Savvy authors are always looking for new ways to reach readers and increase their income, but it’s important to do your research before jumping on the latest bandwagon. While serialized fiction has been around for well over a century, the format has been brought into the internet age through apps.
What is a serialized fiction app?
These mobile-first platforms allow authors to offer serialized content. The author decides how often segments are released (over a period of days, weeks, months).
Jennifer Ashley explained it this way: “Your series is a ‘story,’ and each book in the series is a ‘season.’ Chapters become ‘episodes’ within each ‘season.’”
Armand Rosamilia likened it to “writing a season of a television show, where each section has to have enough character and plot to keep it all moving forward. Not every episode needs a gunfight or a car chase, but it needs some forward momentum and conflict to keep the story exciting.”
Some of the apps keep content behind a paywall. Readers purchase content via a micropayment system, and an author is paid a percentage. The apps push notifications such as alerting readers to new episodes and reminding them to redeem tokens or continue reading.
Serialization as a trial run
Ashley went live with her first episode in December 2021. She uploaded a paranormal romance from her backlist to Radish, choosing that platform because authors she admires “have done very well there.” She hopes to reach readers who prefer apps over bookstores.
Ashley noted that Radish has two options for publishing: an author can sign a contract to deliver exclusive content, thus receiving royalty shares, or can simply accept their terms of service and upload content, whether it’s exclusive or non-exclusive frontlist/backlist.
“The beauty of publishing backlist is I can experiment with this form of publishing,” Ashley said. “I don’t have a new release’s success riding on it.”
Rosamilia, who has been crafting serialized stories since 2013, first published his serializations on Patreon but moved to Kindle Vella when it launched in April 2021. With a backlist of more than 200 releases that span 30 years of fiction writing, he said publishing via an app offers him another outlet to sell books.
“The site itself is easy to use, which helps immensely. I’m also a big fan of the Author Notes,” Rosamilia said. “It allows me to explain to the reader what I was thinking/doing during the writing of that episode.”
He hasn’t seen a large increase in income or audience since joining the platform, but the story he uploaded there is outside of his usual genres. He added that he is paid through Amazon in the same way he is paid for print and ebooks published there and that (at the time this article was written) Vella is paying bonuses “each month to those who have some readers.”
Troy Lambert also began on Vella when it first launched, using a pseudonym.
“I thought it would be a good experiment to see if serialized fiction was something I wanted to do,” Lambert said. “Similar to Kindle Unlimited, you get paid by the percentage of how many episodes get favorited and read, but it is all based on reader consumption. Realistically, it depends on the size of your audience. If you start from scratch with a pen name, like I did, expect a slow burn. If you have an established base and audience, it’s just a matter of whether your readers also like this type of reading, or if you can attract a new audience.”
He also noted that it can be good to be an early adopter if the platform becomes popular.
“Ask yourself what amount of time you can devote to this, knowing income-wise it’s a gamble.”
Giving readers a frequent fix of what they want
Erin McCabe and Kathryn Pickford, both experienced authors, developmental editors, and book coaches, are creating a steamy romantic comedy series under the pseudonym Katherine Avery, which they launched on Vella once they had completed 10 episodes.
“Erin and I knew we wanted to hit a genre with a large market share, which was why we selected steamy rom-com. We also knew we wanted to tap into the ‘horse riding’ market, which is starved for material,” said Pickford.
Though they began with 3,000-word episodes, they have since halved that to 1,500 words, which was more the norm, plus revised their initial cover image after a beta test. They average 15,000 words per week on the series, building up episodes and stacking them for release.
“We quickly realized that serial readers want frequent fixes, so we decided to release four episodes each week, on fixed days,” Pickford said. To date, though consistently remaining in the top 250 stories, they haven’t seen a widening in their audience reach.
“Like all platforms, if you don’t bring your own readers and/or aren’t good at marketing, don’t expect much in the way of income,” said Pickford.
Elaine Isaak, who has written historical fantasy and international thrillers since 2005, serializes a novel on Vella that she’d already written but chose not to submit through her agent.
Isaak publishes episodes three times a week, setting them up several weeks at a time. She qualified for a bonus the first time she published, though she had only been on the platform for two weeks. She can’t, however, point to any solid organic reach through the platform.
She suggests checking the preview when preparing to upload, being sure to “break up long paragraphs” to avoid a wall of text on smaller screens.
Isaak also learned to use a cover image that is “focused on the character” instead of one that evoked the world she’d created.
A way to a wider audience
Novae Caelum, who writes science fiction with intensive world-building, first began publishing on Wattpad in 2015, and is now serializing on Radish, Kindle Vella, and Patreon.
“Serial readers and ebook readers are definitely two different audiences, though I’ve seen a very small overlap,” said Caelum. “Serializing on Wattpad drastically widened my readership, but the readership on Wattpad doesn’t typically translate to other platforms, so while I had many readers on Wattpad, I still had very few on Amazon. It’s difficult to convert free readers to paying readers, and serial readers to ebook readers. Or vice versa.”
They said their newsletter audience, which originated mostly through list-building services, doesn’t typically read their serials. “Which can make marketing tricky. I think if you’re after more readers for ebooks, serialization is not necessarily the best strategy, but if you’re after just more readers period, or you really love the format, there’s a whole pool of readers there who only read on their phones. You’ll also get many more international readers than you might only publishing on ebook platforms.”
Caelum suggests authors fully understand the terms/contracts for their chosen platform. “They’re all different, and some are contradictory to each other, and some will lock down rights you might not be thinking about but will cause problems later. I recommend getting contracts reviewed by professional writing organizations or a lawyer before signing. Writer Beware has an excellent breakdown of a particularly bad contract for the serial app NovelCat that shows some of the language and clauses to look out for.”
Caelum noted that Vella has some platform-specific terms that vary from Kindle Select. “Vella shares the overall KDP terms, like not rigging ranks or reviews, but from there it branches into its own set of rules.”
Additionally, terms can vary as to whether a full ebook version can be offered elsewhere. Some apps require exclusivity.
Abby Goldsmith became a “Wattpad Star” by serializing an epic sci-fi series of more than a million words. At the start of 2022, she’d published more than 360 episodes, and in 2021 launched a Patreon site for readers seeking advance chapters ahead of what she posts to Wattpad. This allows her to build a paying audience.
Goldsmith issues a new post every Saturday, dedicating it to a reader, and spends the other days of the week writing new material and working her day job.
“I chose Wattpad because it’s the biggest serialization platform out there, with 90 million users. Also, I write SFF, not fanfic or erotica or romance, and I wanted a platform with some adventurous SFF readers,” she said. “I am giving serious consideration to expanding onto other platforms. RoyalRoad has been on my radar for a long time as a notable SFF platform. I also might try Tapas, Radish, ScribbleHub, and maybe Inkitt.”
Goldsmith loves the interaction with readers that she has through Wattpad via the inline comments. “I can see what they get excited about, or what they get upset about. It’s a great way to affirm that I’m on the right path with a certain character or subplot. And if I want clarification, I can always ask the readers directly.”
Serializing as a sandbox for creativity
For Janis Susan May, serializing on Vella has proved to be great fun. “I let myself go wild and crazy, creating cliffhangers at the end of every episode. As my regular novels are quite realistic, this is a neat playtime.”
One con for her is the fact that once a release timeframe is locked in, an author must adhere to it or risk disappointing readers.
Another is publicity. “Right now, you can’t advertise Vella stories on Amazon,” she said.
Overall, the authors interviewed noted that mobile platforms offer another avenue to readers, though mileage may vary in terms of widening reach and earning income.
As Lambert put it: “Marketing, marketing, marketing. It seems to always come down to that.”