publishing it online for several years.

When asked about the Amazon announcement, Sullivan was more positive:

I’m choosing to look at the Kindle Serials announcement as a good thing. At Candlemark & Gleam, one of our earliest goals was to bring some classic publishing ideas back into practice; from the beginning, part of that involved working with serial fiction – one of our first titles, two years ago, was a serial. Serials were, for a very long time, a vibrant part of the publishing landscape, and also intimately connected with the world of science fiction and fantasy, which is obviously near and dear to us. Given that modern technology has made it simpler than ever to publish short works directed at a specific, interested audience, we figured that the time was right to push for serial fiction to come back. Unfortunately, since serials fell by the wayside in the latter part of the 20th century, it’s taken some doing to get people to understand what a serial even is, much less to understand the vagaries of how one might be delivered, or to buy in to the joys of delayed gratification. That’s been the biggest challenge facing our two serial projects thus far, and I think it’s a challenge that the prominence of Kindle Serials might help overcome. Say what you will, but Amazon has a lot of clout, and a lot of ability to push ideas into the mainstream. If Kindle Serials mean that more people are willing to give delayed gratification and serial stories a try, then hurrah!

What I’m most hoping for, though, is a simplification of the delivery process. Our two serials so far have been Hickey of the Beast, a YA fantasy by Isabel Kunkle, and Constellation Games, a “space opera soap opera” by Leonard Richardson. Both serialized as weekly emailed chapters initially, with Hickey of the Beast also available as an auto-updating iPhone and Android app, and both are now available in compiled form as both eBooks and paperbacks. When we were originally serializing the novels, they were pushed as emails to subscribers each week, with PDFs of each chapter available on a subscriber-only webpage. With the Kindle Serials plan, it’s possible that there will be a means for publishers and self-published authors alike to make serials available with each chapter auto-delivered to a subscriber’s Kindle device – much simpler than loading a PDF each week, and just as easy as opening an email on your smartphone. Between easing the delivery process and making readers aware of serials as a great option – just think about how much you look forward to each week’s installment of your favourite TV show! – there’s a good chance that Kindle Serials will inject some new life into a format that many of us have been struggling to revive.

I highly recommend reading Ralph Vicinanza’s fascinating introduction to the Kindle edition of The Green Mile for background on just how groundbreaking an idea it was to do a serialized print novel. If you don’t have the book, you can read the intro on the “Look Inside” feature here.

There’s so much to say about this subject that this is going to be a three part article. In Part Two, we will talk with author/publisher Saul Tanpepper about his experiences publishing his serial novel, GAMELAND on Amazon prior to the Kindle Serials program. In Part Three, we are going to look at pricing.