I drafted this post a couple of months ago, and then promptly forgot about it. I stumbled upon it earlier this month, but figured it was slightly out-of-date as both the serials I talk about have finished. And then John Scalzi posted today that the two extra short stories in the hardcover of THE HUMAN DIVISION was now available for free on Tor.com, which kind of makes this post relevant again.
So with some minor edits, here are my thoughts on serials – or rather, e-publishing experiments, because that’s what they really are – and some updates below on my current position now that both the John Scalzi and Eloisa James serials have been completed.
I’m a sucker for short stories and anthologies. The number of themed anthologies I have is well into double digits (I blame the editors for coming up with amazing ideas and tossing in a few must-read contributors – they know me so well), and yet, the “theme-iness” of anthologies sometimes doesn’t work for me. I’m still halfway through Jonathan Strachan’s UNDER MY HAT anthology because I can’t read too many witch stories at one go without thinking “oh no, not another witch”.
With the advent of e-publishing, it gets a lot easier to release single short stories, but yet I don’t find myself hitting that Buy button for very many standalone shorts. I’ve been pondering the reasons, and here are some rather rambly thoughts on what short stories work for me, pricing, and whether the serial format would work in any other genre.
On the first, you may have seen some of my mentions of John Scalzi‘s THE HUMAN DIVISION serialisation – we’re now up to week 7 (update: the last episode was released April 9) and I’m still eagerly turning on my Kindle every Tuesday evening to get the latest episode. Reasons why this set of shorts is working well (and specifically) for me:
- Each episode is self-contained enough for me to feel entertained and satisfied when I turn off my Kindle. There aren’t any cliffhangers – sure, there are points to speculate about in each episode, but there is no “To Be Continued…” kind of ending.
- The weekly gap between episodes feels right. I’ll caveat that by saying this may be due to the fact I’m not invested enough in the overall story or characters to the extent that I feel I *must* know what happens next. I do like the recurring characters, especially Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt, but I don’t feel short-changed if they don’t show up in an episode.
- The time commitment works. They’re not ultra-short stories (though the length varies), but I know I don’t have to find a spare hour in my day to finish the story.
- Most importantly, the price feels right – £0.63 (or £0.64 for the latter ones (I’ve no idea why the 1p increase but I’m guessing the exchange rate, boo).
Which brings me to the price point question. The good old “coffee v an ebook” price debate made its rounds a couple of months ago, but we won’t go into that. I think the not-very-helpful answer is that the “right” price point for me as a reader is the point at which I feel I get value for money, which in turn is tied to how much enjoyment I get out from the story (and I have some thoughts on that and recent self-pubbed releases by auto-buy authors… but that would be another post). That’s a rather vague answer – talking specifics, why am I happy to pay £0.63 for each Scalzi episode?
I can’t help comparing the price of a short story to that of an anthology – take John Joseph Adams’ THE MAD SCIENTIST’S GUIDE TO WORLD DOMINATION anthology for example. It retails on Amazon UK for £7.20 and has 22 short stories in it – I make that 33p each. Jonathan Strachan’s UNDER MY HAT, which I mentioned above, is £7 for 18 stories, so again approximately 38p each. So each story is half the price of the Scalzi series, but on the other hand, I know I’ll have hits and misses with an anthology. I’m not going to love every story in this book; heck, I may not even like any of them.
With the Scalzi shorts, I know I like his writing and he’s been consistent. For 13 episodes, I’m paying around £8.30* – that’s more expensive than a mass-market paperback, but probably what I would pay for a hardcover (including discounts). And THE HUMAN DIVISION is being released as a hardcover at the end of the serial run, so I don’t feel short-changed, even for the shorter episodes. If it was £0.99 an episode, I think I would hesitate because of cost – that’s 3x the cost of a short story in an anthology.
The other point I was thinking about was if an SF serial works for me, would it would work for another genre, such as romance?
I find it hard to imagine a romance novel published serially in such a way that would leave me feeling satisfied after each installment, yet with a HEA that I would believe in. I did notice Eloisa James is doing an online serial for her new novella(?) WITH THIS KISS – it looks as though it’s £0.99 for each installment (three in total) or £4.49 for the entire book AS YOU WISH, which will also include a previously-published e-short. I’m hesitating – partly because I’m not sure if the length will be right for £0.99, but also because I’m thinking cliffhanger-type endings based on the descriptions. I’m looking forward to seeing how successful it is, though.
Update 28 May:
- I still haven’t bought Eloisa James’ serialised story, and that’s really due to pricing. As much as I love her writing, I’m balking at the price for three short stories, which (based on Goodreads reviews) aren’t complete stories in themselves – it sounds like one story split into three, which is slightly different to the Scalzi serialisation. I’m not saying never – I may feel like an EJ fix one day, and decide to splash out on it, but it’d be a special occasion kind of purchase.
- I finished THE HUMAN DIVISION and liked it well enough (I rated the majority of the shorts 3 stars on GRs, with a couple of 4s, IIRC) – would I buy the second “season”? It’s interesting, because I don’t think I would have bought the hardcover of THD (John Scalzi’s more of a wait-for-the-paperback-release kind of author for me), but that’s essentially what I ended up doing by signing up to the serialised version. I probably would buy the next serialisation, just because I thought it was good value for money. However, I would have answered differently if you had asked me the same question back in April – see next (and final) point.
- I was annoyed when it was announced that the hardback version of THE HUMAN DIVISION would have exclusive extras not available to the purchasers of the online serial, but held my peace. Obviously I didn’t feel strongly enough about THD to blog about it, though I have posted previously about my feelings when “extras” are only available in either hardcover or mass market paperback (hint: it really annoys me). However, the fact that Tor is now offering the additional shorts for free a couple of months after the hardcover release makes me a lot happier – I would have voted with my cash otherwise (as I’ve done when publishers have offered exclusive content specific to certain formats) and not bought the sequel.
So, your thoughts – do serialised releases work for you or not? Did you buy either (or both) of the John Scalzi or Eloisa James serials?
*One could also argue we get 13 pieces of cover art for the serialised version. Or that editing 20 short stories written by 20 different authors is more overhead than editing 20 short stories by a single author. I don’t know.