Subscription Based Serial Fiction (Direct to Reader): Has the Time Come?

iphone-ereaderThe Holy Grail (for some) seems nearer to hand than ever before. The time is ripe, the technology is there. Storytellers since the beginning of time have been drawn to episodic narrative. Great characters demand repeat stories be told of them. And the audience loves to keep coming back for more.

Subscription and the Written Word

The most cunning and successful model for monetizing serial fiction has always been subscription. In recent history this was most evident in newspaper and magazine. The upfront promise of payment by consumers made the publication of the story possible, while the routine and regularity of the media delivered tantalizing snippets in a convenient manner. It was a win/win.

The times have changed. The desire to tell and enjoy good stories hasn’t. Television, and more recently platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, continue to emphasize our love of serialized and episodic story. When it comes to visual media, we consumers receive the best of both worlds–we can allow the storyteller to tease us along on a weekly basis, or we can gorge at the trough of story by watching multiple episodes until our bleary eyes explode.

But what about the written story? Web fiction has quietly been popular in small circles of readers for a decade. The Kindle Store created an epic shift in the digital storytelling landscape by breaking down the gates and trampling the gatekeepers. Now readers have more direct access to writers than ever before.

In 2012, the inevitable finally came to fruition when Amazon created an online store specifically for serial fiction. It became possible for consumers to pay a small upfront cost and then receive regular installments/episodes of serial fiction delivered directly to their kindle ereading devices or apps.

Amazon: The New Gatekeepers

Due to their trailblazing ingenuity and business acumen, Amazon is the new gatekeeper for serial fiction in the digital storytelling era. As such, they have accepted around 30 titles into their serial store since it’s launch. While they provide great value to the reader, they provide lousy compensation to the writer (30% royalty on $1.99 for somewhere between 250 to 500 pages worth of fiction).

Because of this bottleneck, serial storytellers such as myself are searching for work arounds. David Wright and Sean Platt have been working around the problem since before the Kindle Serial Store was born. They work exclusively in episodic serial fiction. But they’ve been forced to package their serials as separate products of around 50 to 100 pages each and sell them for $0.99. (Eventually they package them as seasons and create yet another product.) This means they still only get 30% royalty and that readers have to keep coming back for dozens of separate purchases.

Amazon is fine with the arrangement, since they are walking away with 70% of each purchase. But it’s more labor for readers (and takes up more space on their devices). And it is more labor for storytellers who have to manage backend data for each product/episode and create art/covers for each.

Serial Fiction Needs the Subscription Covenant

At the heart of the matter is the fundamental breakdown of the subscription covenant between reader and writer. Without the subscription there is no good-faith contract and therefore less relationship between the reader and writer. The subscription model creates a bond in which the reader tells the writer, “I support your vision. I’m eagerly awaiting the story you have to tell.” And the writer is able to look the reader in the eye and say, “Here’s your story. I’m writing this just for you.”

And this sentiment isn’t simply a bunch of fart gas. The connectivity between reader and writer today allows for genuine crowd sourcing. The subscription model of serial fiction allows readers to influence the direction of the story (if both reader and writer desire it).

Breaking Down the Gates. Again.

If (there could be some debate over this) the holy grail of digital written narrative is subscription-based serials delivered directly from the writer to the reader’s ereading device of choice at the reader’s convenience, then there are three critical hurdles to overcome in achieving the grail.

  • Creating compelling serial fiction
  • Securing eyeballs
  • Direct-loading content with push notifications

The first of these is a craft problem and the first responsibility of any storyteller. (I believe I have cleared this first hurdle with my serial, The Green Ones.) The second hurdle is a marketing problem. The third is a technical one. All three are serious problems to which I have given serious thought and research.

In the coming weeks, I’ll continue my efforts to solve the marketing and technical problems. If I succeed in solving the technical problem, I’ll launch a marketing campaign to subscribe 5,000 sets of eyes for the consumption of my serial, The Green Ones. If I’m able to do that, I’ll be more than happy to share libations from the grail!

In my next post I’ll delve into the nitty gritty of my efforts thus far to solve the technical problem of providing the reader with serial content in a professional, direct and supremely convenient manner. So stay tuned! (If any of you reading this have also been struggling to unlock this mystery sound off in the comments.)

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