Charles Dickens didn't invent serialized novels, but he's certainly one of the best known authors to use the serial approach. Stephen King experimented with the approach in 2000 with his serialized ebook, The Plant.
Whereas the traditional story has a beginning, a middle and an end, the serial novel is often characterized by the never-ending middle. The author starts the story, and then releases new installments over time. That is, of course, unless they abandon the project midway, as Mr. King did.
I wonder what Charles Dickens would think of serialized ebooks. The topic has been on my mind recently as I re-evaluate the policy regarding serial ebooks at Smashwords, the ebook publishing and distribution platform I run.
At Smashwords, we face a quandary with serialized books. They occupy a grey area. They technically don't comply with our terms of service, which states we only publish complete, finished works. But whose job is it to judge whether a story is complete or not, or long enough to qualify as a standalone work? I created Smashwords to eliminate gatekeepers, not to become one.
So I wondered, am I wrong to discourage serials on Smashwords? Is there a large, untapped market I'm missing for serialized ebooks?
To answer this question, I posted an online poll about serialized ebooks at MobileRead, the popular online community for ebook enthusiasts.
I expected the responses would evenly distribute across those who enjoy serialized ebooks, and those who don't.
I was wrong.
As of this writing, 94% of respondents to my unscientific poll stated they either avoid reading serialized ebooks, or they never read them. It'll be interesting to watch how the numbers shake out once the vote count approaches a more statistically significant sample size.
The discussion at MobileRead surrounding the survey is even more interesting. Many readers are passionately opposed to serialized ebooks.
Why do so many readers hold serialized books in such contempt, as my poll appears to indicate?
If I distill the essence of the MobileRead comments, it boils down to these five reasons:
- Lack of immediate gratification - If you enjoy a book, you want to finish it now, not later.
- Risk - You fear spending money on the serials and becoming emotionally invested in the characters, only to have the author mothball the project and leave the story unfinished.
- Cost - A serialized book can be much more expensive than a complete book.
- Quality - Great books become great through heavy editing and revision, yet many serialized books are works-in-process.
- Inconvience - It's easier and more convenient to download a single complete file than multiple files.
My hunch is that Darwin's natural selection, powered by reader preferences, will prevent serialized ebooks from catching on. Most writers write to attract readers, not repel them.
What do you think? Would you rather read the book all at once, or in serialized installments?