Rediscovering Serialized Publishing: From Dickens to Kindle Vella
Updated: Jun 14
Charles Dickens and My Struggles with "Great Expectations"
With apologies to his fans and admirers, Charles Dickens put me to sleep. I had to read “Great Expectations” in middle school. Although I was a voracious reader at the time, I found it so ponderous that I couldn’t make it to the end of the book. It might have been the first (and possibly only) time I resorted to Cliffs Notes to get through a school assignment.
Someone explained at the time that Dickens was ‘paid by the word’, which meant that rather than crafting lean, efficient narrative, he was incentivized to drag things out. I don’t know if this is actually true, but at the time, it felt like a validating justification for my struggles with his writing.
What is certainly true about Dickens (and many other authors) is that he published many of his books in short bits and pieces, gradually, over time. This method of serialized publishing had been popular for a time, then faded. In a way, comic books took up the mantle in the 20th century, releasing long narrative arcs a couple dozen pages at a time.
The Resurgence of Serialized Publishing in the Digital Age
In recent years, serialization has reappeared in the world of digital publishing. Platforms like Wattpad, Royal Road, and Amazon’s more recent entry, Kindle Vella, offer authors an opportunity to share their books with readers one chapter at a time.
From Comics to Novels: My Journey with Serialized Publishing
Exploring Serialized Publishing with "Ben Mortara and the Thieves of the Golden Table"
I got my first taste of serialized publishing with my four-part comic book series, “Ben Mortara and the Thieves of the Golden Table” from Maggid Comics and Source Point Press. I enjoyed crafting the story, and grappling with the double-edged challenge of creating both a self-contained narrative arc and a gripping cliff-hanger for each of the four issues. And those four issues had to span a full and satisfying narrative arc, too.
With “Ben Mortara” rolling out to comic book shops (Issue #3 should be available in late June), I found myself looking for my next creative adventure. I found it in an old screenplay that had been gathering digital dust on my hard drive.
Reviving an Old Screenplay - "Wayfarers" - for a New Creative Adventure
“Wayfarers” was originally a short film script. I wrote it more than a decade ago, and had hoped to find a way to film it in the desert and coast of southern California. The story, a Jewish post-Apocalyptic action-adventure inspired by the book of Exodus, follows a band of refugees as they race across a dystopian wasteland to try to reach the coast, where a freighter waits to ferry them to safer harbors. The short film script climaxes with a dramatic recitation of the Wayfarer’s Prayer – the first time I incorporated Jewish liturgy into a narrative. (Fans might recall the incorporation of the Friday night Kiddush in “The Pirate Captain Toledano”. And as you’ll see later this month, the Shema figures into issue #3 of “Ben Mortara.”)
Although I wasn’t able to make “Wayfarers,” the short script landed me a meeting with a veteran producer of action films, who encouraged me to expand the story into a feature. I churned out a first draft of a “Wayfarers” feature in a matter of weeks, and after a few rounds of revisions, the producer took the project out on the town, with me attached to direct. Eventually, “Wayfarers” captured the imagination of a French production company that had production facilities in Morocco. I was excited! They were talking about a seven-figure budget! Production in Morocco! I’d get to direct another feature!
But then, the notes came. Just one note, actually. They wanted me to make the screenplay less Jewish – or, better yet, not Jewish at all. They even suggested I make up a religion, since it’s science fiction.
The story is about a band of Jews who are fleeing persecution and fighting to maintain their identity. I wouldn’t make the change, they lost interest, and the project fell apart.
It’s been about a decade since I wrote the “Wayfarers” feature. In the intervening years, my biggest successes have been overtly Jewish stories – stories that did exactly what that French company was afraid to do.
So, a few months ago, as I was looking for another creative avenue to explore, I dug out the old “Wayfarers” script. With a writer’s strike looming, it didn’t seem like a good time to start shopping the screenplay around again. But I did begin to wonder how the story might come across in another medium. As a comic, perhaps? Or as a novel?
I began to write the “Wayfarers” novel without much of a plan for it. I wanted to see how it would feel to write straightforward prose again. For the last two decades, my writing has been a means to an end – screenplays are not the end-product, they’re blueprints for a film. Comic book scripts, similarly, are intermediary steps between story and product. A novel, on the other hand, is the end-product itself.
I found the process quite enjoyable, and before I knew it, I had a dozen chapters written. I began to think about what I might do with the book once it was completed.
The Dilemma of Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing
The Lengthy Process and Uncertainty of Traditional Publishing
Traditional publishing is, of course, an obvious option. But it takes a long time. And – to be vulnerably honest – I don’t know yet if my prose writing is any good! The thought of finishing the book in the hopes of eventually getting traditionally published took a lot of the wind out of my sails. It was too distant a dream, and too dependent on the whims of other people.
Navigating the Sea of Self-Published Works
Self-publishing is always an option these days, but there’s so much self-published work out there, I couldn’t imagine spending the time and toil to raise my book above the noise. Self-publishing would also have to wait until the book was complete. I was impatient.
That’s when I remembered Charles Dickens. I had chapters written already – why couldn’t I publish those while I keep writing the book? I could publish the story gradually – one chapter at a time, like a TV show or a comic book series… or like Dickens! And I could begin to publish right away.
To me, serialization is a very exciting option. It gives me a chance to see how my work lands with an audience as I continue to write the book. It also creates deadlines, an artificial ‘kick in the pants’ to make sure I keep writing and get the book written. As a self-motivating solopreneur (which many of us are in the creative world), creating artificial, external motivation is really important!
Rediscovering Serialization: Choosing Kindle Vella
The Appeal of Kindle Vella: Familiarity, Clear Pay Structure, Potential Bonuses and Non-Exclusivity
There are numerous platforms for digital serialized publishing. Some, like Wattpad, have been around for a long time (in tech years). Some buy up rights and pay authors. Some are little more than blog sites that allow anyone to post anything for free.
I was surprised to discover the range of options. Until this exploration, I hadn’t even heard of this 21st century version of serialized publishing. But millions of people all over the world are reading their books in this way. Ultimately, I settled on Amazon’s relatively new serialization platform, Kindle Vella, for my book.
Vella has only been around for about a year and a half, and is only available in the United States at the moment. But for me, it had a few things going for it that caused it to edge out the competition.
I knew that as an Amazon product, Vella would have a familiar interface. I’ve used Amazon Video Direct and Amazon Media Direct to distribute streaming films and (back in the day) DVDs and Blu-Rays. I figured the Vella interface would be easy to learn. (I was right! It’s very straightforward.)
Amazon also had a clearer pay structure than most of the other platforms I considered. Readers buy ‘tokens’ from Amazon, and use those to unlock new chapters in the books they’re reading. Amazon then pays 50% of the value of those tokens to the authors. It’s not a lot of money, but considering other platforms don’t pay anything to authors, I felt it was the most reasonable deal.
And perhaps most importantly, although Amazon requires exclusivity (my content can’t be published elsewhere), that exclusivity is only for the first 30 days that a chapter appears on the platform. After that, I can re-publish the book anywhere I want (as long as that other place doesn’t mind the book being available on Vella, of course). This leaves the door open for a traditional book deal if the book turns out to be successful enough to warrant one.
After I started publishing with on Vella, I learned that Amazon also pays bonuses to authors. The bonus structure is much more opaque. No one really knows how Amazon calculates it, but the suspicion is that it has something to do with social interactions on the platform. When people “like” a chapter (Vella calls it an “episode”) or if they label it as their favorite at the end of the month, or if they leave comments or “follow” the book (to get notifications about new chapters), those all seem to impact the bonus that Amazon pays. I haven’t been on the platform long enough to see a bonus, but I’m curious to see if it’s a few cents, or if it’s a bit more substantial.
So far, the experience has been rewarding.
The Excitement of Serialized Publishing with Kindle Vella
Collaborating with an Editor and Crafting Each Chapter
Before I publish a chapter, I send it to a friend of mine who agreed to act as the book’s editor (I’m happy to recommend her for anyone who needs an editor! She’s fantastic!) She sends each chapter back to me with her editorial markup, and I tweak those last few bits that require tweaking.
Posting a chapter to the platform is very straightforward. Vella offers an opportunity for authors to include a brief note to readers at the end of each chapter. I haven’t written a note for every chapter, but it’s been fun to think about this more direct form of communication.
So I posted the first four chapters and let things run to see how they’d go. The first three chapters of every Vella story are free. Chapter four and on require ‘tokens’ to unlock.
It’s been one week. Here’s what I learned.
Promoting and Observing Initial Reader Engagement
Unlike the Amazon’s video platform, there’s no delay in Vella’s statistics. When I check the dashboard, I can see exactly (and up-to-the-minute) how many people read each chapter of my book.
In the first day, I did hardly any promotion at all. I wanted to see how much organic traffic would come to the book through the platform.
No one found it.
This was a risk I took knowingly. As a newer platform, Kindle Vella has a considerably smaller audience than some of the more established platforms. And of course, as an algorithm-driven platform, it’s more likely to recommend titles that have a track record. I’d have to ‘prime the pump’ a bit before anyone might discover the book on their own.
The Challenge and Motivation of Daily Statistics Resets
When I began to promote the book on social media, it was exciting to see the first trickle of readers sample those first chapters. It was even more exciting to see readers get to chapter 4 and ‘unlock’ it with their tokens. Bit by bit, as word spreads, the numbers on the dashboard improve.
But the Vella dashboard has an interesting quirk: The primary display shows readership statistics from today only. So every night at midnight, all the numbers revert to zero. Every day is a new opportunity to draw new readers in.
Sometimes, that zero can feel very discouraging. When I need a boost, all it takes is a few clicks and I can see the “all time” statistics – every reader, every chapter, since the book was published. But most days, I see that zero as an exciting challenge. (See above, regarding self-motivation for the solopreneur!)
Yesterday was my first ‘new chapter’ day. Chapter 5 was made available on the platform sometime around midnight. I was happy to see that some of the people who ‘follow’ the book to get updates about new chapters went in and read it (which means they ‘unlocked’ it with their tokens). Eventually, as more people ‘follow’ the book, I’ll hopefully have a predictable flow of initial readers for each new chapter.
Balancing Promotion and Writing: The Journey Continues
Keeping the Story Flowing While Engaging with Readers
But while I’m promoting the book and watching readers check it out, I still have to keep writing! I’ve got enough content written for the next several months, but I’m only halfway done with the book itself. I try to churn out around 500 words per day – a modest goal, but more than enough to keep me on track to finish the last chapter before it needs to go up on the platform.
Join the Journey: Explore "Wayfarers" on Kindle Vella
If you’d like to check out Kindle Vella, maybe check out a few chapters of my book, start here: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-vella/episode/B0C758RNCN
And if you do like the book, don’t forget to do all those important things:
- “Like” each chapter!
- Leave a comment in the chapters you like!
- “Follow” the book to get notified of new updates!
- Review the book (those 5-star reviews really do mean a lot!)
- At the end of the month, when Amazon asks you what your favorite Vella ‘episode’ was, pick one from “Wayfarers!”