As I write my utopian novel, I’m getting close to the point where it becomes difficult for new readers to join us. As
Thinking this through, it might take me the next two to three years to write a full-length utopian novel and, if your first exposure to it is chapter 40 one year from now, are you really going to start at the beginning and get caught up? Conversely, if you did happen to start with me at the beginning, are really going to still be following it by then?
As a reader on Substack, I’ll admit that I’ve found it very difficult to follow serial novels on the platform—I’m embarrassed to say that, though I have started many serial novels I have so far abandoned every attempt. I now solely read novels in their complete form—as a kindle or physical book.
What do you make of, for example, Wattpad (and the many other serial fiction startups?). Their sites don't feature books, per se, but they feature book-length writing, and book-style narrative, in a form that's not printed between covers, nor sold in bookstores. And they often have hundreds of thousands of readers.
That’s true, and I agree with his conclusion: “Books aren't being disrupted. Instead reading will be (further) augmented by differing media formats (some of them print-based).” After all, serial fiction USED to be the norm before we switched over to complete books somewhere in the 20th century, and there’s reason to believe that might happen again. Part of me wonders if the only reason Charlotte, Lincoln, and I can’t get on board is because we’re three millennials still clinging to our Kindle libraries even as Gen Z has moved on.
Still, we are not on Wattpad, we are on Substack. And I do think the readers here are different (see: older?). And it’s not like, in my experience, serial fiction is doing poorly, per se. People are actually reading my serial fiction—so far. As of my fifth chapter, my novel chapters have received a 37%, 38%, 39%, 40%, 42%, and 47% open rate. Is it interesting that those numbers are in order from my most recent chapter to my first chapter? Is it telling how many people showed up for the first one, then dropped off the further I got into my book? Will this trend only continue as I approach chapter 10? Will no one be left reading by chapter 20?
If, as a reader, I’m finding Substack less than ideal for full-length novels, I’m absolutely loving it for short fiction that explore a specific theme—like this post from
But then the comics writers are doing far better than the fiction writers on Substack—their leaderboard has thousands of paid subscribers, ours has hundreds. And that could very understandably be because their stories are short and are thus better suited to a weekly newsletter format. You can read a full story in one post, and perhaps that’s the more desirable thing.
But I’m curious to know what you think. I’m thinking about making Oblivion a novella (as many utopian novels seem to be anyway), then writing short utopian stories from there—stories that can be summed up in one post or a short series of posts (rather than hundreds) and that allow me to explore new utopian topics on a regular basis (rather than one utopian novel over the next couple of years). And I wonder if that might be better for you as a reader too?
I’d love to know your thoughts:
I asked this question specific to my work, but I’d also love to know your thoughts on short fiction vs. serial fiction in general. Let’s have further discussion in the comments. This conversation is open to all subscribers.
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In general, I like longer works. 600 page books rather than 300 page ones. Trilogies rather than one-off novels. Novels rather than collections of short stories.
Mostly because finding something I enjoy reading takes significant time, and it takes as long to find a short story I like as it does to find a 12 book epic series.
I'm new to Substack. I don't mind catching up.
However I do wish that there was a way to index the chapters on the app. I did appreciate how you indexed the chapters to Oblivion in your email. Can this be similarly done on the app?
I'm also late to the discussion, but I read through the whole thread and some great insights/experiences shared by everyone!
I personally don't read serial fiction and have not read fiction on a consistent clip since 2020 (after reading upwards of 30 books every year before that). I switched mainly to comics and manga, which are of course serial in nature.
From my own experience, I've published the two books in my urban fantasy series on Substack since November 2021 and am experiencing first-hand the "hey why doesn't anyone want to start reading on chapter 74" phenomenon that others have talked about in the thread. I knew this would be an issue when I started, but figured that having the entire first book on my newsletter for free would allow people to read and catch up to the current story, but I don't believe that has happened. I think people would prefer reading the book as a regular ebook, but I sell that for $5 and am loathe to give that away for free. (I do offer complete ebooks for paid subscribers).
If my writing output were high enough, I would probably switch to publishing shorter fiction pieces in the world of my series (or unrelated stories that were in a similar genre) alongside my weekly chapters. But it's hard to find the time to do that and write non-fiction pieces that would help bring in new readers.
Once I finish my second book this month, I will re-evaluate my posting schedule and what I want to publish on my Substack. I do like Substack as a platform and they are continually adding features, so I will definitely keep publishing here.
The one thing I do read consistently on Substack is comics, so I thought it would be worth reflecting on how the comic creators who received the Pro grants have iterated since they joined the platform and what they are doing to build community/keep people reading.
Bryan K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon are releasing 1-2 pages of a comic every week, oftentimes just stopping the story not at a particular cliffhanger (although comics are usually written to get the person to keep turning the page, so there is in a sense a mini-cliffhanger at each page turn). They then add behind-the-scenes stuff and fun discussion topics, and do frequent giveaways. The result is a ton of engagement and comments every week.
Some creators were dropping full issues for free subscribers and behind-the-scenes stuff for paid subscribers, some were doing the reverse, and some did a year of digital issues, and then shut down the Substack altogether.
The constant thread was that most people started out with a frequent cadence (2-3 times a week) and then slowed down considerably once the Substack Pro year requirements were over. I do like the once-a-week omnibus post that BKV is doing. You can read the comic (which is free but I think paid subscribers get a catch-up PDF), but there's other fun stuff to read after that. Having only to read one post a week from one creator/newsletter makes it easy to follow along as well. Something to think about!
I am late to write a comment, but the topic is very interesting for me as a reader and as a writer.
As a reader I have never managed to read a serialised novel on Substack. Although I have tried several. I started late into your first novel Obscurity — and ended up buying the ebook.
As a writer I have serialised my first novel on Substack last year. It was edited and completed and sleeping on my desktop. I was done with serialising in Nov and self-published the book in Dec. At the moment I am writing my second novel. I think I will serialise it when it is completed. Probably, I will change the publishing time. From one chapter/week to maybe 3 chapters/week or even 1 chapter/day. The idea of serialising fiction online as a newsletter is not really a thing in my area (Germany). (Although, I remember my mother in the 1990 reading every morning a chapter of a novel in our local newspaper. Which is probably the reason why I find the idea of serialising charming.)
My Substack is now operating as a newsletter and I think about publishing short fiction. As my Substack is tiny and free I cannot really comment, if publishing serial novels works out or not. For me it is just a nice way to get stuff out there.
Something I forgot: I have actually read one online serial that I absolutely loved and was hooked by: Kyle Rutkin’s “Tik Tik Gone”:
You can read what he learned about publishing serialized fiction here:
I'm still trying to figure this one out, but here's my take on it so far:
I do read serialized fiction in the forms of comic books on Tapas and Webtoon. They are free with paid "read ahead", finished books and a little bit of extra content on Patreon. I would love to see similar model implemented for the written word - it's great from marketing point of view.
The platform is also a factor here. Tapas makes it super easy for new readers to find the genres and stories they might enjoy and then start from episode one right away. Substack, as much as I love it, is not doing a great job in that regard yet. It's five years younger than Tapas, so they might get there in time. We'll see.
And finally, meeting the readers at leas half way, or even better - all the way, at least in the beginning, might not be such a bad idea. We might not like TikTok, but if you write for Gen Z or young people in general, that's where they are so it's where you need to be in some shape or form that's authentic to you and your craft. You can lead them to your Substack stories, but you need to meet them where they are, not where you want them to be.
I'm still figuring this one out, so I'm happy you picked up the topic, thank you! 🥰
Late to the party on this one, but I thought I’d share my Wattpad experience. I wrote more serialized novels on Wattpad than I actually read.
As a writer, I liked the serial format a lot because I was writing to a live room, so to speak. That energy pushed me to keep going. It was also helpful when I pantsed a serial novel because readers would call out plot holes, inconsistencies, and on occasion, identify opportunities to pick up the thread of a story line and make something of it later in the book. That said, the bulk of the audience (90% or more) came to the title *after* I marked it complete. According to Wattpad, this is actually pretty common because most readers don’t want to start a book unless they know the author is actually going to finish it. Even though Substack skews older, I think there’s a similar phenomenon at work, but I’m basing that on the number of Substacks I see that started with a bang but haven’t updated in months. Of course, Substack doesn’t have a way of telling you that a serial novel is complete (on Wattpad it’s a button that appears next to the story), so serializing here is a challenge in that regard.
But as a reader, I never really loved the serial. In theory, it was cool, but it was never as cool as having the whole book and reading it at my own pace. So while I sometimes found serials I enjoyed, they had to compete for my attention with completed books, and that was never a fair contest.
The issue is that this all has nothing to do with the 'serial novel' of it all. I look at my stacks of physical and virtual media to be consumed and it's the same across all of it. Episodes of TV shows piled up on the DVR. Podcasts I'm months behind on. Comics stacked in piles, ready to be read. A shelf full of books I'll get to 'one day.' Serial novels are yet another stack of media I have the best intentions of getting to, but then I blink and it went from chapter 5 to chapter 35.
The ONLY thing that gets any of it to bubble to the surface is if enough (sometimes just one) of my friends or community are talking about. That's the only thing that brings any urgency to anything. Otherwise, I know I can get to it at my own pace. Unfortunately, my own pace is a disaster.
I expect this is the same for everyone in this comment thread, who also get to add WRITING novels to the list of things competing for our attention. I don't know that there's any solution.
For myself, I'm about to start my serialized novel journey. However, my goal isn't gaining readers, although that would be nice. I'm doing this solely as the motivation to keep writing without allowing distractions and discouragement to derail yet another work in progress. A couple of years ago I did a year-long series on my Facebook page where I successfully posted a story a week (not a novel, though, individual stories about my life from each year of my life). Doing the whole public posting thing kept me motivated and engaged and committed, and I had no trouble posting every week. So I know this mental trick works for ME. I just want to get this novel finished. If I have ONE subscriber who checks it out from time to time, I'll consider that a huge win. After that, I'll see if there's anything to be done with it.
My day job is a video producer with mostly TV commercials and promotional/instructional videos as the content, so there are a few video things I know I'm going to try to spur engagement. I find the "Previously on..." writeups at the beginning of serialized chapters incredibly helpful, but I'm going to try something a bit more like what you see on TV shows. An actual video with perhaps some AI art and voice acting. A narrator (I have access to some great voices) describing the key events from the previous chapters, some voice talent saying some relevant dialogue, hints of dialogue that will prove crucial in the upcoming chapter, etc. As slick as I can make it. A video is something I can post in multiple places that someone is more likely to at least give a look to. I can't say that I've ever seen any instagram or TikTok Previously Ons or chapter trailers like this. I believe if done well enough, it might get someone to dive in, even 20 chapters in. But that a Previously On video will have to do a lot of work to make it compelling enough for someone to just start reading THERE and only have to go back if they like what they read.
(If any of you have tried to make such a video, or can point me to previous attempts, I'd be ever so appreciative!)
I may be biased because my world revolves around video, but I think the whole world revolves around video now.
I have been reading you for almost two years, I even took a paid subscription, and I like your reflection. However, I read not only you but a lot of people.
Of course, the substack introduced a fresh stream for those who want to write, and not make videos for TikTok.
However, the difference comes when we approach writing not only as a craft but also as a business that must bring in a lot of money.
In many art-related industries, I have observed that people really grow professionally only and exclusively if they are able to make good money.
Money in this case is not the final goal, of course, but only a very truthful metric showing that we really know how to do something and understand how this world works. We are able to achieve a balance between "God and Caesar", which is extremely important and very difficult for a writer, especially in such a difficult and beloved genre as science fiction.
At the very least, I approach as an entrepreneur, and in essence, I have to be a writer and an entrepreneur, since I sell access to my texts by subscription. And from this point of view, no substack-type platforms provide really serious opportunities. True, many writers do have not technical and marketing skills, which is why they are forced to use such ineffective tools.
There is such a hot topic in marketing that no one reads long reads anymore, and now everyone has a clip consciousness, and everyone suffers from the "TikTok" of the brain.
If we are talking about the format as the reason for the failure, I find this a substitution of concepts. If the text is bad, we blame the format and disloyal readers. If the text is good, the reader jumps the way we want, pays money, and waits not only for a week but also for months and years. And if we break the deadlines and postpone them again, then the reader scolds us, and cries bloody tears, but will still read. And pay.
It reminds me of endless communication with directors who shoot independent art-house - no one watches their films, but the viewer is always to blame.
If we talk about literature and cinema, the facts are that at present both of these industries combined are smaller than the gaming market. The game market is much more competitive and tough, and there are more risks, because it takes a lot of time and money to make even a simple game. Bringing a game to market means selling your soul to the devil 10 times. Apart from the fact that you need to understand how it works.
The entire market of games and applications, in general, any business, a brand prays for one key metric - a retention rate, an indicator of loyalty. If you're selling a book, this problem doesn't exist, or at least it's spread out over time. You can write one novel in 5 years, but if the 1st novel was successful, the 2nd novel will also be sold, and this is not due to the quality of the text, but to the quality of the marketing. Cameron filmed his 1st Avatar over 10 years ago, but we all went to the movies and put our hard-earned money into the box office.
However, if we are writing a series, then we have to think about retention first, second, third, and fourth. This is not counting the fact that you need to be able to write well. The problem is that the reader has now read your 2000 words, spent 10 minutes on it, and after 20 minutes he has already forgotten about your novel.
A good series differs from a bad one in that the reader does not forget about what you write. From my point of view, if you do not have a 10 million contract with a major publisher, then selling the series is the only reliable alternative. I said reliable, I didn't say easy.
Nevertheless, the math is such that although my little book managed to become a provincial bestseller, I received from the publisher only $ 1 per reader per copy.
When I turned the book into a mailing list and started selling it as a series, I get an average of $150 per reader. True writing and selling is my full-time job, and I don't sell through Substack.
Bottom line: The series is, in my opinion, the only working format unless you work with a big publisher, but writing and selling series has its own specifics. I see that many writers don't take this into account and just split the book apart. As a rule, this is not enough to ensure loyalty.
PS Something I love about long-running serials is growth and change within the ensemble, within each of the shorter arcs. It's like watching your friends grow, change, and thrive. If the characters stay the same throughout, or the entire looooong story is about a small change, it probably won't hold me.
And long-running serials have arcs that end as other arcs take off, so there are rest points within it to give a sense of satisfaction, while still offering more story to come.
I sort of think of them like digital soap operas without the actors or the visuals. If the central ensemble of characters engages me, I'll keep taking the journey with them.
Okay, I'll shut up now. Can you tell I have opinions on this? ;)
Okay, I'll shut up now.
As someone who currently has two serials running on Vella, and reads a lot of other serials, I love both reading and writing in the serial format. Back around 2004, I wrote 4 serials in 4 genres for a company, a total of 8K per week, that ran for 18 months (yes, they paid; not a lot, but they paid). I wrote a whole month's episodes in a particular week, so I'd focus on one of the serials one week, the next the next week, and so forth.
Of my current serials, LEGERDEMAIN is a mix of fantasy and mystery with some humor, and is open-ended. ANGEL HUNT is urban fantasy, in shorter episodes (600-1K) and finite. With LEGERDEMAIN, I've planned three major arcs that give readers a stopping or pause point; if the serial continues to earn its keep, I'll go beyond it. ANGEL HUNT will be done within a matter of months (I'm still structuring the last third of the episodes, although everything's written), and I'll decide what to do from there. They were both structured to be both written and read as serials, not as novels released in serialized chapters. Which leaves their lives after the serials are done a bit up in the air, because of the different needs of the different formats. I mean, I also write novels, short stories, plays, radio plays, etc. -- this is how I make my living. I can't do just one thing and keep a roof over my head.
I don't know how Substack is, long-term, for serial fiction. I'm developing a limited-run serial specifically with an eye to Substack, once I've built up a stronger readership for The Process Muse. It will be interesting to see how that works. It's almost an A/B testing between Substack and Vella, although Vella makes it tough to market outside of the corporate bubble.
There are some stories I prefer reading as serials, and some I prefer as novels, all in one go. It depends on structure and story. If I feel I'm being strung along, just so it can be a large number of episodes, I get cranky. If it's a novel releasing in chapters, most of the time, I will just wait for the novel to come out (your substack is an exception). If it's a serial created to be a serial, I'm all in, because I love the format, and I love the differences between novels and serials, and the different notes each hit.
I like a variety of choices. Different stories work better in different formats. The way not every story should or needs to be adapted to film. Some things work better in their original format. I also love the room to explore, and serials allow more exploration.
I went to school for creative writing and, well, in my experience the prospect of online serialization wasn't really something anyone on staff led off with. Naa, it was very much a push for the traditional route of publishing (of which I'm also a fan). So that's exactly the route I tried to take. I had agent representation that went wayward. I turned to indie publishing. I published my books and the books of others. Etc.
That's all to say: I'd never thought to try online serialization before. But I'm really excited to start trying it here on Substack.
But, I do think that it comes with some limitations, in that I'm not excited by a story that, well, doesn't ever end. Which might sound silly. But I think of reading the same story for years, and that really doesn't get me excited. If there's, say, a Book 1, Book 2 and Book 3 with familiar characters, that's great. That seems natural, almost like seasons of the same TV show. That makes sense. But I'm picturing an endless Book 1 where you're receiving a weekly chapter and that's... yeah. Endless.
The other limitation, I think, has to be length. I really don't think everything has to be bite-sized these days for it to resonate or "stick", but you also can't send 50 pages per week and expect a lot of people to grab hold and be ready for the next week's offering. Reading 50 pages takes a lot of time, and not just passive time that you could give to a TV show or something; reading requires the reader to be an active participant, otherwise what has written just won't come to life.
That said, I don't imagine there's a one-size-fits-all sweetspot for length. It'll depend upon a lot of factors. Your writing style. Your audience. The genre. Etc. But my guess is that somewhere between 5 and 25 minutes of reading would be pretty safe.
I long for the return of short fiction dominance, followed by the "fix-up." Especially for sci-fi writers. I want sci-fi in segments.
I do read one serial book on line and it's Ted Gioia's on Substack!
I read yours, and I read mine (!) and I hope it's a trend.
Short answer to the title question is no, I don't read serialized novels on line. Doesn't work for me. I much prefer to read at my own pace, which means a book in hand, or an electronic version on my tablet.
I write and read short stories on line; that does indeed work for me. I suppose the idea of reading a chapter of a serialized novel and then needing to wait, when I may want to continue in the moment, could be a sign of my impatience. It's a bit more than that, however. With a novel, I want to keep the flow in my head; the wait between chapters disrupts that.
Being mostly a fiction writer myself, I have written some serials and short story on Substack. I understand that sometimes readers would like to continue reading the story but can't because I haven't posted the next chapter yet so that can be a downfall to serial writing. And more short stories are more achievable but faithful readers will go with the flow no matter what is done if they enjoy the author's work.
I so appreciate your candor here and the questions you raise. When I began my novel 12 years ago, I set out to write a “protopia,” ie, what we could build right here and now - based on what others have already been doing and coming from a place of relationship and interdependence with the natural world. I’m still committed to those themes but finding short fiction more manageable at this point. Not that it’s any easier but it certainly is a smaller dose! I agree Substack is a great platform for shorter fiction.
Though I haven't published anything on my Substack yet, I'm close to finishing my first novella series for the platform. The reason I went with a novella, rather than a full novel, is for the reasons you've outlined. My approach to fiction writing in the 21st century is to mimic the success of blockbuster television shows -- short serials with a beginning, middle, and end that span 8-10 weeks (my series will be an eight to ten chapter maximum, released weekly), with breaks in between.
We live in a time of shortened attention spans with heightened awareness, where consumers want to feel enlivened by their story (book, movie, or otherwise) in a shorter period of time. But, and there is a big but here, if the story is engrossing, then it can be carried on in installments for many years. My wife and I will routinely sit down and play catch up on a long-running television show if we feel it is worth our time; the same can be said for serial stories. I live by the axiom of Kevin Costner's often misquoted Ray Kinsella: "If you build it, he will come." Meaning, if artists create something from love, effort, and true belief, then the likelihood of success increases. If fiction writers build something wonderful, I think we'll find people coming back again and again, no matter the form. I just believe the likelihood of readers coming back lies in a more shortened version of storytelling.
Something I’m worried about is getting new readers as my serial progresses. I can see people subscribing and then feeling overwhelmed with what they’ve missed and not wanting to start in the middle -- I wouldn’t.
Knowing the format, I’ve also tried to keep my “episodes” mostly just two or a max of three scenes. I already have people wanting longer chapters but the whole idea was to be sensitive to the folks who read it in their work email.
I’ve a good bit to learn as I’m just starting out in this medium but I do know it might be more appealing next year when this series ends and I can make an ebook out of the whole thing.
I've posted novels on Wattpad and had readers come along for the entire ride, but I was writing a YA Sci-Fi Fantasy series, really Flash Gordon space opera, where there was a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter. That genre works well for serialization. Also, having a series with the same characters that readers can really fall in love with and interact with the author and other readers in the comments.
I don't know if I would read a serialized literary style novel on Substack. However, If there was a great excerpt from a novel offered by an author that I was invested in then I would read that and buy the book for my Kindle.
Teasing your novel on Substack with an exclusive preview for your followers would be a great tactic to use. Then offer short stories, flash fiction, or even a novelette with your main character or even a secondary character.
The fiction writers who flourish on Substack will be the creators who build rich and fully realized worlds with captivating and dynamic characters that will establish a community of readers who have a direct relationship with the author.
Can you imagine how cool it would be to have known George R. R. Martin from the beginning of his career and have watched him build Westeros from the ground up?
This is a very exciting time for fiction writers!
Thank You, Elle for leading the way and starting this community.
Thanks for citing me! Love this debate and topic. I want serial novels, but I want them on my Kindle. Or even mailed to me like mini paper books, kind of like what the literary mag One Story sends out.
I tried reading a few times and did like the experience of reading a serialized novel personally. It is like having an long AD break --and you know how much we loathe ADs when it interrupts a dramatic scene on TV . Continuity is vital and missing. I do not like waiting for the next installment. with a book you can move quickly to the next chapter.
I am really surprised there a hundreds of thousand who use Wattpad to consume fiction via their devices - particularly with very small screen real estate !
Just because people like to use devices like smart phones - they are not cheap -- users need to justify
more than one use for then than just making a phone call or texting. So I believe books will never be disrupted. Serialization may not last long and it is not the Eldorado Gold Mine - get rich scheme people/ writers hoped for. The platforms benefit mostly. And if the rumor is true about ChatGPT version 4, released later in the year, ,that it can write a 60,000 novel very quickly. it will a game changer and disrupt writing in general. Who knows how things will unfold,
It’s a super interesting question. I totally agree with the notion that catching up on serialised stories can feel like homework. Especially when you fall behind a few chapters. I think a novella with shorter chapters or maybe longer chapters split across fewer weeks would work nicely. I do tend do read more short fiction/comics here because they really fit into those in between moments in the day. I was planning on serialising my novel later this year but this has definitely given me some pause for thought.
Serial novel 200 pages released every 2 weeks 10 page episodes. How to best monetize and promote?
I write online both short and serial, but read everything longer than a few minutes long on my Kindle.
Would be great to have a living book update with the next chapter each week though. Well novel at least.
I'd still probably wait until the end to binge it. I really enjoy writing a serial but not really reading them. 🤷
I’m inclined towards the idea that serials aren’t necessarily a better format, but they do open up some content to a wider audience. Some readers obviously like the format, otherwise wattpad and co. wouldn’t be so popular.
I read Oblivion, I’ve read a lot of Wildbow (but only after serialization was finished) and I occasionally read short form fiction here (The Storyletter, stuff from Chuck Palanuik, Freddie de beor, Erik hoel), and sometimes on Reddit as well. I also read some of Carrot Quinn’s new novel when they were serializing on Patreon, before they paused the project.
I haven’t actually read a fully serialized web novel from start to finish, but I’ve gotten into a lot of content that I probably wouldn’t have because of the serial format.
And I think the biggest piece is the community. Serialization has the potential to build community around the story and the ideas. It’s not guaranteed to, but I think it’s maybe more likely to happen in a serial format than a format where the whole work is released at once.
But who knows. All of this is so new, I think there’s tons of discovery left to happen. I’d definitely be excited to read short utopian fiction as part of this newsletter!
I've been publishing my novel, A Tale of Two Times, a chapter a week on Substack for a year, and I've read through all the comments up to this point. It looks like most everything has been said already, so I'll share a few points based on my experience. My strategy for the past year (actually the pattern I feel into on my learning curve) has been to post free a chapter each week and then self publish, through D2D, a volume of the novel. So far, that's three volumes, which you can get to from my Substack page. First point: my posts were way too long (20 to 30 min read), as many have said, and I now agree. Second point, free distribution of material you plan to publish can lead to conflict with publishers like Amazon. I knew that, but when I published the second volume, the volume’s last free chapter was still available on Substack. I'd planned to remove it two days before the scheduled publication date, but Amazon's robots discovered it, and Amazon withdrew their publication service. So, when I removed the chapter, I had to beg Amazon through D2D to be reinstated. The third point, for those who plan to publish, is to set up a paid level for conflict free use of published material. And plan to keep free posts in the 1000-1400 word limit, and audio (which I hope to make use of) in the 10 minute range. Such posts can also be of use to draw possible readers to what's published or what's planned for publication. I’m currently working to restructure my site along these lines. When I was getting started on Substack, Elle's discussions were very helpful, so I'm pleased to be able to contribute to the open writer's forum which she host so well.
Thanks for sharing these thoughts/stats. As another writer trying out serialisation on Substack, with my music themed novel at: challenge69.substack.com it's great to be able to draw some comparisons.
I can certainly spot a similar trend to your own, I've published ten chapters so far (so I'm about half way through), and with subscribers now into the hundreds (with a reasonable level of 'paid') the 'open rate' is definitely beginning to drop off, it was 69% on average for the first 5 chapters, but this has reduced to 58% for chapters 6-10.
I've not done the analysis, but I'm fairly confident my 'open rate' for early readers is still up in the high 60%s, but you're right it becomes a much harder job to maintain that with people who join later and therefore need to 'catch up'.
Overall though I'm happy with 'Challenge 69's progress. I've got a solid core of readers who seem very engaged with the story, regularly interact, and have provided some great positive feedback.
My 'Substack' experiment was always planned as a stepping stone before going back out to traditional publishers with my novel, and I'm confident that I'm building up some momentum (and figures to back this up) that will hopefully help me to achieve that goal.
Thanks again, and keep on going!!
Perhaps I’m thinking about this backwards. While I’ve been dropping weekly chapters of Book One for the last two months, the novel is complete and available for sale. (Book Two is coming out next month) Therefore, if a subscriber wants to binge-read they are free to follow the link and go for it. (two book sales have resulted, no paid subscribers)
I’m trying to avoid expectations this early. Elle inspired me to try Substack. It made sense and I’m enjoying the process very much. (Thanks Elle!) If the time comes when I find this platform to be a drain, then I will revisit. Until then… I’m content to see what occurs in the near-future!
I just went through all the comments 😅 Very insightful, so many experiences and also aspirations to serialising fiction on Substack.
Related to your question:
From a marketing perspective, the number of people who actually read serialised novels online might not be encouraging for someone who actually wants to make money writing serialised novels online. Or at the least wants as many eyeballs as possible on their work.
From an artistic perspective, enough people read serialised fiction online to turn a novel such as The Martian into a Hollywood film.
Once there's a critical mass of early adopters (readers who do read serialised novels online) the trend will spread.
I never thought I would read a single short story on Substack. Some people swore they will never have a Kindle. Things change.
This is an on-going problem, for sure. It's the same on Wattpad in some ways, though - while I've had committed readers on my books (even sticking with a project over 3 years of weekly publishing!), most of my readers there came after books were completed. People don't trust that an author will finish a project, so want to wait for completion before committing (much like how people don't want to start Netflix TV shows now, because they'll probably get dropped halfway).
The next issue on substack is the form factor. The reading experience of reading multiple chapters is simply awkward, and much fiddlier than simply turning the page of a real or ebook. Potentially Substack could enhance their serialised option so that in the app you can easily swipe through chapters, like on Wattpad.
Ultimately, most readers aren't trained to read serials, despite enjoying them on TV and in other forms. Unless you're in the Philippines! Especially older readers (my current book is for adults, which probably limits its serial appeal as it cuts out the younger crowd). No matter how good the experience is, most people will want to wait for the finished book.
My current focus is giving people multiple onboarding points. Ebook collections of the story so far, making it easy to flick through like a normal book. I'm thinking ebook and paperbacks collecting every 50-90k, a bit like how comics are collected into trade paperbacks every 10-or-so issues. Some people will catch up that way, then hop over to the serial, while others will just wait for the next collected book.
For me, serialisation has always been a productivity hack rather than a way to find a solid readership. It's what flijcks a switch in my brain that keeps me coming back every week to get the words down. That works for me whether it's 1 reader or 1,000 readers, so I'm not going to stop writing in this form.
Without retreading the short fiction/modern attention spans arguments, I do think that there is something to the Substack format that lends itself to shorter works. Personally I intend to use that as my base and then expand outwards from there. I’m intrigued by the idea of writing something novella length but structuring it so each chapter will function as a self contained piece but also be able to be read continuously too.
And thanks for the mention Elle, I feel like I’m in some pretty elite company!
Love what you are doing with this Substack.
So, for me it was reading about you serialising your first novel that inspired me to serialise mine on Substack. I’d already been toying with the idea ironically for a completely different novel that may be better suited to serialising but I haven’t written yet.
I’ve been serialising for a year. For me, serialising was kind of a way to essentially beta-read my book. I was looking for beta readers and also seeking to build a community in anticipation of when I finally release the finished work.
Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s quite worked on Substack. I have readers and the open rates are decent but engagement is basically nonexistent so I don’t know what my audience thinks 😂.
I started serialising on several platforms at the same time (again, taking inspiration from your first novel). I abandoned Neovel as it’s crickets there. Royal Road I got some engagement but I think my novel’s a bit too traditional for the audience there. Wattpad is where I’ve found the most engagement and consistent readers.
I think the interesting thing about Wattpad is that though it may be known as a place to post serial fiction, it actually favours complete novels. So, for example, the yearly Watty Awards are only for complete novels. To get showcased, you need a compete novel.
What’s fascinating though is I just came back from the Philippines last night and the bookstores there all have Wattpad sections with printed books! I don’t know if that’s something Wattpad themselves do or have done but I was like whoa! Cos they’re big sections!
In terms of the jumping on point, my hope has been that people will go back and binge but I do wonder if it feels too much like homework. And whilst I’m trying to build a community and readership through Twitter, it seems the majority are, again, waiting for a finished book to purchase.
So, as much as serialising is fun, it seems that most still favour the finished book. I mean, even leveraging the BookTok audience, you’re probably going to need a finished book.
I do aim, at some point, to write and post shorter stories set in the same universe but for now that’s a long way away and I’m only focusing on the novel.
The biggest irony of all this, of course, is I don’t regularly read any serialised fiction 🤣 I’ve started several but not continued. I do gravitate more towards complete books, so whilst I love the idea of doing it, it’s probably not how I would read.
I also wonder if it is more suited to books like the Martian where each chapter is its own little contained short-story. Or a book like World War Z I think would’ve worked well as a serial. I have a feeling the novel I intended to start serialising will work better than the one I’m serialising now (YA fantasy) but we’ll see how it goes.
I’m gonna continue to post it as I write it but I’m at the point now where I’m not expecting too much from serialisation and looking ahead to when it’s finished. The other thing that sucks about that is it basically neuters any possibility of being traditionally published as they’ll consider it published already 🤷🏾♂️
I mean, I’m fine with self-publishing but I did at least want to try.
One last thing I’ll say perhaps counter to the main point of long-form serialisation is one thing I learned from serialising on other platforms is that readers tend to wait until you’ve crossed 20 chapters to really give your book a try. Reason being there’s more of a chance you’ll actually finish it if you’ve already hit that landmark. They don’t want to start and get invested in something that won’t ever be finished. I don’t know if this applies to Substack but it seems to be the case with other platforms, especially Wattpad.
So again, whilst many seem to like the “idea” of serialised fiction, the majority seem to prefer reading either short-fiction online or finished fiction.
I think it’s intimidating for a reader to see “Chapter 22” when they first come to a newsletter. They’re thinking, “Oh man, I’d have to do a lot of catching up to read this.”
But maybe a lightly serialized novel would work better on Substack. Basically, treat all the chapters as self-contained, like short stories, but have connective elements between them and maybe even cliffhanger endings.
Part of the problem is that navigation of serial content is just not well supported on Substack. Even if you just wrote 10 blog posts you want people to read in order, you have to hand massage each and every post to put in the navigation links and it’s hard to give people a place to start. This could be solved by Substack at the platform level but it’s not clear whether they view this as a core use case at present....
This is such a poignant post and obviously resonates with so many writers here and elsewhere. For me, I’m finding more success in short, self-contained stories WITH an audio option. So many people listen rather than read, boosting open rates and downloads (while cutting down on engagement like comments).
That said, I think there’s room for serialized fiction (I plan on doing some in the near future), but it needs to be highly accessible and in short chunks. Like others have said, it’s hard to read a bunch of text on our phones. It’s just too easy to pop over to socials or get interrupted by notifications.
But also, wherever you land, Elle, I’m here for it!
I don’t love reading on computers in general so that’s why I prefer shorter fiction on substack. For my own stories, I’m currently posting short stories and might try a longer work soonish
Did you read my mind? I’ve been trying to read some classic novels via Substack and I have to say, it really depends on how the editor has decided to pace it. Some novels have been easier to stay updated and engaged with (usually due to how the plot is moving and the length of the chapter/s they’ve sent) and others have been a real chore to get through (I got a couple of updates from one that squeezed in several long chapters and it’s making me want to give up on that novel entirely).
I’m so glad you wrote this post. Based on what you and a nonfiction writer I know are doing on substack, I’ve been thinking of serializing my novel on substack, but your post hit on what I’ve been thinking. How do I get people to follow along for the whole thing, or at least far enough to want to just go to Amazon and buy the novel. More to think about.
Anyway, I like the idea of short form utopian fiction. Maybe it can be planned in such a way that you can eventually change a few things then put it all together as a novel. I enjoy getting your newsletter as it helps me think about doing things differently. Cheers!
Definitely short fiction for anything sent to an inbox. As lovely as it sounds to get a snippet each week I have to admit that just getting through my inbox is already a chore. There are too many distractions to keep up with chapters over a year. I’d say reading a novel is the equivalent of Binge watching a show— most would rather wait for the season to be out entirely before starting so they don’t get cut off. Streaming put the content in the hands of the audience, having an entire book in your hand is the same thing, we get to consume on our time. The challenge then becomes tracking your audiences engagement, short stories would ideally be read through in one shot and that means way easier to finish and you’d probably maintain much more engagement. Save the novel for a book with a cover… but maybe you could provide chapters of the said novel to an exclusive group — one that you personally invite your most active readers to join and say you have a limited number of readers who get premier access — the spot isn’t guaranteed. They’ll loose their spot on the list if they stop being active. Food for thought! Hopefully helpful. ❤️
Serializing short fiction over a few parts is probably all I’d be up for. Long novels over months would not be my jam. You lose interest waiting for the new chapters. It might take me a year to read a book but I want that to be my fault!
I did 15,000 words in 7 parts and if you’re going for novella length, you might be able to get it done over maybe 10 parts released maybe daily. I think we’re imagining the same things at the same time. I was thinking to write short fiction in this topic as well. It accomplishes the ends of creating this sweeping story while keeping the audience engaged.
I read short fiction here on Substack. I'm also serially publishing sequences of my sketchbooks. It's akin to what comic creators are doing in that it's visual drawings. And yet I'm publishing my entire 160 page sketchbook so each sequence is part of a larger longer whole.
I'm learning that on Substack I don't read the longer posts, whether fiction or nonfiction, because of the distractions on my phone. I do read longer fiction in ebook format- but that's in a platform that keeps out the pop up distractions.
I don't read short fiction, I read long fiction. I read short nonfiction but can't stand short fiction, hence no newsletter coming out of my Substack (perhaps because I don't talk about writing; I don't write about writing, the world is drowning in that stuff!). I came to Substack (as a writer) because of your experience Elle but have since had second thoughts about posting any of my writing. I write long fiction and came to Substack thinking (erroneously perhaps?) that I could 'serialize' what I had already written - more fool me - but the more I have understood the notion of 'serialize' the less confident I have become about posting anything. I don't subscribe to Wattpad or similar mediums; my local bricks-and-mortar store is my favorite haunt; right next door to the coffee shop! I don't know how to make Substack work for me, even after reading lots of author experiences, but it doesn't stop me from writing which is more important. Finding a way to share my writing with anyone interested in reading my stuff is still a train journey I'm on without a final destination - I like train journeys. Perhaps (if I can figure out how to make use of Substack and other mediums?) each station on my journey becomes a destination in itself?
I'm a Gen X younger dragon, I rarely read any fiction online, and what little of it I do read online isn't in my email inbox. (I don't like reading anything longer than a few paragraphs in my email inbox.)
The vast majority of my fiction reading is in physical books, followed distantly, and mostly out of necessity, by ebooks.
Thanks for this post. These are my questions too. I didn't write my novel with Substack in mind. I'm on Episode 64 of 74 now, starting in April 2022 with weekly posts. The one benefit of making the promise to publish weekly is I get one more chance to refine each episode. I do intend to put it into print once this galley phase is over. I'll undoubtedly refine it once more. For now, I have readers and an open rate around 70% that's holding very steady. I can't wait to hold it as a book!
I honestly haven’t read any serial novels on Substack, but I have ready plenty of short stories that are split into parts and sent out in separate posts. I actually wrote one recently and it fared better than I thought it would. I mostly stick to reading and writing shorter fiction. It’s easier to digest in one sitting, plus it’s not as big of a commitment for readers.
Thank you so much for the thoughtful post!
I have reached the unsurprising conclusion that art works best in the medium it was designed for. Serializing a novel written for print did not work terribly well for me. If I ever do serialize a story again I will think long and hard about the nature of the medium first.
But I also wonder if a novel is not in some sense a counter-cultural form now and should not perhaps stick to a counter-cultural medium for that reason.
I'll offer my own experience and perspective, and hopefully that will be of some relevance. I'm a little past episode 50 of my own serialized novel on substack (taleofrin.substack.com if you're curious). A bunch of subscribers joined toward the beginning and a few subsequently trickled in. As far as I can tell, around a third to a half of my subscribers are keeping up. It's hard to tell because many read it online instead of opening the subscriber emails, so the statistics substack provides aren't all that helpful. Full disclosure: we're not talking about huge numbers here. I'm not a big name, and I have done well-nigh nil to promote the thing myself.
I suspect the reason there isn't a sustained influx of new subscribers has more to do with the way substack promotes new substacks (vs older ones) than any deterrent effect of joining mid-run. Personally, I prefer coming across a late-stage serialized work because I lack the patience to wait for new episodes.
My personal plan is to continue until the first book is done (around episode 79-80), then publish it in print and ebook form (like all my others), and begin serializing the second. I'm not sure whether I'll continue to make the first book's episodes available at that point, but probably. So, to address one of your concerns I don't find being late-to-the-game an obstacle.
As to your other question, I personally prefer reading (and writing) short fiction in general. But that's just me. I think you should write what you want to. I write what I want to read, and I couldn't be happier doing so. Readers who appreciate your writing will gravitate to it regardless of the logistics. Frankly, it's very hard to discover writers I want to read these days. If I find someone, I'll read them --- whether that means buying books, subscribing mid-cycle, or periodically returning to their blog. It doesn't matter.
Regardless of what approach you take, I wish you the best of luck with your writing and look forward to it!