On Sunday, I posted that I was thinking about serials–wondering about their success as a sales strategy, and also considering them as an audience builder via a platform like Wattpad. Commenters indicated that they weren’t particularly fans and that they preferred to read something straight through.
Turns out the data bears that out.
Earlier this week, Mark Coker released the data he collected at RT in Chicago last year where in he conducted a widespread survey analyzing indie ebook sales. He shared the results at this year’s RT in Kansas City. The whole post is well worth a read if you’re in self publishing at all (or considering getting into it). But the relevant section to this discussion is this:
2. Viva Long Form Reading: Longer Books Sell Better
For the second year running, we found definitive evidence that ebook readers – voting with their Dollars, Euros, Pounds, Krone, Krona and Koruna – overwhelmingly prefer longer books over shorter books.
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The top 100 bestselling Smashwords books averaged 115,000 words. When we examined the word counts of books in other sales rank bands, we found the lower the word count, the lower the sales.
Now consider how authors can use this finding, combined with the knowledge of the power curve, to make smarter publishing decisions, and to avoid poor decisions. Often, we’ll see an authors with a single full-length novel break the novel into chunks to create a series of novellas, or worse – they’ll try to serialize it as dozens of short pieces. When you consider that readers overwhelmingly prefer longer works, and you consider that bestselling titles sell exponentially more copies, reach more readers and earn more money than the non-bestsellers, you can understand how some authors might be undermining their book’s true potential.
~Mark Coker, emphasis mine
That’s certainly food for thought. I can’t fathom breaking up something that is truly intended to be a novel into chunks of novella. And breaking it up into dozens of short pieces, say, by chapter or some other subchunk seems likewise kind of foolish. But I have to wonder if such things are failing entirely because people want to read longer stuff, OR if its because each chunk (however long it is), isn’t a complete story unto itself. If you take a longer work and just artificially break it into smaller works, then of course you’re going to have dangling plot devices and incomplete stories. I think you have to plan each novella (or whatever chunk it is) as its own stand alone, self contained chunk that adheres to all the expectations of story structure in order to pull that off. Each chunk would need to be its own self contained episode, like a TV show, wherein you have the rise and fall of plot arc and at least some kind of satisfactory resolution to the episode, while still leaving plot threads (essentially a series or season arc) to follow up on in future episodes, in order to avoid pissing readers off. I’d wager that few people trying this serial thing actually DO IT that way.
Other factors that definitely support the data is that if people get something short that isn’t complete and they don’t realize what they’re buying isn’t complete, they get pissed. It doesn’t matter whether you take out a virtual billboard on your book listing, explaining that THIS IS A NOVELLA or THIS IS A SHORT STORY (or THIS IS AN OMNIBUS OF X, Y, and Z), a huge percentage of people don’t bother to actually READ the description. And then they get angry because they feel bamboozled. I’ve got my fair share of reviews in which people were snippy because the book was “too short” (um, because it was a NOVELLA). So under that circumstance, yes, I absolutely agree that people seem to respond better to longer works. The traditional publishing industry has conditioned them to expect a certain length, and while epublishing has allowed for the resurgence of shorter form fiction like short stories and novellas, most audiences still aren’t expecting that.
I’d still wager that serialization of work in progress on a site like Wattpad are something different. You’re not paying, for one. And the entire site is built around the idea that stories are being told in segments, so users go into it with the understanding of what they’re getting. There have been a number of people who have successfully used this method to build an audience. What I would like to know is how much of that audience translates from free, serialized content on a site like that into paying customers who go track down the rest of our work. Time will tell.
So, thoughts? I’d love to hear what the rest of you think about the data, the concept, etc.