Serialized fiction: opportunity or fad?

A particular form of story popular in the Victorian era became known as the “penny dreadful,” which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about it. Often these stories, detailing lurid crimes or scandalous activities, were cheaply printed so as to be available for a penny to a mass audience.

They weren’t intended to be great literature.

This is not to say that only dreadful literature was published serially. Charles Dickens released all his books in serial form before publishing them as novels, as did many of his contemporaries whose works we now consider to be “literature.” According to an infographic from BooksOnTheWall, serialization continued through the latter part of the 20th century with the publication of Hunter S. Thomson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971, and extends to the work of contemporary writers like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood.

What’s old is new again

Now, thanks to the publishing world’s 800-pound, love-‘em-or-hate-‘em-or-both gorilla, there may soon be a widespread return to serialized fiction in written form. With the announcement of its new Kindle Vella app, Amazon joins sites like Webnovel, Wattpad, Tapas, and Radish in offering an installment-based reading experience.

Dan Holloway: Yeah, it’s the sort of thing that’s just designed to drive fiction into this really homogeneous type of narrative.

Howard Lovy: Yeah, that’s not necessarily a good thing for writers, especially in fiction… sometimes the first few chapters is nothing but story-building, but now you have to think of giving people a reason to pay more.

from the AskALLI Advice Podcast

As a writer, this got me thinking. And researching.

I initially dismissed Vella as a platform for my work. But I found myself considering whether it may be appropriate for my speculative literary novel (with a dystopian edge), which has yet to find a home with a traditional publisher.

My initial investigation indicates that, much like the penny dreadfuls of centuries ago, Vella won’t focus on literary fiction. (Currently, that designation doesn’t appear as a category option as the screen shot below shows.) That makes some sense, since the hook is paramount with episodic fiction. You must somehow leave your reader dangling emotionally at the cliff’s edge of each chapter so they will cough up their penny (or token) to get the next episode. Curiosity is a much more powerful driver than appreciation of glorious prose.

What do readers think?

I don’t know yet whether I will offer The Last Storyteller on Vella.

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think. Here’s a quick survey to let me know.

I do know that readers (and viewers) remain fascinated by stories that hook them—behold the phenomenon of binge watching—and that we are all slaves to the practically insatiable human desire to know what happens next.

Want to know more?

Penny dreadfuls and serialshistory

Wikipedia article
BBC article
Crimereads article
Books on the Wall article

Where to read serials


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