Those not in the know may wonder what science fiction serials are all about. Count Chocula on the deck of the Enterprise? No, no: serials are linked short stories or chapters of books issued piecemeal, one by one; they are the down side of the power and the glory that is Amazon.
You see, in the olden days, when print publishers held sway, publication depended on whether said publishers felt your composition could make a buck. Naturally it stood to reason that you could charge larger prices for larger books. Think steak: if a reader was going to slap down a twenty for a book, it had better be meaty and thick. So thick, in fact, that ideally you could split the book into a three-parter or a quartet of titles, thus hooking the reader into buying several books instead of one.
But with the rise of the ebook, and particularly Amazon, all this changed. Suddenly, incredibly, a writer could make a viable if hair’s-breadth living selling directly via Amazon! But selling what? Page length had little meaning when books have no pages but are no more than one long scroll. A hundred page book or a thousand page book — they’re both just a split-second download. And who has time to read a thousand pages anyway? Easier and more profitable to sell ten short books than one long one. So ebooks began to get shorter
And then Amazon applied the coup de grace: Kindle Unlimited. Kindle Unlimited allows subscribers to download all the books they want for $9.99 a month. Authors still got their bit, but it came with two ominous catches: readers would have to read at least 10% of the book before the author got a shifting standard commission.
So if you, Mr. Tolstoy, have written War And Peace and feel your eleven years of labor is worth at least a fifty, that’s fine. Stay out of Kindle Unlimited, and anyone not on Kindle Unlimited will pay the price you set. But then a lot less people will be likely to see your book, and therefore to buy it. Stay with Kindle Unlimited and, yes, if a KU downloader gets it, you get the same $1.33 (or whatever the cut-of-the-month is) that every other KU book gets. If enough KU downloaders get your book, it may work out for you. But you don’t get a cent unless the reader reads over a hundred pages of it (or whatever 10% comes to).
Smart starving writers drew a swift conclusion. Better to write super-short! Better to issue a ten-page “book” that get you your $1.33 after one page is read than to kill yourself writing vast masterpieces whose reader may drift off just before they reach the 10% finish line. Of course readers may not be happy with ten piddling pages however little it costs, but here the multi-volume hook idea came to the rescue. Why not consider each ten-pager a stand-alone section of a longer work? In fact, why not think of it as a television episode? People pay to see TV episodes, don’t they? They do.
No doubt you are thinking, “How mercenary! What about artistic integrity?” Oh, please. Artistic integrity is for writers whose husband or wife has a job. The rest of literature goes where the money is. Thanks to Amazon nowadays it goes short.
Relax. This does not mean you’re getting junk. Ballard’s great Vermilion Sands is a connected set of stories, as are many a fine SF collection, from Asimov’s robot stories to the tales of Pirx the Pilot. Art thrives in a multiplicity of forms; it’s in the realm of content that you should dread the rule of capital.
But that’s another post.
Right now the thing for writers and readers to realize is that the writer who wishes to survive must write not long stories but a lot of them, and write not rounded and finished tales but cliff-hanging and interlinked ones. Does this distort the vision of many an artist, sometimes fatally? Sure. It’s pathetic that considerations other than the perfection of the work itself should matter. But literary environments exercise natural selection no less than natural ones. It’s the task of radicals to bitch and foment change and change that environment, and the task of writers — myself included — to accept the challenge and write as best they can under the circumstances. With what result, time and the market will tell.