Q&A

Should I Publish My Story Online in Sections?

questions and answer talk bubbles

What do you think about posting a story as you write it, chapter by chapter, or section by section, and then self-publishing the completed work, as opposed to finishing the whole thing and trying to publish it then? Drew Hayes did this w/ Super Powereds, Landon Porter did this w/ Rune Breaker, and there are numerous other examples.

Thank you

-Dave L

Hey Dave L, great to hear from you again!

As you’ve pointed out, there are a number of authors who’ve found success with posting their stories in segments over a period of weeks, months, or even years. This is reminiscent of fiction’s serialized past, where authors would often publish their novels chapter by chapter in third party-magazines. Charles Dickens is probably the most famous example, but this was a common practice in the 1800s, and it may even have contributed to novels of the time being super wordy, as authors were paid by the word for each chapter.

That said, there are a number of obstacles to doing this now, even as the internet makes it easy for anyone to post whatever they want. The first issue is money. Dickens was paid by the word, but modern authors will likely be publishing their work for free. This can be useful for building an audience, but it also raises the question of how many people will pay for the final novel when they can already read the whole thing for free online. Clearly this model works for some authors, but it’s a difficult road to walk.

Second, there’s the issue of output. Putting your story online commits you to a set schedule, since nothing loses readers like missing an update. And if you set your updates too far apart, even enthusiastic fans will lose interest. Web comics have this problem too, and I suspect novelists will find it even more difficult, as the time it takes to write a chapter of prose is super variable.

In addition to writing, you also need to factor in time for revisions and editing. Of course, you could simply publish each chapter raw, but I wouldn’t advise that, as even the best wordsmiths among us need a copy edit or two. If anything, putting out rough prose is likely to make it even harder to sell your novel once it’s finished, or future novels, as readers will have a bad impression of your writing.

Finally, there’s the question of what effect this will have on the story itself. Most importantly, this format makes it more difficult to maintain a coherent plot, since you’re publishing the story in chunks instead of writing the whole thing first. You can alleviate this somewhat with strong outlining, but even the best planners usually find a few things changing once they transition from the outline to a full draft.

If you’ve already written the protagonist killing their aunt in chapter 3, it’s a real bind when you realize you actually need the aunt alive in chapter 20. At that point, you can either struggle through without the aunt, or put in some contrived explanation about how she’s still alive and hope the readers don’t notice. This is a problem in any continuous story – many authors wish they could go back and change what happened in book 1 when writing book 2 – but it can potentially be a lot worse if you publish each chapter separately.

You could always write the book first, go through the normal editing process, and then release it online in chunks. This would take a long time, but it would at least avoid the problem of output schedules and planning. Then you’d still have to deal with the question of whether readers will pay for a story they’ve already read online for free.

All of that said, while I think this is a viable strategy for some, I don’t recommend it for most writers. There’s a certain allure in publishing each chapter as you finish it; it promises instant validation from readers instead of the years it often takes to finish a novel. But for most of us, that’s a false promise that will only lead to churning out bad fiction and setting our careers back in the long run.

Hope that answers your question!

Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    As a fan of fan-fiction, old pulp stories, and even some ‘penny dreadful’ material (penny dreadfuls always had a chapter release), I’m a bit in two minds about it.

    I started out with fan-fiction myself and I can see the draw of putting online what you have as soon as you can (after serious editing, please), but there’s a lot of problems to it. As Oren already pointed out, you might realize late in your story that a decision made at the beginning needs to be undone (the aunt thing). As long as you haven’t published anything, you can go back and forth through the manuscript and do to it what you want. Once you’ve published, the story is set in stone as far as readers have already gotten it. The aunt is dead – unless your main character is a necromancer and can revive her. Another big problem is that you might not finish the story for some reason, having written yourself in a corner, for instance, and leave your fans annoyed at not finding out what happens at the end.

    If you look at different stories published in serialized form, you can also tell the difference between those which were made up as they went along (Varney the Vampire, for instance) and stories published serialized, but finished before (The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Phantom of the Opera, as examples).

    The story of Varney meanders, because they added new chapters for as long as the readers were interested (Varney ran for two or three years). Like old-timey movie serials or modern soap operas, there usually was a cliffhanger of sorts and they came up with new drama and new plot points as often as needed.
    The Phantom of the Opera (to leave the sleeping hound lie for a moment) on the other hand was clearly written completely before it was released serialized in 1909/1910. No meandering plot points, no sudden invention of new characters. The story unfolds during the serialisation, but it’s complete at the beginning.

    If you want a serialized release, you should consider finishing the novel first and releasing it in parts after it’s been edited and revised. Also keep in mind that, unlike with the serialized novels in the past, the internet stays. In the past, you bought your issue of The Strand or other magazine, read the chapters of the stories you were following, and threw it away. Once the story was finished, you might have been tempted to buy the full novel, so you could reread it (Japanese manga magazines still work that way). Online, you can reread the story whenever you wish – unless the author removes the serialized version when the full novel is out (but I’m pretty sure fans won’t like that).

    • CJ

      I agree with Cay Reet, there are many benefits from posting on websites like FanFiction or Wattpad, some authors have even gotten a strong enough followers base to publish their story as a novel, but the likeliness of it happening are zero to none.
      What you could do is publish segments of prequels for the book you want to publish, give your audience something to be invested in and then announce that you are planning to publish a main story line or something like that.
      Or you could just create a FanFiction and get a followers base to help grow your platform, there a many options availible, you just have to look, best of luck!

      • Cay Reet

        I agree … a prequel or some teasers could be a good way to get people to look at the novel. Even publishing one or two chapters ‘for free’, but with a clear disclaimer that the rest won’t follow, could be useful.

  2. Jenn H

    I would say you should try it as an experiment, but be mindful that it may not work out the way you hoped. I wouldn’t treat this as the dream novel you’ve always wanted to write, rather this is a prototype story that you’re writing as practice before you write that novel.

  3. P

    Wait, but what if it gets a printed release? Wouldn’t people just go to the online source instead of the actual book itself?

    • Cay Reet

      That is the main risk, yes.

      As I wrote above, in the past, that wasn’t an option. By the time the novel came out in full, the chapter releases were no longer available. Not the case with the internet today.

  4. random readerr

    great post as always. while i’m not looking to publish my own writing this way, I read a lot of web-serials, and I think anyone looking into publishing their stories in this format should read this: https://wildbow.wordpress.com/2017/05/22/thoughts-on-writing-serials/ . It’s from Wildbow, who has been making this type of fiction since 2011 and I think it has a lot of great points regarding the dos and don’ts as well as the pros and cons of the format.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.