serial novel is a work of fiction that is published in sequential pieces called instalments.

The instalments can be published at any interval for any period of time, though the weekly, bi-monthly and monthly instalments are most typical.

Literary magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals have traditionally published serial novels.

Serialisation was an immensely popular form of publishing in the 1800s and until around the mid-1900s. This form of publication gave authors a much wider readership since ever poorer readers could afford the shorter volumes.

And publishers enjoyed corresponding greater profits.

After publishing a story in serial format, many authors would then revise the work to be published as a complete novel.

Some novels — like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins — were written specifically for the format, while others — like parts of Middlemarch by George Eliot—were originally intended to be a longer work but were later broken up for serialisation.

The serial publishing craze.

Serialised fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era. The combination of a rise in literacy rates, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution meant that most Victorian novels first appeared as instalments in monthly or weekly periodicals.

The wild success of Charles Dickens’s The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (March 1836 to October 1837) is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialised format within periodical literature. And Dickens published all of his subsequent novels in serial form first.

Other famous writers who wrote serial literature for popular magazines were Wilkie Collins, inventor of the detective novel, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes for serialisation.

Many authors originally wrote most (if not all) of their works in serial format, these are just a few books from a few authors as examples.

15 books that were originally serial novels:

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
  2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1851)
  3. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
  4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
  5. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
  6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1875)
  7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1881)
  8. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)
  9. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1901)
  10. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)
  11. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1910)
  12. Ulysses by James Joyce (1918)
  13. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1924)
  14. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
  15. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)

The serial novel has some limitations as a form.

Though there are many benefits to serial publishing, the format comes with a handful of disadvantages. Criticism of serial authors may often actually be criticism of the form itself, including things like excessively long texts, overly grand dramatisations, too much repetition, too many exaggerations or flat characters, and plot lines that make little sense when viewed as a whole.

Then again, this does not differ from soaps and long-running shows, formats which both have huge audiences.

Serial publishing today.

It seems like modern serial publishing, well… isn’t.

Though many acclaimed authors frequently publish short stories or essays in magazines, it’s rare for contemporary authors of traditional, heavyweight fiction to publish work as a serial novel.

A few big-name authors who have recently published works in serial form:

  • Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1984), published in Rolling Stone
  • Stephen King: The Green Mile (1996), published as six paperback volumes
  • Margaret Atwood: Positron (2012 -2013), self-published online
  • Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road (2007), published in New York Times Magazine
  • Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, published in Newcity newspaper

Another interesting case of modern psuedo-serialisation is the publication of The Martian by Andy Weir.

Weir originally published chapters of The Martian on his personal blog, gaining a following of fellow space enthusiasts who helped him correct scientific inaccuracies in his draft as he went along.

The comeback of serialisation is already here.

Over the past few years, there has seemed to be a growing consensus that the serial novel is making—or is soon due to make—a comeback.

On the apps Wattpad and Inkitt, writers can publish chapters as they are written, and followers can read and comment on them in real-time.

The problem is that monetisation options on the platforms are very limited (and rarely under the author’s exclusive control), despite Wattpad having around 90 million users spending an average of 52 minutes per session reading books — mostly Millennial and Gen Z.

Having recognised that this is a huge potential market, Amazon launched Kindle Vella in 2021, with allows authors to publish books serially as well as allows for monetisation.

Amazon has yet to make a big marketing push for Kindle Vella, but that hasn’t stopped writers pouring in an estimated 1.2-1.4 million books onto Amazon each year and, even if every book sells only 200 copies, the platform will earn 20-50 per cent of each sale and win the whole game.

Webtoons is another serial platform that has been trying to break into the American market with their Freemium model.

However, without a long-standing culture of reading weekly comics, such as exists in Asia (think episodic manga in Japan), turning this model of getting a new episode once a week — and paying for it — hasn’t gained an equally strong foothold in the American market yet.

Having said that, there are some case studies of how a platform like Webtoons is looking to make more money — expanding their readership one of them — take the Lore Olympus comic going from a webtoon to a printed format as an example.

As streaming platforms eat into creatives’ pay across the board, writers and artist are working more hours for less money.

There’s a growing market for episodic stories, designed for mobile devices, unfolding as larger narratives over time, and it remains to be seen how successful these are for the writers and artists behind them.


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