Now that electronic books have become a fixture in our digital culture, the publishing world has resurrected a previously defunct publishing format: The serial novel. I own a Kindle and have discovered this format through David J. Schwartz’s Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing. I receive a new chapter (episode) about every two weeks and so far, I’ve enjoyed reading these novels. Waiting for the next installment provides some delayed gratification excitement when reading these serials, and the ready for download notices I receive in my inbox make checking my email a little more fun.
So how and why did the serial novel begin? Serialization began in the 1600’s and reached its height in Britain in the 1800’s. In Victorian England, the middle class could not afford to buy a novel in its entirety. To make these purchases affordable, magazines and newspapers published novels in monthly, sometimes weekly installments. Eventually, a buyer possessed an entire novel, with the cost of the novel spread out over a year or a year and a half.1
With serialization, authors and illustrators had to meet monthly deadlines and they developed several strategies to meet those deadlines. Some writers submitted an entire novel to the newspaper or magazine and published the novel in monthly installments. Other writers submitted their work as the novel unfolded, ending unknown.2 With this latter publishing strategy, an author’s illness or death could prevent a novel’s completion. An excellent example of this situation is Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens completed many of his serial novels in twenty monthly installments, but The Mystery of Edwin Drood was to be completed in twelve monthly installments. Unfortunately, Dickens died in 1870 and only six installments were completed.3 Several authors since then have attempted to complete this novel, but due to Dickens’s death, Edwin Drood’s murder will remain unsolved.
Serial publication hit its peak in the late 1800’s in Britain, but now in the early 21st century, serial publication is making a come back. As in Victorian times, serial publication makes purchasing novels more affordable. For two or three dollars, a customer can download as many episodes that are currently available for a particular novel. Unlike readers in Victorian times who had to pay for each installment, 21st readers receive future installments (episodes) for free.
And with that, I will now download the latest episodes of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib and Indexing.
1. [“Victorian Serial Novels.” University Victoria Libraries Units and Collections. University Victoria Libraries, 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 31 July 2013.]↩
2. [“Victorian Serial Novels.”]↩
3. [Brattin, Joel J., Prof. “Project Boz – Dickens & Serial Fiction.” Project Boz. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, n.d. Web. 31 July 2013.]↩