The serious business of Kindle Serials

With Kindle Serials, Amazon hopes to reinvent a format that already exists. Jeff Bezos dragged out the obligatory Dickens reference at the LA press conference, but serial fiction had a presence online before Amazon (and a presence offline after Dickens: Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” and Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City,” for instance). The website Tuesday Serial compiles links to many online serials and offers advice about writing them. Authors like Claudia Christian and Lyn Thorne-Alder have written online serials for years. And longform journalism site and e-singles publisher Byliner launched Byliner Serials last month.

What’s new this time around is that Amazon is using a pay-once model: A user who buys the first installment in a serial automatically gets all of the others for free. Serials are being run out of Amazon’s West Coast publishing division – along with its imprints like Thomas & Mercer and 47North – while Kindle Singles are based on the East Coast.

Amazon has eight Kindle Serials for sale so far. In some cases, it’s tapping authors who’ve previously published books with Amazon Publishing. (“I got the gig because Thomas & Mercer picked my previous novel, Jewball, off the KDP self-publishing pile, and we all got along,” Neal Pollack, the author of a Kindle Serial called “Downward-Facing Death,” wrote in the book’s online forum.) Three are from a startup called Plympton. The company was cofounded by former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8 Lee and novelist Yael Goldstein Love. For the three titles, Amazon paid Plympton up front for a licensing deal that includes digital, print and audio world rights for a limited time.

Prior to the Amazon deal, Plympton had planned to pay its authors $500 an episode plus a bonus, but that changed with the deal — which was lucrative enough, Lee says, the company is “profitable, for now,” and will be able to pay those authors five-figure fees. There’s also a revenue split on serials sold. Amazon pays Plympton royalties directly, and Plympton then splits them with the author.

Kindle Singles and Kindle Direct Publishing offer authors a 70-30 royalty split in most cases. When I asked Jeff Belle, VP of Amazon Publishing, whether the split is the same for Kindle Serials, he didn’t give me a direct answer. “We are offering compelling terms, which will vary based on the proposed work,” he said.

“The third-episode problem”

Claudia Hall Christian is the author of “Denver Cereal,” a long-running online serial that is published daily in 500-word segments and gets 50,000 readers a month. Christian, who has been writing “Denver Cereal” for four years, is a bit skeptical of Kindle Serials. “I think it’s a marketing and advertising strategy,” she said. “Can the authors they’ve chosen actually write serial fiction? The problem with writing serial fiction is that it’s hard.” She hopes that Amazon will tap authors who’ve been writing in the format for a long time.

Plympton’s Goldstein Love echoed Christian’s comments that writing serials is hard. “We have really come across a lot of what we’re calling the third episode problem,” she told me. “It’s a lot easier to write a brilliant first episode of something. In your second episode, you’re continuing that. In the third episode, you realize you have no idea where this is going. It’s a real danger with writing serially. We won’t sign anyone on fully until we see how the first three [episodes] go.”

Amazon exclusives?

Amazon talked with Byliner about including its titles in the Kindle Serials launch. Byliner “had no problem with the pay-once model,” the company’s editor-in-chief Mark Bryant told me, but didn’t want to accept Amazon’s exclusivity requirement. Byliner authors “want their work to be available everywhere, in all the digital bookstores and on every device,” Bryant said. (Many Byliner e-singles are also available as Kindle Singles, but they’re not exclusive to Amazon.) Byliner will still sell individual installments of its serials in the broader Kindle store. Installments are $2.99 apiece.

Going forward, Lee isn’t sure whether Plympton and Amazon will make another deal. “We do not know what we are going to do going forward,” she told me. “But [Amazon] really cares about this format.” All eight Kindle Serials are offered at an “introductory” price of $1.99, which will rise over time, though Amazon’s Belle wouldn’t tell me by how much the increase will be. “It’s still early and we have a lot to learn,” he said. “But what we can say is that we think Serials will always be a great value for readers and a great opportunity for authors.”

Ultimately, writing a serial is a lot of work and takes more time than writing an e-single. “Downward-Facing Death” author Pollack explained a little more about the editorial process in a post for the Huffington Post:

Here’s what [my editor at Amazon] laid out: A book published in installments of 10 to 15 thousand words, over the course of a few months, with each segment ending in a moment of suspense or uncertainty. Each segment would be copy-edited, and edited for content if necessary. Then, when the whole thing was done, the book would get another complete edit, and would be issued in a full Kindle edition as well as a paperback one. The whole process would take about six months.

Further, each Kindle Serial is a flat price – with multiple episodes priced about the same as just one Kindle Single, for now. It seems that Amazon will have to invest more money in this format than it has in Kindle Singles: It has to pay authors more because they are writing more, and it either has to sell the Serials at a significantly higher price accordingly or take a loss. Since it doesn’t appear to be offering the 70/30 revenue split that it does on Kindle Singles and KDP titles, it might also have to pay authors more money up front. So Kindle Serials could be a bigger investment for Amazon than Singles have been.

Jeff Belle doesn’t doubt the pay-once strategy. “We thought this would be the best customer experience for reading a digital serial,” he told me. “in the end, if you focus on the best possible customer experience, the revenue will follow.”