Publishing Chapter by Chapter Online
Guest Post by Irene Watson
The Internet has led to the rediscovery of serial writing. Just as Dickens published a few chapters of a novel in a newspaper every month so readers would be hooked and read the story, so many authors today are trying to keep readers coming back for more to their websites by publishing a chapter every day or week. But writing a serial still requires a well-thought out plan, not a day-by-day spontaneous writing strategy, which isn’t much of a strategy at all.
In recent years, numerous authors have tried to be revolutionary and capture their readers’ interests by offering their novels online for free, chapter by chapter, in hopes it will make people ultimately buy their books. Some of these efforts have succeeded more than others, but the most successful have been those where the author thought out his or her story and wrote it in its entirety before beginning to publish it.
Too many new authors decide to write a story in a serial manner by simply writing the first chapter and posting it, then writing the second chapter and posting it, and so on. These authors may have some idea of where the story is going and how it will end, but from day to day, they may not know how they are going to get to that end. I have seen websites where authors write a hundred chapters that wander aimlessly about before the conclusion finally occurs. I’ve tried to read some of these serials, only to give up after a few chapters because the writing was poor and the plot seemed to have no direction. Most of these, I think, were first drafts that were posted without much thought going into them, although the rare exception does exist.
“That’s how Dickens did it!” these authors will proclaim about their serial offerings, trying to equate their efforts with a master novelist. Yes, Dickens did publish his novels as serials and he was a great writer, but even Dickens often planned his books out in advance, and if you look at Dickens’ earliest efforts, they were not as good as his later works. His first serial work, “The Pickwick Papers,” can barely be considered a novel. It’s more like a series of episodic stories that in the end loosely come together when he decided to quit writing the serial. Similarly, his early serialized novel “Nicholas Nickleby” has a tendency to wander about in places. Later, Dickens’ plots became tighter as he became better at what he did.
Online publishing requires the strongest writing because people have short attention spans online—they tend to skim rather than read, and most would prefer to read a paper book or a book on their e-book reader rather than stare at a website for hours, so if the writing is not of the first-rate, keeping the reader’s attention, much less getting him or her to keep coming back to your website, is not likely to happen.
The truth is that many authors who decide to write online serials are doing so to build interest in their books and to find out whether an audience exists that will make it worthwhile for them to spend the money to publish a book. Sadly, many of these authors do not think through writing a full novel before they try to find readers. They are expecting to find fans and receive accolades before they have put in the work to deserve them. These beginning authors would be more successful if they concentrated on creating a cohesive storyline and writing the entire book before they consider how to promote it online as a serial.
The problem with serial writing is that once you publish a chapter, you can’t go back and rewrite it—well, you can, but your readers who have already read the earlier version aren’t likely to go back to read it, or put up with you telling them, “I know in Chapter 12 I killed off Joe, but now that I’m in Chapter 23, I’ve changed my mind, so I went back and rewrote that chapter so he can appear in this one.” If authors will hold off publishing their chapters until they’ve written and polished the entire book, they won’t need to worry about inconsistencies when they publish the story online. And their readers will find the story stronger and more enticing, so they will be more likely to keep coming back to read successive chapters.
As harsh as it may sound, there is a lot of dribble being written on the Internet, and people don’t want to waste their time reading second-rate books when they could read first-rate books. Nor would someone want to keep tuning in daily or weekly for a story that isn’t well-written. By putting in the time to revise and strengthen the story before publishing it, you can have a successful serial novel, and if it takes you an extra year to get to that point, it will be well worth it.
The same is true with writing a series of novels, especially ones that are closely tied together. A good author who wants to write a trilogy won’t just write the first book and publish it and then turn to writing the second book. A better strategy is to write all three books and revise them, and then begin publishing them. Yes, this extra care will delay publishing the first book, but it will also make the first and all the succeeding books better. You can then create themes and patterns throughout the books to make them more cohesive, and if you find in the third book that you wish you had done something different in the first book, you can go back and adjust it to match up with what you want to do in the third.
Serials and book series can be a great way to get attention from readers, but no book marketing technique will be successful for long if the writing is not of good quality. Plotting carefully, planning, writing, and rewriting ahead of time can make your serial more effective. It will also save you the worry each week of producing a chapter you may not have the time or inspiration to do properly, so that you end up dashing off a second-rate work that will lose readers. Authors who complete their entire books before publishing them online as serials will have the peace of mind that the entire work is of even and good quality. And if readers enjoy the book, after a few chapters, they might be ready to pay for the published book, which could already be available for sale since the entire book was completed before serialization began.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.