The Sad Truth About Serial Fiction Platforms Part 1 — Substack
Charlotte, I have a lot to say. This is the kind of conversation I like to have over a cortado in a noisy coffee shop.
I’m going to publish serially here on Substack next year. In terms of timing, I will only publish once the book has been edited and beta read, just like my normal publishing process. After the serial release (chapter a week?) is complete, I will publish on Amazon (ebook and paperback) and give my paid subscribers their signed paperback. My serial releases will be free. I’m not worried about folks forwarding or copying and pasting. I agree with Hugh Howey on this one: getting wide readership is more important than copyright and profit. Once your books are popular, the money will come.
There’s too much to unpack regarding your excellent and thorough article, but I will say that the more we (long form fiction writers) publish here the better the interface will become. Particularly if we demand improvements. Substack wants to make money. So they will continue to innovate if it increases revenue. And that helps us writers too.
I agree, Substack has a way to go regarding serial fiction. It was obviously designed for non-fiction. Regardless, I wrote my second novella one chapter at a time on Substack.
I put it in its own Section so it had a built in index. And I pinned chapter 1 to the top of the section index. I also included links to the next chapter at the end of each chapter.
Unfortunately, Sections are only visible in a browser. App users don’t see them.
One thing I loved about my writing a novel live experiment was I got helpful comments that offered suggestions and caught typos. It was like a group beta read.
But Substack does need to add serial features before it becomes an ideal place for serial fiction. Especially to the app. As reading on an iPad is more like reading a book. If that is what people still want. Future readers may not care as less people read physical books.
Hey Charlotte! I would read a novel via e-mail or the Substack app, but I admit that there are issues with this. I've also used Kindle Vella. I have no experience with Radish.
I think the biggest issue that any author faces is the habits of your readers. Why do people want paragraph indents? Page flips? Some large part of the motivation to want those things is simply because we've always had them. I wish Substack would replicate Medium's rich formatting here. They have improved things a lot, but I would still like drop caps and paragraph indents as you have mentioned.
The navigation issues can be overcome... it's just a very manual process. As you've pointed out, Elle probably has the best lay out for her novels, but that's because she's put in the work. I believe that even her pages may not be as good as they could be. I say that because I believe Substack has released additional navigation tools while she was actively writing her first book. So, she'd have to go back through every single chapter to add them... which would no doubt be quite tedious.
During one of Substack's recent Office Hours an engineer announced the availability of Forward and Back buttons. This was a feature created specifically for serialized content. I asked about the possibility of creating an Index button that would lead people to a Table of Contents and he said that it's already possible to do this. All you have to do is to create a special page that contains your table of contents with links to the relevant chapters. Then, make a button that links to that page. Include that button with all of your stories. That's not a perfect solution, but it is an improvement.
Whether you should release a paid version here or wait? That's a tough call. I would mention that it's okay to release an e-book first and then come back later for print or audio. A lot of traditional publishing houses operate like that. No reason you have to release everything on the same day.
The other thing worth pointing out is that Substack doesn't have an exclusivity clause in their contract. So, you're free to upload your novel to as many places as you like.
Hopefully, some of that is helpful.
Great analysis! Given Substack's innovation and responsiveness, I'm sure it's only a matter of time until the platform becomes more conducive to reading fiction.
I'm also curious about, and need to do more research on, the other aspects of serialized fiction publishing - e.g. frequency of publication, subscription prices, whether or not a publication also sends out posts other than the serial fiction, etc.
Charging a monthly fee and, let's say, publishing a novel over the course of a year ends up being much pricier for the reader than just buying a novel outright.
Also, while as a writer the thought of publishing fiction on Substack excites me, as a reader, I must confess, not so much! (Due to both the serial and digital aspects of the reading experience).
I feel the same way, but I also know that I feel that way because I am used to the book format. Readers in the 19th century only read via serial, often waiting months in between chapters.
Still, I have considerably adapted my reading style since the Substack app came out. I now do more reading in my Substack app than I do in my Kindle app, which has meant that now I read more essays than I do books. And I read more fiction chapters or short stories than I do full novels now. I also much prefer the continuous scroll (page flipping on a phone or iPad drives me crazy).
Because of this, I think it’s less about reading a novel on Kindle vs. Substack, but more about redefining the novel (do you really need to start at the beginning or can you enjoy this one vignette? This one thought or idea?)
I do think the web version is much easier to navigate than the app version. And I’ll have to take that into consideration as I layout my chapters. (Also, FWIW, I would totally write more often if I was doing this full time, but I am not!)
Well dang, this really got me thinking about future fiction strategies... Thanks for this review, it seems right on the money.
What a great article, Charlotte! I did read one book on Substack. I waited until it was over and then read it within a week. I had ALL the issues you mentioned here. The most frustrating was when I would stop reading mid chapter and when I went back I had to scroll up and down to find where I left at the previous day. It was so frustrating that sometimes I would just give up and read the chapter again from the beginning.
The ONLY reason why I finished this novel on Substack is because the novel was very well written. Had that no been the case, I would've given up after the first couple of chapters.
So yeah, reading fiction on Substack is a no no.
Thank you for making this petition. I would be glad to sign it.
The answer could even be as simple as a new feature like the magazine Style-Theme. They paid out all that money for those big time authors, now they need to capture the market for long form serials by making it user friendly.
Thanks for this thoughtful exploration ... it’s really useful. I largely agree with your critique of the Substack features. I’ve got a mechanism I use to enable the next chapter issue, but it’s not perfect (partly my inconsistency). As for the downward scroll, yeah--it promotes skimming. I have to force myself not to skim and that’s no good. As for paying ... such a hard subject! I’m oversubscribed, on Substack and beyond, so I’m not even considering adding another ... and that would leave me to say, I wouldn’t pay for yours (but I would at least consider it if I read the first couple chapters free and got hooked.)
Bookmarking for future consideration, this looks interesting.
I made it to the Kansas River and died of dysentery.
I don’t know if HTML is the culprit, but being online definitely plays a part. So many dings and notifications and “I could be playing that one game right now.”