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.


Posted on March 16, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. "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."Amen! When I wrote my novel Frozen in Time, I had no intention of writing the Antarctic Murders Trilogy. But my younger daughter kept hounding me ("Dad…you must tell me how this all turns out!"). Of course, the die was cast in book I, in many way, so when it came time to sit down and write books II (Unfinished Business) and III (End Game), I wrote them in parallel. This ensured I didn't paint myself into a corner in book II . . . one might be fatal when it came to writing book III. This technique worked well, as Irene suggested it would in her piece for this morning.Ted

  2. A trilogy is a different ballgame. A mass market trilogy can be produced in a year or two. A work, however, that takes 20 years to produce may not fit well here. There is no one who can guarantee an author that his work will be published posthumously–should something happen to him while he's patiently waiting for the completion of all three volumes. Heidegger wrote, as I remember now, only the first volume of a given philosophical series and titled it Being and Time–one of the most, if not the most, complex philosophical works ever written. Marquez rehashed his previous works into his 100 Years of Solitude and received the Nobel Prize in Literature as a result.Imagine this scenario: An author is writing a trilogy. The manuscript is somehow obtained by the KGB through the author's confidents. The KGB deems this author a persona non grata. Persecution follows. His property and entire life savings are confiscated. His friends are summoned to the KGB headquarters for interrogation. His girlfriend is interrogated and threatened to be jailed for "treason" against the country–for simply being the author's girlfriend. And she's offered a modest proposal: cooperate with the KGB in revealing to them the whereabouts of the author–in what appears to be a plot to murder him. In return, she'll get the author's property, a lucrative job and attractive marriage offers. Journalists covering his book are intimidated by the KGB or arrested. The KGB invades the offices of the National Public Radio minutes before a program is set to air on the author's work to arrest those in charge of the program. Bookstores in the country are ordered not to carry any book by the author. A campaign of persecution starts against the author involving almost all government agencies. The prosecutor's office amasses charges after charges against the author. Witnesses defending the author are harassed and some end up in mental institutions. False witnesses against the author are produced. The Writers Union of the country joins in the campaign to silence and ostracize the author. The author has run away from the authorities in the New Year's eve–when security is loose. Every few months the KGB shows up at his last dwelling place, wakes up the neighbors at 5 or 6 in the morning, ostensibly to find out if they have any news of the author–to make sure he never returns. They issue a warrant for his arrest to arrest him right at the airport–if he were to return. The author suffers not only economically by finding himself in $200,000 personal debts but his health and well-being are severely affected in every respect. The author avows not to write anything anymore in his native language. He moves to another country and publishes the first volume of his trilogy in the language of that country. Some people in his new country tell him that he should have waited until the full completion of all three volumes. The author has written the entire series, it has already taken him 10-12 years–the first draft of all 3 volumes, and the 5th or 6th drafts of volumes 1 and 2. He feels he can't wait another 10 years when the threat of terror is hanging on him like a Damoclean sword. So he ventures to publish his first volume by pulling his last resources, knowing that he may not have any means at all to do it were he to wait another year–even if he were to survive the silent and not so silent persecution. Should this author have published his book, or should he have rather waited and exercised more patience?

  3. I agree with you, Irene. Unless an author is the reincarnation of Charles (or perhaps Charlene, this time around) Dickens, the whole series should be done before the author publishes any of it. (And, as you note, even Dickens ran into problems.)I began writing and revising my four-book series in 2004. I published the first book in 2010 and the second in 2011. I'll publish the third book this year, and the fourth in 2013. Have I been tempted to change anything substantial — like the killing off, or not, of a character? No, not after six years of thinking, writing, revising, and thinking, writing, and revising even more. Can I still edit specific sentences and paragraphs of the books not yet published? Absolutely, and I do, almost every day. An author can never edit a book too much. That's one of the benefits of writing a series — and of patience.

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