Serialization’s place in literature’s past & present

The printing press was invented a little under 600 years ago, but the majority of people couldn’t read. The practice of printing written words evolved steadily until the 1830’s when paperback novels first appeared in Europe. Alongside those came a new way to present literature: serialization.

Made possible by the existence and popularity of newspapers, serialization is the segmented release of a written work. Sections of a story were released and promptly devoured on a weekly (or monthly depending on the author) basis, some writers even had enough confidence to change their story based on audience reaction; that’s basically agreeing to a game of chicken where you’re riding a bicycle while the other person is in a speeding 18-wheeler. The first major success of the process happened in 1836, with the release of Charles Dickens’ The Pinwick Papers; some other notable works that came through serialization are Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

(Fun fact: the biggest serialization I was able to find was Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo,  728 pages were presented to the French public over 139 installments.)

Dumas was French, Stowe an American, Doyle British. Three different writers separated by three different bodies of water contributing to different genres all succeeded with the same process. Serialization succeeded but curiously enough, didn’t establish a regular place in the world of literature. Whether the short-lived popularity was due to the creation of the radio, newspapers dedicating their space to news instead of fiction, or something else doesn’t matter; 10 years past 1900, things got busy on the world stage and everyone seems to forget serialization ever existed.

Until the 1980’s, 4 years in to be exact, when Rolling Stone Magazine published Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 27 parts. He was paid 200k for his work but things were not as they once were; Wolfe wasn’t happy with the book, heavily revised it before its release as a novel, effectively making the Rolling Stone copy obsolete.

Nothing for 20 more years, then, out of nowhere The New York Times serializes Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road; I hadn’t heard of it until doing research for this article, guessing how that went isn’t even necessary.

Authors have tried without newspapers as well; in 2000 Steven King released The Plant in a serialized web-based format. Orson Scott-Card, who I once liked as a writer but now hate as a person, serialized an out of print novel through his online magazine. Neither of these attempts helped the authors reach the levels of success they are accustomed to.

It wasn’t too long ago that serialization succeeded; I attribute the recent ‘failures’ to the writers expecting significant monetary gains from the process. Dickens and Doyle were obviously paid for their work, but in the times of low-literacy they lived in, were no doubt more happy with the fact that people cared, read, than they were with the change in their pockets.

Serialization can succeed today if an author commits hoping for the right things.

I announced that I’m re-editing, and serializing Meant to Be (my first book) in this post; the first bit releases on Monday, September 4th.


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