Modern reading audiences are accustomed to reading fiction in novel format, but that wasn't always the case. At the turn of the 20th century, another format of fiction was a key distribution method for getting fiction in the hands of readers. That format was serialized fiction. In terms speculative fiction stories—that is, science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, which are of particular interest to readers of this column—serialized fiction has a long and interesting history. But just like readers sometimes don't have the time to read long novels, you may not have the time for a long, sordid history...so let me sum things up....
What Is Serial Fiction?
Serial fiction is a publishing model where a longer literary work is published in sequential fragments. Those smaller fragments are often called parts or episodes. Imagine a novel that published one chapter at a time in a weekly Sunday newspaper and you get the idea. Or better yet, translating the idea to television, think of a show with a season-long story arc and every week you can consume a new episode that contributes to larger story. That's the idea behind serialized fiction.
Serialized fiction has some advantages over novels. From a writing perspective, because the process is iterative, feedback on each episode is immediate. Writers can take that feedback and tweak the subsequent episodes to course-correct the plot or characterizations when they begin to stray. Once you write and publish an entire novel, it's too late for those changes. From a reading perspective, serialized fiction offers bite-size chunks that can be easily consumed before they wear out their welcome, undoubtedly a plus in these modern days of short attention spans.
How Serial Science Fiction Got Started and Kept Going
Charles Dickens is often credited with serialized fiction's rise to prominence during Britain’s Victorian Era in the 1800s with the serialized publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836. The publication of the story in a cheap weekly paper meant that fiction was no longer relegated to the upper class who could afford to splurge on novels. Serialized fiction thus increased the size of reading audiences.
By the early 20th century, that format was adopted in the United States as well. Magazines were a prevalent venue for fiction back then, and serial fiction—science fiction in particular—received a boon when Edgar Rice Burroughs serialized his novels Tarzan and A Princess of Mars. Both of these stories were later published as novels (in 1914 and 1917, respectively) and both were followed by numerous sequels, some of which were also serialized.
Other authors soon adopted the same publishing model. E.E. "Doc" Smith published his Skylark and Lensman series in serial format in the 1930s, for example. Even decades later, stories were getting published in serialized format. Some examples:
o Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement was published in 1954, but serialized the year before in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction (which later became known as Analog Science Fiction & Fact)
o Frank Herbert's Dune appeared in 1965, but the first part was serialized in the pages of Analog beginning in 1963.
o The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett, published in 1974, was first serialized in Wolds of If magazine earlier that same year.
o In 1977, George R.R. Martin serialized Dying of the Light in Analog magazine.
o In 1996, Stephen King serialized his novel The Green Mile by publishing the story as separate short books.
o Catherine Asaro's 2000 novel The Quantum Rose originally appeared in the pages of Analog in 1999.
o Karl Schroeder's 2006 novel Sun of Suns and its 2007 sequel Queen of Candesce were first serialized in the pages of Analog.
o Robert J. Sawyer serialized his 1995 novel The Terminal Experiment, his 2009 novel Wake, and his 2012 novel Triggers in the pages of Analog.
Serial Fiction's Future
Despite starting two centuries ago, serialized fiction shows no signs of dying off. If anything, the proliferation of the Internet has given it its second wind. The Internet only changes the delivery mechanism, not the publishing model. Instead of serial fiction appearing in the pages of magazines or published as separate books, stories are instead being delivered through computers, smartphones, and tablets. How's that for futuristic?
A recent example of this is the Shadow Unit series. Shadow Unit is described as a "contemporary science fiction series about a group of FBI agents struggling to protect humanity from the worst monsters imaginable." It's the brainchild of writers Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, and Amanda Downum. In addition to the stories themselves, Shadow Unit also offers interactive forums in which readers can engage. Shadow Unit is comprised of four seasons that you can read online or via the Kindle reading platform.
Another example is the serialized publishing platform provided by newcomer Serial Box. Their aim is to bring "the TV model of media production and delivery to the book world"...which is another way of conveying the idea of serial fiction to modern television-loving audiences. The first project they are offering is called Bookburners, which follows a black-ops anti-magic squad backed by the Vatican. The story is part urban fantasy, part police procedural, and a little bit of New Weird thrown in for good measure. It’s written by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. It promises to be a hoot.