On the last day of May in 1837, avid readers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were disappointed. The story had been published in installments by Chapman & Hall at the end of every month since March of 1836 and by this time was approaching a print run of 40,000 for each part. It was perhaps the first truly and widely popular piece of literature to hit the London scene, spawning bootlegged copies, theatrical renditions, circulating jokes, and a wide range of merchandise.
Charles Dickens was living the dream. He’d hit the publishing market just right and given the reading public exactly what it wanted at exactly the moment it wanted it. Then in May of 1837, as it so often does, life happened and Dickens missed a deadline when his sister-in-law Mary, to whom he was close, died suddenly. He also missed a deadline for a new serial novel called Oliver Twist.
Dickens did manage to publish a section of his Pickwick Papers the following month and an anxious readership was happy to get it. The work, which was later published as a single novel, originally reached its readers as a series of nineteen issues published over twenty months.
The idea of the serial novel wasn’t entirely new, but it hit its stride with Dickens who had begun his career publishing his Sketches by Boz in various newspapers before they were later bundled into a single work.
Readers liked the format because it was cheaper to buy a short piece than a full novel. Publishers liked it because it was cheaper and less risky to produce short pieces, which allowed them to respond to market demand rather than try to predict it. And lots of authors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century did it, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. All the cool kids were doing it.
Then serial fiction kind of fell out of fashion, with only the occasional experimental foray by a well-known author here or there. But now it’s making a comeback. It’s happening on blogs, of course, and podcasts, and now on more and more online publishing platforms. Even Amazon decided to get a piece of the action.
Last week saw the launch of Amazon’s newest self-publishing platform Kindle Vella. For now, it’s only available in the US and I don’t entirely understand how it works just yet, but basically, it’s an app to which authors publish their stories an “episode” at a time, and readers cash in-app coins they’ve purchased in order to continue with the next episode. I think it’s supposed to be interactive, too. That’s the part I don’t have quite figured out yet.
But I assume I will figure it out before too long, because I have begun publishing a story on Vella. This novel-in-pieces is a little different than my others that got published as plain ol’ books. Those are historical novels that most likely appeal to the kind of people who like to read historical novels, which I know because I’m so great at marketing. Or at least they probably appeal to people who like history or novels or who have ever had a conversation with my mom or dad.
This story might not appeal to the same crowd. It’s a dystopian, sci fi story I started cooking up several years ago, in which, unsurprisingly, there is a teenage girl who is destined to become a hero and do heroic things, fall in love and possibly become embroiled in a love triangle, and learn something about herself on the way to saving the world.
Probably. But as I post episodes and get reader feedback, I suppose it could always change a little bit. What I can state with a fair amount of confidence is that I am on schedule to upload episodes far enough in advance that if life happens, as it did last week when I failed to post in this space, new episodes should still drop each Wednesday.
Here’s the description you will find on Vella:
Built on the ashes of St. Louis, Becca’s dystopian world centers on a dark faith dedicated to pushing the limits of the human lifespan. After an unnaturally prolonged childhood, she faces the ritual that will determine her vocation and launch her initiation into adulthood, a ritual that two years prior, her brother sacrificed his life to protest. When Becca’s own ceremony takes a wrong turn, she finds herself in a world preserved by lies and a tangled history that threatens everyone she loves.
If you’re into that kind of thing, please check it out at this link to read the first few episodes for free. It’s an experiment, but I’m kind of excited about it. Maybe by the time I get to the last episode, 40,000 people will be waiting anxiously for it. It might spawn jokes, theatrical renditions, bootlegged copies, and a wide range of merchandise. Someday, I might even publish it as a book. The only thing I know for certain is that I have now joined the ranks of Charles Dickens. And I think he’s in pretty good company.
12 thoughts on “Charles Dickens is in Good Company”
Congrats for jumping right into Vella! It’s not my style of writing (Vella, not your story, which I’m going to check out right after this comment), but I can see how it would be a fun way to explore what readers respond to as you’re writing. Sort of a choose your own adventure for authors : ) Best of luck with it!!
Thanks! This is my “in a drawer” novel that I really thought might never see the light of day because as I finished it, the publishing industry seemed to finish with dystopian. I do think the readers are still out there. Maybe they’re on Vella. Maybe not. But it’s worth a shot.
Hmm, as far as I can tell, dystopian is still huge for indie authors. You may be inspiring me to dust off some of my (many) in-the-drawer manuscripts. I really like what you had so far. I assume you can later take your serials and release them as a “real” novel, or do they have to remain exclusively on Vella?
They are exclusive to Vella for 30 days. That’s past the posting of the last episode. I don’t know yet whether I will ever publish the book. I know indie dystopian is still going strong. I have just been overwhelmed by trying to market to different audiences. I’m hoping that by putting this one out as a serial, maybe the distinction will be easier.
You are also allowed to publish to other serial platforms as long as it is behind a pay wall.
Ah, marketing…the curse word for authors. Well, what I read of the story was great and this seems like a terrific way for you to experiment…and me, maybe. The exclusivity doesn’t seem too horrendous.
No. I think it’s pretty reasonable. And the way I am choosing to think about it with this work is that no one was reading it when it was in a drawer anyway, so what’s it hurt to try?
Like it – but last line puzzles me. Did you mean he’s in pretty good company … with you…? Or is it a typo that meant to say he’s pretty good company … to be in … ?
there is also something I have often wondered about serial – maybe you can answer. I could understand that the whole novel might be pretty much written – so each episode only has to be tidied up for printing and the author and maybe publisher also do know where it is going. This puts the work time upfront, and makes deadlines easier. OR, you just go an episode at a time and don’t really know where the finished complete novel will be found by the time the end comes. That makes work time between episodes pretty difficult if anything gets in the way. Is you novel in your head, or growing piece by piece outside your ken?
I was trying to be silly by suggesting that Charles Dickens is in good company with me, but of course, it is definitely the other way around. 🙂
As far as process, I know that I would not be willing to write episode to episode without any kind of safety net. My story is a compete novel already, though it has gone through a fairly substantial revision in preparation to be read in episodes. I am hopeful that as readers discover it that I will be making some additional revisions along the way in response to readers’ comments. I am currently also working on a follow-up, which I had previously rough outlined and hope to have fully drafted and reasonably revised by the time this novel is entirely published. I know Amazon recommends to its Vella authors that they at least work from a complete outline, so that they have some sense where the story is going. I hope most are doing that.
I’ve heard of Angleton, but who the Dickens is Dickens? I shall try to check out Vella – but presume (as you point out) that it is not yet available in my back water. Sounds wonderful nonetheless.
Thank you! Yes, you should check out Dickens. He’s pretty decent.
Thanks for giving us the Dickens.