Sunday, February 17, 2013

Serials, or, How to Make Your Readers Hate You

Can we talk about serials for a minute?

I know serialization is supposed to be the hot new way of sucking extra money out of readers. (Oops, was I not supposed to say that out loud?) But you know, most readers can actually do the, like, second grade math required to figure out how much the whole story cost them. If your short novel is coming out in five two-dollar parts, or your normal sized novel is coming out in ten two-dollar parts, a lot of people are going to do the above-mentioned math and figure out that you're ripping them off. 'Cause seriously, ten bucks for a short novel in electronic form is ludicrous. So is twenty bucks for a regular sized e-novel. If this is how you price your "serial," then you (either the writer or the publisher, whoever came up with the scheme in any given case) has absolutely no moral ground to stand on when readers start complaining, in print, on their blogs or on Goodreads or wherever else. Because that? [points up] That's a major rip-off.

Better yet is when the writer/publisher/whoever fails to let readers know up front that a story is, indeed, a serial. When a reader has bought what they think is a short story or a novelette and is reading along only to find that the story cuts off abruptly at the end, leaving them hanging, needing to wait..wait...wait for the next installment, and fork over another chunk of cash to get it? Yeah, you're going to get complaints about that, too. And again, you'll have no grounds whatsoever to whine about those complaints, even when they're made publicly. The reader who posts to their blog or leaves a comment on a vendor site or a social reader's site to complain about your stealth-serial isn't being mean or sabotaging you or whatever. They're making a legitimate complaint about your lack of up-front disclosure that you were selling them a fraction of a story.

Let's look at an example. I don't usually call out specifics when I'm writing about a general trend, but this one's unfortunately perfect.

Monty Gets Arrested is up on Goodreads with four ratings and a 3.0 average. This isn't a lot of ratings, and the average might improve with time. But what's significant here are the comments. One commenter, who left a one-star rating, says, "It's not even half a story." Another, who left two stars, says, "Not bad, just .. way too short. More like a chapter than a book." A third said:

Ok I am not rating this right now cause I'm mad.
I didn't realize that this was a short story to be continued....
And not continued soon, but a whole month away. I just read Anitra Lynn McLeod series Seven Brothers for McBride and I had to wait a whole 7 seven days for the next installment. And let me tell you that was a raging 7 days and each Saturday Anitra came through with the story.
Now I have to wait a month for the next installment? This was ok but I don't know that I care enough to 'post-it note myself' 30 days out.

Wow, great marketing strategy this turned out to be.

Someone came along and commented to one of the reviews, explaining that Monty is a five-part series, with parts to be released once a month. I'm assuming this person knows the writer, or works for the publisher, or whatever. Okay, that's good information to have. Why didn't the publisher give it to us? Because this good information should've been given to the readers before they spent their money.

Monty's page on ARe (a popular e-book vendor site specializing in romance) says nothing at all about the book being the first part of a serial. The full title is Monty Gets Arrested (Marshall's Park #1), but that's also how series books are often titled; it looks to a savvy reader like there are going to be more books about Marshall's Park. Which is fine; if you like Monty, you'll probably be interested in reading more books set in the same place, by the same writer. But nowhere on this page does it say "Serial," or "Story to be continued," or anything similar. The reader (potential customer at this point) is given no hint that they're not buying a complete product, or that they'll have to pay more money to get the rest of the story.

Obligatory statement that I'm not writing this to rag on the author. I have three of her books on my to-buy shelf on Goodreads, which means at the very least she can write good summary blurbs. Her total average rating on Goodreads is 3.82, which is very good; she can clearly write stories that readers enjoy, and I expect to enjoy a few of them when I get around to it. For that matter, the summary blurb on Monty makes it sound like a fun story. I'm betting the problem here is with a publisher who thought they could make an eventual $9.95 for a 57K word novel (assuming all five parts cost the same and are about the same length) instead of the more usual $4-5.99 a novel that length would bring in if sold as one book, and who apparently hoped no one would notice or complain about their shenanigans.

I'm not going to say that serialization is a bad concept entirely. Rather, I'll say I've never seen it implemented well, in e-book form. Serialization goes back to the days when newsstands were full of magazines carrying fiction (heck, it goes back to the days when there were newsstands) and many of those magazines serialized novels a chapter at a time, or a chunk of chapters at a time. Purchasing the magazine got you a lot more than that issue's serial, though. Even if the serial was the major selling point of the magazine (as magazines with Dickens's work often were, as I understand) the fact is that there was still more to read once you were done with the serial installment. Even if the only effect was psychological, it's the psychological effect of realizing that you just paid money for a fifth or a tenth or a fifteenth of a story that I'm talking about here. A reader who'll pay $2.99 for a 12K-word novelette -- a complete story -- might well balk at paying $2.99 for a 12K-word chunk of a longer novel, when they realize that the whole novel is going to cost them $15, and that they're used to paying $5.99 at most for a single (complete story) e-book of that length. The psychological effect is exactly the problem, and saying it shouldn't be that way doesn't make it vanish.

What it comes down to is that serializing a longer work and selling the parts individually is a sales and marketing strategy. The publisher is trying to make more money selling the parts separately than they'd make selling the work as a whole. Wanting to make money isn't a problem -- everyone who doesn't consider this a hobby wants to make money. The problem is when you're doing it so blatantly that your customer can't help noticing your hand rooting around in their pocket.

Some readers like serials, and are maybe even willing to pay more to get each chunk of story as soon as possible. Okay, that's great; selling serials to people who like them is a good idea. If you're targetting readers who like serials, then let the readers know up front that you're publishing a serial. There's no excuse for letting someone buy what they think is a complete short story or novelette, only to spring the surprise on them at the end that the story is incomplete. Announce in the marketing material -- within the summary blurb would be a good place -- that this is part of a serial, with more parts to come (and previous parts if it's not the first). Give the readers the information they need to make a valid decision whether to hand you money for your product. Some people will decide not to buy, yes. But the alternative is to deal in bad faith, and have people complaining about you in public afterwards. This kind of behavior might make you a few more dollars now, but it'll lose you customers in the long run.

If you're going to sell a serial, act in good faith. Let people know what they're buying before they give you money, and then see how many do. However much money you make when everyone knows what they're buying? That's the measure of whether serials are successful.



Charles Gramlich said...

What amazes me a bit is that some people actually go ahead and buy the next installment despite these kinds of things. I just wouldn't buy it. There are many great stories and books waiting to be read. A serialized story that treats me fairly, on the other hand, I met well buy.

Angie said...

Charles -- I agree, I wouldn't either. Although I'll admit that a few years ago, before the serial thing really got going, I got suckered into buying three short story sized chunks of a longer story, before I realized what was going on and stopped buying them. And I do feel suckered. That story ended up with ten parts, which makes the total cost for a story about 45K words long (estimating from info I can find on half the chunks, then doubling that to approximate the total), if you purchased all the parts together right now, over twenty dollars. Insane. [sigh]

And looking at how many people shelved each part on Goodreads, they definitely lost readers as time went on. It's a shame; it wasn't a bad story at all, at least what I read of it. It's just how it was marketed that turned me off, and clearly a lot of other people as well.


Suzan Harden said...

I've had this same argument with another writer (more than once). She'll put out a 20K romance book that is only half the story. Readers will leave 1- or 2-star reviews saying it's too short. She doesn't get that the real complaint is that the readers feel cheated out of their HEA by her non-disclosed serialization method.

Then she'll berate me for publishing stories with far smaller word counts based on HER PERCEPTION of reader complaints.

Not only do I not get complaints, I get very suprised compliments about how a reader doesn't have to start at the beginning of a series to enjoy the middle book they've read.

I totally understand how readers feel ripped off by overpaying for a story. I DEFINITELY would! A writer or publisher has to treat their readers/customers with respect. I wish more folks on the producer side of fiction understood this.

Angie said...

Suzan -- I've had this argument too. I find it kind of boggling that there are writers who don't get this. We're all readers, right? Unless you're independently wealthy, I don't get how anyone can not get what the problem is here.

Readers will leave 1- or 2-star reviews saying it's too short.

This might be where the confusion is. Readers don't always know how to express a problem clearly when it comes to writing. The issue probably isn't that the story is too short, in terms of wordcount, but rather that it stops before it gets to the end of the story. We can see where they're coming from saying it's "too short," but actually it's a structural problem. If an entire story were contained within the exact same wordcount, those same readers might have been satisfied with both the wordcount and the price. But to the reader, the story stopped before its end, therefore it's "too short."

As writers, we need to be able to look past the words used when someone is critical, to see the actual problem. Your friend doesn't seem to have figured this out yet, and it's causing her to misinterpret the complaint.