The serial has had a long and distinguished career in the annals of publishing. Its heyday, arguably, was the 19th century. That’s when a host of factors – a more literate public, improved printing techniques, and better distribution – came together to create a market for popular weekly and monthly publications. Editors had to fill the paper or magazine somehow, and often turned to writers of fiction, who would then write a segment of a continuing story for each new edition. A surprising number of books that we consider classics today first appeared in installments, among them Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Amazon instituted a program in 2012 that was intended to bring back the serial novel. With Kindle Serials, readers pay upfront for the whole book, and installments are delivered to the customers’ devices as they become available. (Don’t bother looking for information on submissions; they’re not taking any right now.)
A serial differs from a short story. A short story will have a beginning, middle, and end, with characters who probably won’t show up elsewhere.
A serial is also different from a series. There are several types of series, and not all of them have the same elements. But typically, a series will feature the same character or characters in every book, and the plots will also be similar. The series may or may not have an over-arching storyline. But every book in the series is supposed to have its own story arc, and that story ought to be completed within that volume. With the exception of a serial, readers expect any book they pick up to have a beginning, middle, and ending. If that doesn’t happen, they get miffed.
That said, it should come as no surprise that some readers have complained about a marketing tactic certain authors are using for their series: they write a short segment of their story with a cliffhanger at the end; then they publish it, get it price-matched to free on Amazon, and use it as a come-on for the rest of the series.
One example is Mine For Tonight, a steamy romance by J.S. Scott. The subtitle indicates that it’s “Book One” of a series called The Billionaire’s Obsession – but this “book” is only 93 pages long and ends abruptly with the words “End of Sample.” And readers have complained about it. Check out the one-star reviews:
- “I always thought that when you write a book, it’s a good idea to finish it”
- “Since when is a chapter break a new book?”
- “Just because it is free does not mean you can cheat a reader that way”
- “Not worth your time.”
On the other hand, it’s sitting at number 444 in the Kindle Free list as I write this. And her omnibus of the first four books in the series ranks in the top 100 paid. So maybe Ms. Scott’s marketing gamble is paying off for her.
But I, for one, won’t be following suit. If I publish a short story, I put “short story” on the cover and in the title. And if I put “book” on the cover, I don’t want to disappoint or anger my readers by giving them anything less than an actual book – complete with an ending.