When Is a Serial Just a Tease?

To be continuedThe 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.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “When Is a Serial Just a Tease?”

  1. Even Lee Child did this last year with his Jack Reacher series, releasing a short story in advance of the novel that readers slammed. Lee and Reacher are essentially review-proof, but over 700 of the 1,600 reviews were 3 stars or less.

    I wrote a series of shorts last year, but at I made sure that each story had a beginning, middle and end. I think to do less than that insults the intelligence of our readers. No matter how big you are, I think that’s a bad idea.

  2. Personally I think every book should at least wrap up the central problem, even serials. To do less and leave the reader hanging does your audience a disservice. I think it’s unethical to deliberately end in the middle of an ongoing crisis.

    1. Absolutely, Yvonne. Although I think readers wouldn’t have been so annoyed if she’d called this one an “extended sample” — although that might have cost her some downloads.

  3. I’m going to go the opposite way on this discussion, of course. 😉 I write serials. Multiple serials.

    And there IS a right and wrong way to go about it.

    Wrong way: deceptive advertising, marketing the work as complete, not revealing that it is part of an overall serial.

    Right way: TELL the reader in your blurb that this is part X of a Y part serial, with episodes being released every Z days/weeks/months. And then make sure to actually release on that timeline (I had life get in the way of an episode 5 release once, and got slammed in reviews on that serial as a result; all 4-5 stars til I slipped up!).

    Serials are the DOMINANT FORMAT for fiction in our culture today, thanks to TV, which is basically all serial format in the fictional programs. People are ideally attuned to TV-episode length work. Short serials are also the only effective way to take advantage of programs like Kindle Unlimited (which punishes longer works, but benefits shorter ones greatly).

    But rule #1 of book marketing still applies: don’t screw over your readers. 😉 You need to give your readers great fiction at a good price, and tell them before they buy what they are getting. Don’t be the jerk who uploads a regular book one chapter at a time to scalp your readers, either – a good serial is a special format, which is *distinct* from a novel. If you want to learn how to write them, go watch some good TV for a while. 😉

    Serials are growing stronger again in fiction, and I think that’s a great thing. But do it right.

    1. I don’t think you’re on the opposing side at all, Kevin. Serials are fine — *as long as you tell the reader that’s what it is*. The problems start when somebody markets what’s essentially a serial as “book 1” of a series, which is what this author did.

      “Don’t screw over your readers” is an awesome mantra. 🙂

  4. PS: A note on cliffhanger endings.

    Was Tolkien a bad boy for ending The Fellowship of the Ring on a cliffhanger? 😉

    Cliffhangers can be OK in serials. Some TV series, like Alias, use them consistently. In Alias, EVERY episode ended with a cliffhanger, and EVERY episode opened with the hero resolving last week’s cliffhanger. “24” works in a similar manner at times.

    Other serials use cliffhangers on occasion, but usually do not.

    Some serials NEVER use cliffhangers; these are the TV shows where every episode is its own story, with little or no continuance from one show to the next (think the old Star Trek shows, or even the first seasons of Star Trek: Next Generation).

    ALL of these methods are OK. ALL of them work. ALL of them will irritate a certain percentage of your marketplace. The answer is to pick a method of cliffhanger use and stick to it. You can use all, none, or occasional cliffhangers and do OK in that target audience. But pick none, and switch to all, and you will annoy readers.

    It’s all about creating a set of expectations, and then fulfilling those expectations.

    1. I pretty much quit watching TV about 25 years ago, so I can’t speak to the way TV writers are handling cliffhangers now. I do know, though, that a lot of people binge-watch TV shows now, so maybe cliffhangers don’t have the same punch today as they did when J.R. Ewing was shot and we had to wait all summer to figure out who did it. 😉

      But again, the problem isn’t so much with the plot device (I’ve thrown a few early books of fantasy series across the room at the end myself 😉 ) as with the way the author billed it. Other books in this series range from 160 to 250 pages, give or take — in other words, novel length. This one is significantly shorter, and it ends with the words, “end of sample.” Why would you call something a “book” on the cover and a “sample” at the end?

  5. The guys at Sterling and Stone (Self-Publishing Podcast hosts) do a lot of serials, but I think they are doing it in a more correct way by making it very clear that it is a serial. They call the volumes episodes and release them in seasons to mimic TV terminology which helps a lot, then sell season sets.

    The Green Mile was originally released as a serial and I managed to snag it in that form – it worked well because as others noted, each book worked well as a complete unit while leaving you wanting more so you pick up the next book.

    Unfortunately, too many folks in the last year or two have done bad serials: not clearly identified, read like they just cut if off at the end of a chapter with no episode wrap up (or they just release it a chapter at a time), and usually too short for the price even as a serial volume.

    I think if someone wants to get into serials, they really need to watch a lot of TV shows that had overarching plots – stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Pretender, etc where each episode gave a good story with beginning, middle, and end while also still carrying on a longer story plot across the whole work.

  6. One author I ‘m reviewing has a “prequel novella” for free on Amazon. I have a serial based on my “Sword Called…Kitten?” series. It runs, as Kevin mentioned above, the first Sunday of every month without fail. Sometimes the episodes flow into each other, but I try to have a mini-conclusion on each one.
    Both of these fall into the category of “Don’t screw over your readers.” State what you’re doing clearly, and most readers will go for it.
    The nice thing about a serial, if you are consistent, your readers get to know what to expect, and the unpleasant surprises only happen to your characters 🙂

    1. That makes sense if you’re writing a serial. My sense, though — although I certainly could be wrong — is that this particular author intended to write a series. Which is why she called the first installment “book 1.”

      Although I still think it’s odd to put “sample” at the end of “book 1”.

  7. Kudos to you, Lynne. This is a pretty low-down and despicable tactic, in my opinion. I would not want to be taken up short like that, and I would never do that to my readers. Those reviewers were actually pretty eloquent and hit the nail on the head. Thanks for exposing this cheat of a marketing ploy.

  8. Wow! Can’t help wondering if I fall into this category. I have a short-story length introduction to a series that consists of six vignettes. I didn’t write it as a marketing tool, but I did think it was a nifty way of establishing the “backstory” behind my series. The piece is for sale on Amazon (99 cents) and is labeled as the introduction to the series. Am I guilty?

    1. Samuel, I did something similar with my most recent series. I released three individual short stories that bridge the gap between this series and the previous one. Then I collected the short stories into an anthology and priced it at 99 cents.

      I think as long as you make it clear somehow, like in an author’s note, that your intro volume is just that, I think you’re fine. 🙂

Comments are closed.