Closer Look At Amazon’s New Kindle Serials: Part Dickens, Part TV

The story behind the emerging genre of digital serial fiction, from the writers producing it.

When a slide showing eight book covers popped up in Jeff Bezos’s presentation on Thursday, Jennifer 8. Lee—who was following along on a live blog from New York City—gasped. The books are part of Amazon’s new Kindle Serials format, and she published three of them: Hacker Mom, The Many Lives of Lilith Lane, and Love Is Strong as Death.

Last year, Lee, a former New York Times writer and author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, cofounded a literary studio for digital serial novels called Plympton. The studio began commissioning books, but distribution proved an obstacle. With no book subscription model in major online bookstores, Plympton would have had to publish individual shorts sold separately (something that digital publishers such as Backlit and Byliner have done with serial novels as Quick Reads in Apple's iBookstore, as Nook Snaps at BarnesAndNoble.com, and as Short Reads at Kobo). Could readers be sure an author selling an episode of a book would publish its ending? How would the company make it clear that only one episode was being sold at a time? There was no structure in mainstream bookstores for selling this kind of fiction.

Kindle Serials provides a neat solution for Lee and other publishers who want to try their hand at serial fiction. Once readers subscribe to a Kindle Serials book, new episodes appear at the back as they are published. Customers pay a flat fee for each "season," starting at $1.99. Lee knew she was part of the program's launch, but she didn’t know it was part of the same giant press event at which the company would announce the Kindle Fire HD and the Kindle Paperwhite.

Serial fiction made sense 100 years ago, when authors such as Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy published some of their most famous works in weekly installments. And, says Plympton cofounder and editor Yael Goldstein Love, it makes sense today for many of the same reasons.

"Few books were actually published before they were serialized for much of the 19th century. It was a way to see if it had commercial viability and also see if there was an audience for the story," Love says. "I think the same thing is true today. Publishing houses are cutting their publishing lists, sort of slashing them."

She argues that publishing serialized fiction gives writers a way to show their books can gain followings, even if a major publishing house doesn’t initially take a bet on them. For authors like E.V. Anderson, who wrote a Plympton serial novel called The Many Lives of Lilith Lane, this is welcome relief. He says he’s had a screenplay and a memoir fall through after promising breaks, and he is happy to see something of his actually published.

You don’t have to look back as far as Dickens in order to see success in episodic storytelling. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire will do just fine. Many authors of Plympton’s books compare the experience to writing a television show. Many of them have screenwriting backgrounds. All of them we spoke with say it’s different than writing a book.

"I think it is the difference between a movie and a television show," says Austen Rachlis, another of Plympton's authors. "The goal is that each episode or segment is its own satisfying experience. You feel like you heard a whole story, but you also want to hear what is going to happen next."

Adds Dani Amore, the author of serial novel The Circuit Rider, who says he heard about the Kindle Serials program through the Kindle Direct Publishing program: "It’s stories within stories. It’s not a true linear story as other novels are."

But it’s not just the way books are structured that makes them more like TV, it’s how they’re read—with space in between each episode.

"Part of what makes [television shows] possess our mind so much is that we have to wait between episodes and between seasons," Love says."We speculate, and we think about what the characters are going to do. It’s much more similar to what we do with each other. It’s that instinct for gossip that I think makes us love fiction in the first place."

Two of the three books Plympton has published as part of the Kindle Serials launch are already fully written. But the idea is that authors will be able to interact with audiences as they write. They’ll read the reaction to their first segment while they’re writing their ending. They can use reactions to season one while they're starting season two. Plympton is taking the idea of reader input a step further and allowing anyone who pledges $25 or a more in its Kickstarter campaign to become a voting member of its advisory committee.

"How much I’ll factor it in, subconsciously or not, I don’t know," Amore says about reader feedback. "I’ll definitely try to read it and see what happens."

[Image: Getty Images, Books: The Next Web]

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2 Comments

  • Shirleyspence2020

    Interesting points, Claudiac! Where/how do you publish weekly? I am interested in self-publsihing. Plympton sounds like a new-style publishing house.  

  • ClaudiaHallChristian

    I think it's weird that you would publish this article with out ever looking for authors who actually write real, traditional serial fiction. I've written the Denver Cereal for four years - published a chapter at a week - to an audience of over 30,000 people (last month). There are plenty of other authors who've written for longer.

    What's even more disturbing is that people like Amstead Maupin, who wrote Tales of the City for the SF Chronicle, and Candace Bushnell, who wrote Sex in the City for the New York Observer, or even Redbook, who's Diary of V ran for 9 years, are left out of this conversation to reach back to Dickens.

    But here's the thing - Dickens published as he wrote. These are serialized books, not serial fiction. They are no more like Dickens than the serialization of Dune by Frank Herbert.

    Charles Dickens used his fiction to create what we now call Middle Class Values. Amstead Maupin gave us a language to talk about the terrifying plague of HIV. Candace Bushnell gave unmarried young women living in the city a voice. These authors used the power of serial fiction to create social change. That's what most people who actually write serial fiction now do - we try to create social change - one chapter a week, published as it's written.

    I guess I expected you to know that.