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

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I’ve been kicking around with the idea of trying a serialized adventure, but with other projects on the table, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m intrigued, though, especially now that Kindle Serials has come along, creating an organized way to deliver serialized ebooks, so I invited Roberto Calas to talk about the program and how he got involved with Amazon. (I hadn’t realized independent authors could submit to the program without an agent or an invitation.)

Roberto Calas on 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.

amazon-kindle-serial-the-scourgeIn October of 2012 I was contacted by 47North, the sci-fi/fantasy imprint of Amazon Publishing. They were interested in a work-in-progress I had sent them about a knight searching for his lost bride in a demon-infested, fourteenth-century England. I didn’t realize it, but the clock in my head started ticking that day. (Note from Lindsay: you can read the submission policy and find out how to submit your own work here.)

And it didn’t stop until this week.

47North wanted a serial from me. Eight episodes of a novel. 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. It didn’t sound so bad then, and when I think about it, it doesn’t sound that bad to me now. 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.

Here’s a peek at the two-week cycle of a serial writer:

  1. Write eight to ten thousand words
  2. Worry that it wasn’t good enough
  3. Go over the writing two or three times
  4. Send the episode out to my beta readers and my fiancée
  5. Stress that this episode might be worse than the previous ones
  6. Wait for comments and suggestions
  7. Panic because the episode needs a lot of work.
  8. Consider changing my career. Pipefitter or stuntman maybe
  9. Make edits according to beta-reader/fiancée suggestions
  10. Send the new changes out to be beta read
  11. Make more changes according to beta-reader/fiancée suggestions
  12. Realize that I wouldn’t be making these damn changes if I didn’t send episodes out to beta readers.
  13. Apologize to my editor for the delay
  14. Go over the manuscript one last time
  15. Mentally ask for forgiveness from betas and thank them for making my book rock
  16. Send the whole thing to my editor
  17. Spot a problem on page nine; fix the problem
  18. Send new version to editor
  19. Get edits back from copy editor and make more changes
  20. Rinse and repeat

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. And I have to admit, at times I wondered what the hell I was doing scrambling around like a short-order cook. But you know what?

It is the best thing I have ever written.

And I think the readers think so too.

Why do I think this? Because the readers visit the Amazon discussion forums and let me know. Their feedback has been instant and amazing. As a novelist, there are times when you have doubts. When you wonder why you are writing this story. When you wonder if it is any good. And if a reader tells you that she or he loves the book and can’t wait for the next episode, it snaps you out of that funk. It energizes you and makes you realize that your audience is following along and cheering you onward and falling in love with what you are doing.

There can be no greater motivation for any writer.

It makes you work harder, write faster, strive for more, make each line you write the best line you have ever written. Because the words you type will be read by your audience only weeks after you send them in.

Weeks? Oh, lord. I better get started on book two of The Scourge. They’ll probably want the first episode soon!

Welcome to the relentless world of serials.

 * * *

An author of fantasy and historical fantasy, Roberto Calas lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. You can visit his blog or find him on Facebook or Twitter, and I’m sure he’d be tickled if you checked out The Scourge at Amazon.

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Comments (48)

Ooo that sounds like an interesting approach! Way to go!

Thanks! It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, but a fun one. One where you go upside down a lot. And hear people screaming. And go all twisty and fast. And feel a little queasy, but exhilarated afterward. Not sure this metaphor is working…

Interesting. Roberto, can you tell us what the advantages are of going with Amazon instead of putting out serials on your own? I’m sure they take a big cut of the earnings and it’s only selling at 1.99 right now. Are you selling a lot more and getting a lot more exposure by going with them?

Hi Aaron. Yes, the price point is low, and that was something I really thought about long and hard. But in the end, it’s Amazon Publishing, and it’s a fairly new program. There aren’t a ton of serials out yet, so when someone wants to read a fantasy as a serial, I’m one of two or three choices. The Scourge is currently #4 in paid historical fantasy. That’s great exposure. Best of all, I can get paid while I write the book. I don’t need to work for four or five months on a book, then spend a few months shopping it around. It’s not for everyone, but if you are looking to advance your career, it’s a fantastic option.

So far, they seem to be giving quite a bit of exposure to the serials. I also noticed that they raise the price on some of them from 1.99 to 3.99 once all the episodes are out.

Wow, that sounds like a hair-raising experiment, and an interesting story. Good luck to you! (You just found yourself another reader. 😉 )

Thanks Laura! Really appreciate the support. Please let me know what you think on the discussion forums or my blog!

Wow, it’s really good so far! I also have to say I LOVE the historical notes at the beginning of each installment. I’m a sucker for historicals playing with real history, and authors being transparent about their research.

Mmmm the 14th Century, also. 😀

Great to hear Laura! Someone doesn’t share your opinion. Just got trashed in the reviews. Ah well. Not everyone’s thing I guess. But I’m really glad you like it! Please let me know what you think as you read more episodes. Thanks very much!

It sounds interesting but like a lot of work for the 1.99 it’s priced at. Basically this is as long as an entire book, right? Does Amazon let you have a say on pricing?

Hi Kiri. Amazon currently prices most of its serials at $1.99, so I didn’t have a choice. But the exposure I am getting is invaluable. I could have put The Scourge up as an indie at $2.99 and made more money per sale, but sold fewer (by a buttload). And I wouldn’t be in the top ten of three different paid categories. I also get a huge cross-section of new readers who then give The Beast of Maug Maurai a look. And, lastly, when it runs its course as a serial, it gets new life in print, ebook and audio format, at a higher price point, on the 47North page. It was really a no-brainer when I sat down to look at the pros-versus-cons. It might not be the way to go for everyone, but in my situation, it was exactly what I needed. Good question. Is something that I thought through carefully before saying yes.

[…] today, at the home of Lindsay Buroker, Amazon Serials writer Roberto Calas wrote a very compelling blog post which was entertaining, enlightening, and made me want to revisit the […]

I love the idea of getting feedback while I’m writing a story from actual readers! That is amazing and just what I’m looking for.

I’m not all that fast of a writer and can’t imagine my beta readers being quick enough with their feedback that they’d give it to me on time, but I love this whole set up for so many reasons, even if it’s not perfect. (What is?)

I’d probably want to have a rough of the whole thing done (and run by beta readers) before sending episodes to Amazon, but I like to play things safe like that. Pressure, nope, not for me. 😛

Really? Fans threatening to lock you in a basement or take away your Twitter till you finish your next novel isn’t pressure? *amused* Though, granted, yours seems to be more in a choose-your-own-timeline sort…

Thanks, Roberto, for an excellent rundown on what’s involved in creating a serial for Amazon. I’ve been working on my own serial for the past six months. My intention has been to self-publish it at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, Apple etc. After considerable back and forth I’ve settled on a ten episode “season”, with each episode running 10K or so, save for the first, which is double sized, much like a television pilot. Does Amazon allow for different “sizing of episodes” in terms of word count, or do they prefer as close to uniform as possible?

I’ve considered releasing them as I go, but, like Lindsay, I’m leaning toward at least a draft of the whole serial done in advance.

Finally, I take it that the numbers for an exclusive with Amazon were good enough to compensate for forgoing all the other markets?

Thanks again for a great post!

Hi Dale. 47North’s structure, at least with my serial, is eight episodes of 8-10k each, although episode 8 is looking a bit longer =/. They like to keep the episodes fairly uniform, like a television series that is the same length each week.

Doing a draft first is a great idea. Although, one of the things I found was that reader comments sometimes allowed me focus more on one thing or another as I went. The readers seemed to love my character Tristan and kept saying they wanted more from him, so I gave him free run. Sometimes not having a whole draft is advantageous. Although I did have much of the end written, and had a clear idea of the scenes I wanted.

And yes, the exposure on Amazon is invaluable. Amazon is really pushing the serials and giving us a lot of play. My book might have languished in obscurity on lots of sites. Not saying that it definitely would have, but it’s possible. Amazon has power, and they were willing to put that power behind my book to make it succeed. I thought it was the better gamble.

Great questions! And good luck with your serial!

Yeah, no way I could pull that off without having the whole thing done and nearly 100% polished beforehand. Congrats on the success, Roberto! Now you have to scramble to capitalize on it!

Thanks Jim! having spent four years polishing my fantasy series, I can tell you that this was quite a change for me. In many ways, it really helped me. I have learned a lot about pacing and have a better sense of what needs to be in the story and what doesn’t. And I’ve completed an entire novel in three months. Certainly raises the bar on my productivity. And I’ll need that productivity to capitalize on The Scourge, like you said. Appreciate the support!

[…] in part from the success of her Emperor’s Edge series of books, published a blog post about Kindle Serials. Being in the throws of several books myself, I decided I wanted in on this phenomenon, for several […]

Thank you for the interesting blog post.

I am curious if you find yourself ending your episodes on cliffhangers or if you encapsulate each episode more or if you go back and forth between the two.

Does each episode end with a “To Be Continued” disclaimer?

Thank you

My editor at 47North encouraged me to end on a cliffhanger, and I agree. I want people to be looking forward to every episode. But I make sure I don’t contrive the cliffhangers. I find a place where the tension is high, then try to ratchet the tension up a little, then end it.

Sometimes I encapsulate an episode and other times I let the scene extend across two episodes. I think Amazon Publishing is looking at them as episodes of a TV series, so I try to keep that in mind. And the episodes don’t end with the “To Be Continued” thing exactly, but they do mention that the next episode will be auto-delivered when it is released. So, there’s the suggestion of that =)

Thanks very much for the interest!

[…] horror epic from Amazon serials.Calas has a terrific guest post over at Lindsay Buroker’s site this week on the process he went through in writing his still ongoing serial. I read this with great […]

Thanks very much for the kind words Dale!

This experience sounds like what we software geeks learned from “Agile Development”. I speculated 10 months ago that two week cycles for novelists could work:

http://www.thepassivevoice.com/03/2012/altered-art-books-2/#comment-26545

William, your list and my list are eerily similar. Yours beats mine in logic and clarity. Mine tops yours in neurosis. Really interesting that even the time periods are the same. Thanks for posting it to PV.

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

Congratulations , this whole thing seems to have worked out quite well for you!

Just one question, did 47N provide editor/cover/etc.?

Thanks Denise! Yes, the contract with 47North was a standard publishing contract. They provided a cover, copyediting, proofreading and some minor editorial direction.

[…] if I needed another project… I saw a guest post on Lindsay Buroker’s blog about the Kindle Serials program, and how it’s open to pitches from indie authors.  Do […]

[…] How the Amazon Kindle Serials Program Works (with Roberto Calas) | Lindsay Buroker […]

Thank you for breaking down your experience with the program. I’ve been serializing for two years online and when the program launched I had a lot of questions about what the program demanded and whether I could ever really apply. What you did was pretty tough. On my best weeks I would be on pace with you but it would be tough. Plotting that fast and liking what comes out actually is a challenge. (As such I could really only settle around posting 2000 words a week while working full time.)

How are you finding balancing other writing while writing a serial? I often found I couldn’t do much else because the next installment would kind of take over my creative space.

Yes, the pace of the writing it fairly hat-blowing-off fast. But once you get used to working like that, it truly focuses your writing and makes you better. Kind of like trying to juggle while running. When you slow down a little, regular juggling becomes amazingly simple.

It would be extremely difficult to pull off while working full time (unless you found a job where you could hide in the closet and write all day). That said, it can be done. If you can write about 1,200 words a day, you would be over 8,000 in a week. That would leave another week for editing. Not saying it’s easy, but people have done harder things.

As far as balancing, there is none. While I work on The Scourge, I occasionally stop and switch to working on The Scourge. Then I go back to working on The Scourge. It pretty much becomes your creative obsession until it is finished. And I just finished a few days ago. That’s quite a shock. I feel like sitting in my underwear watching Columbo and eating ice cream sandwiches for a week now. But I can’t.

Writing calls.

Haha- thanks for giving us insight into your work pattern. I think the only way I could ever try to pitch for this program if I were full-time with writing. It’s interesting that you work bi-weekly but I think that sounds reasonable. (My biggest worry with the words and updating is that there’s no time to read your work and go WAIT, IT”S BROKEN.)

This past week I went for about 10,000 words and it was insane. I don’t think I’d be able to do it every two weeks and not end up eating ice cream sandwiches in front of Columbo either.

[…] How The Amazon Kindle Serials Program Works  This is a guest post by Roberto Calas at Lindsay Buroker’s website and talks about his experience with the Amazon Serials program.  Interesting reading. […]

Great article and thanks for illustrating the possibilities with the Kindle Serials Program.

Just a question, you spoke about motivation and the voices of the readers helping you move forward. What about the remuneration aspect? You are essentially paid ‘x’ amount for the first serial. If you have 8 – 10 more to write, knowing essentially that no more compensation from said customer will come in. Did you ever worry that the demand for the serial would fall and you would be required to keep writing regardless? If so, how did you deal with the doubt?

Hi Ken,

It’s an interesting question. The Kindle Serials sell for $1.99 for the entire series, so once a customer pays for it, you are right, they won’t pay for any more episodes. But I look at it a little differently. They are paying for my book. The entire thing. I just get the luxury of having them pay me in advance. I’m not too worried about lack of interest because Amazon wants the serials to succeed. They market the book quite a bit through email and placement on their site. Also, once the serial has completed its run, it will become a standard 47North property, that is, print, ebook and audiobook. So it will gain new life as a complete book. The people who buy it complete will have to pay more, which will mean a higher return on royalties. So if I keep my focus on the long term, I tend not to have so many doubts. Does that answer the question? Thanks again for the interest.

[…] everyone. I did a guest post on Lindsay Buroker’s blog and I received lots of questions about it, so I figured I would talk a little bit more about […]

That sounds exhilarating. Congratulations on your success!

Thanks Elizabeth!

I’m curious as to the degree of exposure you’re seeing. I actually have a book about finished and ready to go to an editor. It would be perfect for serialization.

As a first time author, it appears like hopping on to kindle serials would offer great opportunity. The thing I’m uncertain about is how many people are actually buying kindle serials? Is there enough exposure to cover editor costs etc. due to the relative newness of serials and the low introductory price point?

Thanks!

Hi Brent. The sales on the Kindle serials are quite good, and the exposure is even better. My novel was, at one point, ranked #260 overall in the paid Kindle Store rankings. That’s some amazing exposure.
There are no editor costs or cover artist costs because 47North handles all that. I received my advance and started handing them unedited episodes as I wrote them. My editor at 47North looked at each episode then sent it to the copy editor. I received the marked up manuscript back and fixed the crappy parts. The book cover was designed by their artists. They formatted everything and distributed each episode. All I had to worry about was the writing and the edits.
Hope that helps!

I have a novel at the polishing phase. This sounds like an option worth considering. Thanks for the info!

Hi Roberto. I read this post back in January when I had just started a new novel. I decided to try writing a pair of episodes in the time frame you indicated, recruited a class of sixth graders (I write MG/YA) to beta read as a class project (which has kept me on schedule), and scheduled my editor. Wow! It’s been a whole new way to write, but I love it!

In February, after I’d finished the first two episodes and proven to myself that I could handle the pace, I contacted Amazon. I’m still waiting to hear back. It’s only been 3-4 weeks, but I figured they’d be a bit quicker than other places. Now my novel is almost done! I’ll send a follow up email soon, but I’m curious, how long did they take to reply to you?

One more question: Once your novel ran its serial course, were you able to raise the price? Thanks for sharing this great post!

Hi Michelle. I’m absolutely thrilled that my experience had a positive impact on you. I need to find myself a class-full of beta-readers! What a great idea.

Congratulations on finishing your novel! When I submitted The Scourge, I think it was three weeks or so, but I think the imprints are getting busier with the serials, so it might take a little longer. I wish you great success with your submission. Please let me know if you are accepted and I will be sure to buy your novel.

Thank you for your quick reply, Roberto, and for your support. I don’t know how much you’d enjoy my story, though. We write on opposite sides of the spectrum. Your zombies would keep me up at night, for sure! 🙂

I think good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre. I’ve read lots of YA that I love. And I have to show solidarity for my fellow serials writers =).

Roberto,

I’m must finding out about Kindle Serials and thinking of submitting a story I am writing. One thing I can’t find any information about is the cover art. Who did yours? It is terrific! Does Amazon supply this? Did you have any say in it?

Thanks,

Toby

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