Monday, October 14, 2013

One Novel, Four Books: The Case for Episodic Novels

Question: How does the independent publisher maximize their writing output and maintain fresh exposure in the market?

Answer: You have two choices. You can quit your day job and spend every minute writing or you can release episodic novels.

According to several independent publishers that I've listened to over the past few weeks, releasing a novel in parts might be the best option. While there is some logic to this method, there are some potential drawbacks too. I'd like to explore the idea here to give you something to think about for your own books. Hopefully writing this out will also help me wrap my head around the idea too.

What is an Episodic Novel?

Let's say you wrote an amazing novel of about 75,000 words. In a standard novel, you release the whole thing at once. The story succeeds or fails in the market and you move on to the next project. This method has worked for books since Gutenberg launched his printing press start up and is a completely viable method today.

But the same story could also be an episodic novel. You could take the 75,000 story and break it into several smaller segments. It could be three sequential 25,000 word novellas corresponding to the beginning, middle and end of the story (See Build a Better Novel: The Narrative Framework). In extreme cases, you could have one release for each chapter, breaking your 75,000 word book into 20 or more short story releases. The final configuration is up to you and the appetite of your readers.

While it might sound strange, episodic story telling is standard in certain types of media. Television and comics are just two media models based on a story that develops over several episodes and then sold as a collection when the story is done. Movies also had this format in the past, where a hero would jump from one ten minute cliffhanger to the next. Many independent publishers are also starting to embrace this method, creating different positive and negative results. 

The Benefits of the Episodic Novel
  • You increase the size of your catalog without having to write any faster.
  • You create multiple points of entry in the market for potential readers to find you.
  • You create anticipation among your established readers as they anticipate each new release.
  • You can generate several revenue streams for the same story.
  • You constantly have new product in the market which raises your chances for sales.
  • Each shorter story can be priced lower than a full novel

The Downside of Episodic Novels
  • The cost of producing each novel increases, since you need to pay for marketing (See Marketing the Independent Novel) and cover design (See Judging a Book by its Cover) for several releases instead of just one. 
  • Your potential audience may shrink with each subsequent release if the narrative doesn't maintain the momentum to keep people coming back. 
  • Your writing style might not be conducive to natural breaks needed in episodic writing
  • Your readers might balk at having to pay several times to get one story.

My Approach to Episodic Novels

My writing style lends itself to episodic writing. Working for companies like Marvel, and organizing my stories into a detailed plot structure (See Building a Better Novel: Plot Construction) works to my advantage here. I write so that each chapter and each act is a story in and of itself. It's connected to the larger narrative, but I try to make them able to stand on their own. 

Based on that, I've decided to try the episodic approach with my next novel, A Taste of Honey (See Taste of Honey Beta Request) with the following plan:

  • Have the novel edited as one unit to keep some of the costs fixed (See How Much Does It Cost to Publish a Book)
  • Separate the novel into three different books, making it clear in the subtitle that the books are related
  • Release the first book for free to attract new readers in February (See Selling Books like a Drug Dealer)
  • Release the next two books one month apart (in March and April), focusing my marketing budget on one book at a time
  • Release the entire story in print and e-book as a full novel, one month after the third book comes out. As an extra incentive, the full novel will be cheaper than buying all three books and will include an extra bonus short story.

So what do you think as a writer? Does it make sense for you to release a standard novel or an episodic one?

What do you think as a reader? Do you want standard novels, or would you prefer smaller, cheaper releases over time?

Have fun. 

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  1. As a writer I had no choice but to release as an episodic, split up in 3 books. Even this had been a stretch as the books average 250 000 words each. Mega Sagas as fans call them. But still, they want their Han-fix and are waiting eagerly for the next book to be released end of November 2013.

    1. So your full work was 750,000 words? Did you plan it as a trilogy, or is this just one story in a larger narrative?

      Thanks for sharing.

      P.S. Did you release a paperback version of your book? I shudder to think of what the printing cost per copy might be...

    2. Actually all three books together are 816000 words. I was aware from the beginning that I have to write 10 parts for the book (with another book constantly 'running' in the background which is also turning out to be a trilogy of about the same mega size). I originally did not have an idea that the story would be so comprehensive but it made an automatic trilogy, which turned out great for me. The first 2 books should have been one book, but it was just too much to keep together. The split made the books independent from each other and each book brings its own story line and flavour as well as having a rounded ending. The 3rd book is a follow-on from the first two and is really a nice-to-have. There are a few books following on the initial trilogy but they are still in draft. The first trilogy of Chronicles of Han have been published as e-books as well as limited PAPERBACK for those fans that want 'to touch, to feel, to see, to treasure'. I only print paperback versions as is needed so sometimes there is a waiting list, but mostly the paperback versions are ordered in advance before going to print. Printing costs are high, so the printed books are basically sold to recover the printing costs (approx 26 US$).

    3. Interesting. How long did it take you to write 816,000 words? Did you write the entire triliogy in one shot, or were there breaks in between.

      I've never written that much. (I doubt I ever will) so I'm fascinated by the scope of your narrative.

      Thanks for sharing.

    4. Hi Gamal.
      Thanks for the question and interest.

      How long did it take me to write the books?
      I cannot say for sure, a book takes about a year from 'start' to publish, sometimes a bit more due to editing. If you take actual hours written, it probably took about four to six months to complete each book as a good, uninterrupted day can lead up to between 5000-7500 words and if I push it, more.
      Unfortunately, it is the editing process that takes the longest. It is a lot of pages to work through! Repeatedly!
      Thus far all the books only needed minor adjustments and sometimes extra explanations to be worked into the stories. It does help that I had worked in the printing and typesetting industry, therefore type the books directly as they are going to look on publication. I always keep the reader and the finished product in mind.

      Did I write the Trilogy in one shot?
      Yes, well, sort of. I always end up working in more than one book at a time (refer to my Behind the Scene Blogs on my website). Currently we are busy with the last bit of editing of Leilaka, still, I am full steam ahead into the next adventure of Saving Leilaka, having the third book (Return to Leilaka) running around in my head as well. I do find it frustrating that I do not have enough time to give my undivided attention to each book.
      I think that if I had time, I would have been able to just sit and type all day (and sometimes do - through the night). One lifetime does not seem to be enough time to write all the stories I wish to tell. I write around normal work, motherhood, household chores, day to day life, etc. It can be exasperating, for one moment you are so far away and then have to come back to 'this life' because someone needs your attention. Despite all this, I am writing as fast as time in-between everything else allows.

      Were there breaks in between?
      No, not really. I did take a short breather this year after the initial release of a condensed version of the Leilaka Trilogy (book 4/5/6) while waiting for comments. The story was received favourably and fans asked if they could please have this Trilogy, so that is what I am busy with at the moment.

      Thanks for this discussion. This makes for another great blog entry. Would you mind if this goes onto my new FAQ section I am working on?

      Kind Regards

  2. I don't mind at all. I'm always interested in hearing about how other authors approach their craft and I fully support cross pollination of author blogs. ;-)

    Congratulations on being so productive and still maintaining a non-writing life. It's an inspiration to know how much can get done to get our stories told.

    Have fun.