Writing: Why Now’s A Good Time to Self-Publish Serial Fiction

Headshot of Samantha Warren

American self-published fantasy novelist Samantha Warren draws our attention to the growing market and potential success of serial fiction, drawing on her own experience as the author of a best-selling ten-part sequence of novellas about vampires.

The Penny Dreadful Gets a New Skin

 Ce-re-al [seer-ee-uh l]: any plant of the gra…

Se-ri-al [seer-ee-uh l]: anything published, broadcast, etc., in short installments at regular intervals, as a novel appearing in successive issues of a magazine

When we think of serials, we often think of television. How many times have you waited impatiently for a week, a month, heck, even years, for your favorite show to finally return? How often have you chomped at the bit as you counted down the minutes to The Walking Dead or Sherlock?

The History of Serial Fiction

Serials have existed in fiction for a very long time. Books were expensive back in the 19th century, so they were printed in installments in order to keep the price low. Charles Dickens, often heralded as one of the greatest early self-publishers, was also one of the most successful writers of serialized fiction. Another big name, Alexandre Dumas, was a very prolific serial novelist, publishing both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers in serial format. In fact, serialization worked so well, it was considered the way to go by popular authors during the time.

Penny Dreadfuls & Dime Novels

Array of book covers from Samantha Warren's series

Samantha has just published the final part in this series

You’ve heard the terms “penny dreadful” and “dime novel”. These were generally serialized fiction, short installments of a larger series that could be purchased on the cheap. These quick, literary thrills encouraged reading and were treated much like baseball cards among the youth: traded, collected, and used as bargaining tools. You can read old dime novels on the Stanford website.

But as printing got cheaper, publishers realized it was more cost effective to print longer books. Page counts grew. Serialized fiction was dead.

 Or was it?

Serial Writing in the 21st Century

With the invention of the internet, and specifically e-readers, things began to turn around for the serialized novel. People could write short bits and pieces of their novels and self-publish them:

  • without having to reach a minimum word count
  • without having to go through the gatekeepers of traditional publishing
  • without being rejected because they couldn’t or wouldn’t produce massive tomes of literature

Sites popped up all over the web where people could post their stories and share them with the public. Then came the Kindle and it became even easier.

As self-publishing flourishes, so does the serial. As technology increases, attention spans decrease. Reading as it was is falling by the wayside. The younger generations don’t want to commit to a 400-page book that’s going to take them a week (or a month) to read. They want their entertainment and they want it now. They want short snippets that they can devour in an hour. They want fun, easy-to-read excitement that mimics their favorite television shows. They want serials.

Serials for E-readers

Cover of Space Grease and Pixie Dust

Starting over: the first in Samantha’s new series

With the invention of the e-reader, serialized fiction is back on the market and gaining ground, albeit slowly. There is a whole subset of readers out there who love serials, who wait just as impatiently for the next episode of their favorite book as they do for their favorite television show. Just ask Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant, who made their names in the serial world.

My best-selling series consists of novellas, all under 20,000 words, that follow the story of a single vampire, Jane. My readers devour them faster than I can write them. And my new serial, Space Grease & Pixie Dust, hit #10 on Amazon’s Steampunk list in a just one day.

I’ve heard a lot of smack talk about serials, but I think they’re going to be very big in the near future. The penny dreadful is making a comeback. Will we now call it the Dollar Dreadful?

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21 Responses to Writing: Why Now’s A Good Time to Self-Publish Serial Fiction

  1. June 28, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

    Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it
    was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say,
    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything.
    Do you have any points for rookie blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

  2. RIchard Tattoni December 17, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

    It’s great to see the new wave of self publishers becoming aware of online serial publishing. Serial publishing benefits authors as both a writing exercise and showcase of writing ability. Currently, I’m releasing Lionheart Leaks as the first edition of blogs forming a novel. It’s written as installments featuring the POV from employees in the media industry. The free story is about a group of 20-something underachievers struggling in life. They’re paid to work for Lionheart Incorporated™, a new media company. Working for the very ambitious and corrupt company, the employees form good friendships before learning they have been duped by the company. After a friend dies, they secretly form Lionheart Leaks and get back at the founders of Lionheart, but their plan gets sabotaged. My blogs can be found on my website.

  3. Stephanie November 19, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    Anyone know what the expected length is for a serialized part? I’ve seen some who do about 20,000 words for each serial section, some who do less than that. I’ve tried to find online how many parts Hugh Howey’s Wool was divided into, but no such luck. Does anybody here know? I’m considering releasing my 85,000 word ya fantasy in 4 or more parts.

  4. Matthew Wayne Selznick May 2, 2014 at 7:20 am #

    It’s fun to see the new wave of self publishers becoming aware of online serial publishing! I ran a shared-world serial fiction webzine from 1998 ~ 2002 and experimented with serial fiction in 2009 with a subscription based, for-pay, membership site.

    Currently, I distribute a free fantasy serial to e-mail subscribers. I’ve been invited to launch a serial on WattPad (mentioned above) which I hope to launch in May.

    Serials never really left… and I’m surprised this post didn’t mention ALLi member Claudia Hall Christian, whose The Denver Cereal has been published six days a week for nearly six years!

    • Debbie Young May 2, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

      Wow, I knew you wrote serials, Matthew, but I didn’t know about Claudia’s impressive serial marathon – and but if she’d like to write a guest post about how she’s kept that up, and what the results have been, I’d love to hear from her!

    • Samantha Warren May 2, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

      Thanks, Matthew! I’m fairly new to ALLi, so I didn’t know about Claudia’s serial. Like Debbie, I’d be interested in a post, too.

  5. Carla King May 2, 2014 at 4:29 am #

    Series are indeed hot. I just want to contribute a few tools – some of them a bit geeky – that help authors publish serial writing. The first (and best, I think) is, which is an “iterative” publishing tool that lets readers buy your book/series. Through Leanpub you can send your readers notifications when you’ve released another segment. You get readers email addresses, and of course this is a great way to get beta readers. They have a sliding scale payment system so your readers can pay you a minimum price, a recommended price, and waaay more. So come on in, superfans! This makes it kind of a crowdfunding platform, too. Leanpub also outputs to pdf for print and ebook formats, so when you’re done you just export and distribute via IngramSpark, CreateSpace, Smashwords and KDP (and others, of course).

    Another way to serially publish is using your blog to deliberately blog a book, a la Nina Amir. You can use PressBooks to consume your WordPress blog into a book that you can edit, add front and back matter, and a cover. It exports into pdf and ebook formats. My PBS MediaShift title How to Self-Publish Your Book was edited and produced in PressBooks. You don’t have to use blog posts to create the book – you can add chapters in the WordPress-like interface. You can even create booklets, and single story chapbooks using PressBooks.

    Wattpad and Scribd and AllRomance and other “social publishing” sites also support serial publishing and help you gain audience.

    Slicebooks is super interesting because it lets you literally slice your books into segments and chapters and “remix” them into new books. Customers that visit the Slicebooks store can remix your work along with other authors’ works into a book of their own. You get paid accordingly, of course. This isn’t really a “serial” book per se but if you have an anthology you’ll be interested.

    Self-promotion alert: I’ve written about these tools and more in my blog and books and for PBS MediaShift. If you’re interested in learning about more tools navigate on over to my site and sign up for my mailing list to get a list of 25 great tools for self-publishers.

    • Jill Tomich December 18, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

      Hi Carla,

      Thanks for your continued support of Slicebooks, and giving us a shout out. We should connect again soon as we’re launching a new platform that will deliver content to mobile consumers based on their location and activity. Check it out at (aiming to launch Q12016). — Jill

  6. David A Davies May 2, 2014 at 12:55 am #

    Interesting article since I just self published the first of a series of three books however my first is 281 pages. I agree that attention spans and time constraints limits readers in their choices but if you keep readers interested throughout and leave them with a cliff hanger then maybe that’s what the market demands.

    • Samantha Warren May 2, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      Absolutely, David. Good writing trumps all. I tend to be a sprint writer. If I try for a marathon, it gets a bit boring. Serials work well for my writing style and my readers, so it’s a win-win.

  7. Shaun Ivory May 1, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

    Interesting. Am currently writing a very long novel(well, chronicle, more-like) of a man’s life through the wild west, from the Civil War to early Hollywood. At 400+ pages and him still only aged 23 I realised this was going to be a very long novel! Now seriously considering going down the serial ebook route, as so far it breaks quite naturally every 200 pages. Although very old I am still prepared to try new ideas(to me!). Hope you are right. Thanks.

    • Samantha Warren May 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      That sounds very suited to the serial. A lot of people would be turned off by a huge tome, but if each part of his life is in a smaller segment, they could sample the first without much commitment on their part. Then those who get halfway in will likely finish the series, as by then you’ve reached your core readers. Serials work great for the funnel idea.

  8. Nancy Sampson-Bach May 1, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    Nice article! While I am of the generation of writers/readers that loves long heavy tomes (Robert Jordan, anyone?), I do find more and more that I enjoy the serials as well. And the e-reader is changing how I read, too. I take mine with me everywhere and if I’m sitting at the Oil Change Place, I can get through an episode while I wait, and in an odd way, feel like I’ve accomplished something (outside of getting my oil changed!). Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Samantha Warren May 2, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words, Nancy! I agree, it’s nice being able to read something in one sitting and feeling like it was a good job done.

  9. Seeley James May 1, 2014 at 8:36 pm #

    I wrote six episodes before consolidating into a book (Bring It, Omnibus Edition). I’m torn about the idea because I had a couple issues: 1) several advertising sites require 50,000 words as a minimum (Bookbub) or you can only advertise the first episode (Kindle Books & Tips); 2) Plot-creep, or plot-wander.

    If I do it again, I’d write the entire book first, then break it up and release episodes.

    Peace, Seeley

    • Samantha Warren May 2, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

      I do absolutely agree with you on #1, Seeley. It’s a bit frustrating trying to find sites that will promote it, but they are out there. And putting the first episode free is a huge boost for the series.

      A couple folks who have done well with serials are Johnny B Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright. They’ve done it both ways: writing it all first, and writing on the fly. Personally, I like writing on the fly, but I think the key is to do what works for you and the story. No two writers are the same. 🙂


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