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How the Amazon Kindle Serials Program Works (with Roberto Calas)

17 January 2013

Roberto Calas (author of the Kindle Serial “The Scourge”) talks about his experience with Kindle Serials:

I just wrote a novel. Literally. I finished it this week. The funny thing is, it has been an Amazon Bestseller for two months.

Welcome to the relentless world of serials.

Each episode had to be somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 words. And each episode would be due two weeks after the last one.

If I can’t write 4,000 words a week, what kind of writer am I?

Except that it wasn’t just writing 4,000 words a week. I had to produce 8,000 words of completely polished writing every two weeks. Imagine writing one tiny novel every fourteen days, with all the angst and joy that goes with it.

With all the deadlines and stress and moments of panic and rushing around, you might think the novel would end up as a steaming pile of literary dog feces that readers step on rather than read.

It is the best thing I have ever written.

And I think the readers think so too.

You can read the whole thing over at Lindsay Buroker’s blog where Calas was a guest poster.

This story reminds of a question/comment I made about 10 months ago: http://www.thepassivevoice.com/03/2012/altered-art-books-2/#comment-26545. I suggested that it might be possible to apply the lessons of Agile Software Development to writing. Compare the list in my comment with the list that Calas put in his post (he added a bit of “color commentary”).

Guest post by William Ockham



28 Comments to “How the Amazon Kindle Serials Program Works (with Roberto Calas)”

  1. I love this idea. The story form itself is nothing new. Shoot, newspapers used to publish serial fiction. Digital is the perfect medium for serial fiction. Why not? We’re a few generations into television watchers who enjoy episodic stories, and part of the enjoyment comes from the delayed gratification in having to wait a week or two to find out what happens next, not to mention the discussions with friends and coworkers and virtual friends online. Look at series like Lost or the Walking Dead (both of which had some serious problems, but I’m talking about the basic idea and the mass appeal)

    But it’s tough to do. It’s no place for newbies. The skills and discipline have to be in place and meeting those short deadlines is a bear, not to mention being able to stay focused on a big story arc while keeping each installment self-contained and satisfying. That takes serious talent.

    As for the money, with digital publishing it could be a gold mine. It’s possible in ways that are impossible for the traditional publishers.

    Be a crazy way to make a living, but it could be very satisfying.

  2. @William Ockham: I see no reason whatsoever that Agile methodology couldn’t applied to something like this, especially if the writer is an outliner. Once upon a time, I wrote doc for a multinational software firm and the best thing we ever did was switch to Agile. Like you brought up in your other comments, it resulted in better software with fewer defects that was ready to ship more often. It’s not too hard to imagine these concepts being used in other production environments with similar results. The only thing that’s missing that I think probably should be there but isn’t is a scrum. I just don’t know how practical that could be when we’re talking about beta readers and other volunteers, and vendors who really aren’t in your employ.

    • I’ve run agile software projects with user volunteers, contract testers, and software vendor participation, so I think you could make it work in publishing. It does take commitment from the team. It almost certainly requires tools that allow remote participation. I like http://trello.com but there are many.

  3. I write what I call installments on my blog. I write paranormal romance. I have remained faithful to my Friday postings. It’s fun, I really like doing it. Of course doing this on my blog the readers get to read it for nothing. All be a small following they come back every week. I never thought of publishing something like this. I don’t know if it would work for my paranormal romance though.

    • I think the “give away the installments and then sell the completed work” is a very viable strategy. You push the final work to the internet retailers and you have a built in fan base to write reviews. You will be surprised at how many people who read for free will buy the ebook. The Kindle Serial is usually sold $1.99, but after the serial is finished, Amazon publishes the paper and ebook versions at a higher price.

  4. As someone who is distressed by clutter, I find that Kindle Serials do not work for me, at least not the way I perceive them to function. I wanted to read the new John Scalzi book, and it’s being released as a Kindle Serial or whatever you call it. I saw that I would have a pay a dollar for each installment. Okay, feels a little overpriced, but I’d consider buying an installment or two to see if it’s worth it.

    But wait a minute. Doesn’t my Kindle get all cluttered up with a jillion “episodes” of this book? And in the end, I won’t have a complete book, will I? I’ll just have these dozen episodes that are all separate instead of nicely put together. My Science Fiction Kindle folder will be a mess. It will have some books in it and then all these episodes mixed in, probably in some random order that I can’t control. If I want the complete ebook in the end, I bet the publisher won’t give it to me for free just for buying all the episodes. I bet I’ll have to buy the book all over again.

    I’m too much of a neat freak for this. I’ll wait for the complete book or just get it from the library.

    • Amy,

      That isn’t the way Kindle Serials work. You pay once and the episodes are delivered regularly. Moreover, there is no clutter. The book just gets new chapters added to it. At the end, the ebook is indistinguishable from any other book on your Kindle.

      I have bought a few Kindle Serials and I rather like the experience. You can wait til the book is complete to read it or you can read the episodes when they show up.

      • That sounds much more appealing. But I think this particular book is not being sold in that way? All I see is the individual first episode, priced at a dollar. I don’t see a way to buy the complete book and receive episodes as they’re released. Maybe it’s not officially a Kindle Serial. Here’s the link if anyone wants to look.


        The other issue is I share my Scalzi books with my teenager, and I normally buy such books in print (easier to share). I would be inclined to get it at the library or look for a freebie at a conference since I don’t buy hardcovers. Maybe wait for paperback. But this one is being sold without DRM, so less of an issue.

        • The Scalzi book is being released serially by Tor Books and not by Amazon Publishing (the traditional publishing arm of Amazon), so the pricing structure is different. The Kindle Serials are a single charge of $1.99 for the whole book.

          • Okay, thanks (all) for the information. What I’m taking away here is that Kindle Serials is pretty cool, but the functionality they offer is not available to anyone except Amazon’s own publishing arm. Neither self-publishers nor traditional publishers can publish a serial novel that is purchased in advance all at once, distributed automatically as the author releases each chapter, and automatically collated into a single ebook. Self-publishers and traditional publishers (except for Amazon) must publish each excerpt as, essentially, a short story that forever remains a separate entity on the e-reader. Am I right?

            • An author could try to do their own “serial” in one book, releasing an updated file every X amount of time, and in theory you might be able to alert your readers that This Book Has Been Updated… But I would be VERY LEERY of this trick, since new people would undoubtedly buy the thing and freak out that they’d paid (however much) for a book that was not complete RIGHT THEN, and complain, return it, and leave bad ratings.

              Someone with a good fanbase might manage (because the fans would do “WONDERFUL SERIAL! NO, NOT COMPLETE YET!” reviews to push the “rip-off scam” reviews off a bit). The author might have text in the book of, “Subscribe to my mailing list (____@_____.___) to get notifications of when the book is updated!” But I wouldn’t do it as a debut stunt, personally.

        • Hi Amy. William has it right. The Scourge cost $1.99 for all eight episodes. Every two weeks a new episode is added to the current book and the book itself updates, so if you were at 99% read, you will be at 60% read, or whatever the number would be. You also get an email telling you that your book has been updated. Works really well and is quite tidy =)

    • I think you are referring to the way self-pub serials work. This is via the amazon publishing arm if i am reading correctly, so they can keep things pretty. If anyone knows whether kdp allows serials like this please chime in. Alternatively, couldn’t the author just republish he work with each installment (same publication, different file – like a revision) and everyone following could refresh their file manually? I have no experience with a kindle book i downloaded gettig revised so i don’t know if you get an alert that a revised version is available. Or does it auto-sync?

      • I’d like to know this too, although not for its use in serials. More from a QA perspective. I sometimes discover a typo or two (no matter how many proofreaders have been through the ms.) after I publish an ebook. So I correct them.

        As far as I can tell, the purchasers are not notified that there is a corrected version available. So…do they simply carry on with the earlier version? Or do the corrections automatically go through?

        • J.M.,

          The answer to your QA question is that it depends on the retailer. Amazon generally doesn’t push out an update to previous purchasers unless they decide it’s “major”.

          With Kindle Serials, I am fairly certain (just based on what I know about the technology involved) that they are pushing out completely a completely new file for each episode even though the user experience is that your book just got a couple of chapters longer. The technical explanation is complicated, but that’s pretty much how it has to work.

          One of the many things that I would like to see improved in the ebook ecosystem is an opt-in auto-update. The truth is most users read a book once and they are done. Readers generally don’t want your fixes when they have finished, but the ones who do, really want them. I have maybe 10 books out of a few hundred on my Kindle that I would want updated automatically.

      • Hi Lily,

        Yes, the price is $1.99 for the entire book, all 8 episodes, and each episode is auto-delivered every two weeks. Amazon Publishing sends out an email letting the reader know that the latest episode of the story is available. Hope that helps!

  5. There are two guys who have been doing the Serial concept for 18 months now – and doing pretty well out of it. Their names are David Wright and Sean Platt – and you’ll find them at Collective Inkwell – they share a lot of interesting information for writers in a podcast they do every week – The Self Publishing Podcast. Warning: the podcast is a bit blokey and if you’re offended by swearing this isn’t for you.

    They talk about their serials in the language of ‘TV’ – so each serial is a ‘Season’ and each installment is an episode. Their pricing model is interesting too for the serials they publish themselves – each ‘episode’ is 2.99 during a season’s live run, and then is bundled as a complete book for I think $4.99 or $5.99 once all six episodes of their serial are complete.

    And they work in the smaller, self contained sections that William refers to. Once they have finished a complete season they often have the first episode on permanent ‘free’ as a taster. Anyway, they’ve written and talked about their model plenty on their podcast. If you’re interested in writing serials, they’re definitely worth checking out.

  6. Interesting. It’s really fun that the internet and digital formats are opening up creative options!

  7. I’ve been writing a weekly serial for about 70 weeks now, each one coming up at 6-10k words. I can completely agree that it is brutal keeping up with that schedule. I made a lot more mistakes but I had the offer of beta readers which helped reduce the magnitude of the errors.

    It is a lot of fun but I definitely have experience fatigue of writing that often with a deadline. Of course, most writers probably would have stopped earlier but I wanted to get the story out even if it meant 500k words.

    One thing I found helpful is being able to retroactively make changes (and add hooks). The format I’m doing now doesn’t allow that, so if I don’t get it right the first time, I have to live with it.

    Now, if I could get paid, that would be even better. I think the Kindle Serials would be fun to do (later).

    • Moonfire,

      That’s one of the drawbacks to this style of writing. Once an episode has been through copy editing all changes are locked. So if you think of a brilliant idea in episode 5 that needs to be foreshadowed in episode 2, you are out of luck. But it does make you think in broad terms about the story and I think it has sharpened my writing focus tremendously.

      • It is, but I’ve done this serial thing twice and it comes out pretty well. I love that I have to plan all the little hooks in the story as I write, even when I’m not sure how the story is going to end out.

        In the first serial, the only thing I ever had to backtrack was changing one character’s name. In the current, there were a few scenes I wanted to add (mostly for flavor) but I’ll leave them for the “full novel”.

        • Moonfire – I would love to know what your serial is? Is it online or are you publishing them somewhere as pieces? If you haven’t already, I’d suggest listing them at Webfiction Guide and Muses’s Success as well. BTW – Your pace is pretty great! I manage 1/3 of that… and as such, it is taking far longer to complete my stuff. 🙂

          • It’s for a private forum. This serial (and the last) were basically fund-raiser gifts. I don’t get paid for it (except in delicious comments) but I wanted to help so I donated a 180k and 500k word serial (respectively, though the 500k was *suppose* to be 200k, *sigh* I fail at word counts).

            I’ll check that site (sites?). I never heard of them, but I’m thinking about making my next serial public (or something like the Kindle Serial).

            My pace is only good because I type 100+ word per minute, have an obsession worthy of legend, and a very tolerant spouse. It might be slightly more impressive since I actually wrote another novel last year along with a number of stories.

  8. I am a new writer, and I feel like this would be perfect for me. I really want the episode by episode input from my audience. So, here’s me wondering –

    Are Amazon Kindle Serials like any other publishing house? What are their standards for accepting and rejecting proposals? Any idea how difficult it is to get accepted?

    • Vince,

      The link for submitting to Kindle Serials is:


      Roberto posted this in the original article.

      Good luck!

    • Hi Vince,

      47North, aside from being owned by Amazon Publishing, is a very traditional publisher. The acquisitions editor that I dealt with came over from Random House. Many of their writers are well-established authors in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror field. But when you submit to a publisher, you eliminate the agent step and get an immediate sale. So, there’s that. Not sure if the serials are easier, harder or the same to get into as the standard titles, but since the serials become standard titles afterward, I imagine it’s probably about the same. Best of luck with your submission!

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