To Be Continued

I’m thinking of writing a serial.

Or maybe not.

Come back next week to find out.

Okay, fine. We can talk about it now.

With the exception of an occasional vacation description too unwieldy to fit into one blog post, my writing doesn’t really feature a “to be continued” vibe. First of all, hyperlinking is a pain in the ass, especially going back to edit part one. Secondly, it’s not like a Disneyland trip can end on a cliffhanger. We went up one side of Splash Mountain. Did we come out the other side? Tune in tomorrow. Same brer time, same brer channel.

Then Amazon invented Kindle Vella.

It’s not the first product catered toward serialization. Wattpad and others led the way, but it never seemed like a good fit for me. I’m not exactly a pantser (somebody who writes “by the seat of their pants,” as opposed to a planner), but my characters and setting definitely morph as I join them on their journey. No biggie if I can go back and fix Aside from the fact that I randomly change character’s names and attributes as my story progresses, only to double back and fix those inconsistencies on the second pass. But if those early chapters have already been published, then it’s going to be a little weird to have the guy who banged the hooker in chapter one now reveal he’s been gay since high school. 

Besides, who reads serials? Then again, if Amazon would be suckling up to the teat…

I heard about Kindle Vella back in the spring. I hmmed and huhed, checking in the nether regions of my brain from time to time, seeing if their was a serial book hidden there. Nothing jangled free, so I forgot about it.

Until the day Kindle Vella launched when, wouldn’t you know it, an apple fell out of my brain tree. Just like my students who have a week to work on a project, then “just need to glue on a couple things” the day it’s due, taking out a blank piece of paper and spending the next hour doing it. At least, unlike my students, I didn’t then rush to create crap in order to “beat the deadline” on Vella opening day. As of now, I’ve got about four chapters (sorry, “installments”) of a time traveling thriller.

Still not sure if I’m going to play the Vella game, though. I only started writing the serial because I was getting bored with my work-in-progress. But switching formats (say, blogging) isn’t the same as giving up on a project. 

Problem number one is the format. Vella is designed to be read in an app. On the go, as it were, which makes sense for serialized storytelling. There are plenty of times I’m sitting around with my phone, enough time to read a thousand words or so but not enough to bust out whatever novel I’m drudging through. 

Yes, I’m mainly talking about being on the shitter.

Maybe the Vella app is really nice. Fancy, even, Unfortunately, I’ll never know. It’s only available on iOS. Nothing says they want this thing to be successful than immediately precluding half the public from accessing it. Then again, iPhone and iPad owners have proven they’ll pay twice as much for the same mediocre quality, so long as it comes with the air of exclusivity. Maybe I should start charging for this blog? Apple fans only.

It’s not even an anti-Google thing. Have you ever heard of a Kindle Fire? Clearly, Amazon hasn’t, because the Fire doesn’t use iOS.

That’s right, you can’t access Kindle Vella on your Kindle. Seriously Amazon, if you want to know which customer set is willing to give you more money for content, shouldn’t it be the people who bought your own damn tablet, despite the fact that it’s missing most of the bells and whistles of its brethren? 

I should’ve known this was coming. When you buy a Kindle Fire, you can’t read books straight away on it. You have to download the Kindle app… onto your Kindle. Fuck it, I’ll just play some more Crossy Road.

So who knows? Maybe the Kindle Vella app is fantabulous and splentacular and everybody who downloads it spends bazillions of dollars going right into unknown authors’ bank accounts. Maybe it’ll be included on every iPad going forward and people will be drawn to it like I was with the Marvel Strike Force game preloaded on my android. Remember when Microsoft got sued for including Internet Explorer with Windows? Captive audience for the win!

The good news is that, even if you don’t have an Apple product, you can still read Kindle Vella entries. All you have to do is go the the Amazon website. On, like, a computer or something. I don’t know. Dial up? Then search for Kindle Vella, because they aren’t advertising it. Then keep strolling, because your first few results aren’t Kindle Vella titles, but third-party “guidebooks” on how to make money via Kindle Vella. 

I assume step one is buy Apple stock.

Eventually, I was able to navigate to an area of the website with actual Vella titles. Some of them already have 50+ entries, others have one or two. The reading experience on the website is underwhelming, like I’m reading a news story or a blog. Not exactly something I want to pay for. Good thing I don’t have to.

You can read the first three installments for free. Then you gotta pay. Except you don’t pay for individual items. You buy tokens, then exchange said tokens for access to chapters. The tokens are super cheap. The lowest amount is 200 tokens for $1.99 or you can buy in bulk, like 1700 tokens for $14.99. I think it then costs one token per 100 words, so you’ll always either be a few tokens short or have leftovers, like hot dogs and buns. That’s how they get you to buy more hot dogs. 

If my math is correct, buying your fiction in dribs and drabs seems to… have little effect on the price. Two hundred tokens equals twenty thousand words for two bucks. So a “standard” book with 80k-ish words will cost eight bucks. Hell, that might even be more expensive. If you like your epic fantasies, that fifteen buck draw will get you 170K words. Most of the Wheel of Time books run over 300,000 words and sell for $10.99. Even better, you can read it from the comfort of your Kindle or android device.

Not that I want to discourage people from Kindle Vella. Lest I lose a penny or two some day. I’m not being metaphorical. I don’t know what “regular” authors make on Amazon, but the pay scale for Vella seems miniscule. It’s also based off of how much the reader paid for the tokens. So readers that buy in bulk, the voracious readers, send less money along to the author. The ones who are probably only going to read Hugh Howey, and are thus only buy 200 tokens at a time, are sending more money their favorite author’s direction.

On the other hand, they do give the author 50% of what the reader spent. The example they give is a story that costs 30 tokens. If those thirty tokens came out of a $1.99 batch, the author gets 14.9 cents. If it came out a $14.99 batch, the author only gets 13.6 cents. Doesn’t seem very much for 3,000 words of content. Then again, I wrote close to 12,000 words on my Disneyland trip and didn’t get any money. Maybe 13 cents ain’t too bad?

Incidentally, they give you 200 free tokens when you join. I assume if you use those tokens, the author gets nothing.

Oh, and don’t forget, the first three installments are free. 

I might be misremembering, but it seems like when Vella was first announced back in February or March, the business model showed only the first chapter being free, then people would start using tokens on chapter two. I suppose I understand. You want to be sure the author isn’t dazzling you with a 200-word intro only to have you waste your money on some 5,000-word unedited drivel in chapter two. Now they must dazzle you with THREE polished snippets before hitting you with the balloon payment.

As you might tell from my blogging, it’s tough for me to describe even a bowel movement in less than 1,000 words. The story that popped in my head (the day the Vella went live, not the day it was announced, thanks a fucking lot, brain!) would’ve started, James Bond style, with an action sequence. Our intrepid hero narrowly evading Russian spies, complete with a cliffhanger to end it all. In chapter two, he escapes and makes it back to base, where his boss helps put things in perspective in chapter three. But I can’t very well have the last free chapter be an info-dump. Something needs to entice readers toward that first locked chapter. 

After 5,000 free words, I need my 13 goddamn cents!

I’m rearranging some stuff to start with a mini-mission, then the debrief in chapter two, and the big cliffhanger in part three. I could cut the debrief chapter, but that would only foster confusion about why the hell the characters have skipped from one random mission to another. Chapter 4 and 5 will go straight from one mission to the next, because “episodic” is what the iOS heathens demand! 

And yeah, I have a newfound appreciation for TV and comic book writers who manage to always hit the wrap-up or cliffhanger at the precise twenty-two minute or twenty-two page spot each time. In long-form fiction, you’re supposed to vary the chapter length, but if they’re paying for the length of each installment, I doubt readers are going to want to bite off Game of Thrones-esque 50 page chunks.

Is that other project looking any better now? Nope. Damn, hopefully this Vella shit works.

Of course, the fact that I’m four parts into something I’m nowhere close to publishing flies in the face of the spirit of serial. It’s designed to be published as it’s written, more or less. One of the guides I read said readers of serials were “more forgiving” of typos and other snafus, since it’s supposed to be published fast. 

Similarly, Kindle Vella is selling the interactiveness of the format. The authors will react to thumbs ups and other virtual cheese chunks to get us through the maze. I plan on allowing a certain “choose-your-own-adventure” elements to the story, polling my readers about which time period they want the characters to travel to next. But if nobody votes, what the hell am I supposed to write?

That’s the biggest drawback I see. Let’s say I publish the first three chapters, what happens if I get no thumbs ups? Do I continue on with part four? Part five? At what point am I publishing into the void? Especially if I’m waiting on them to vote on Berlin Blockade versus Berlin Wall.

Not that I can blame the readers. Why get vested in an unknown author whose project only has three or four installments? You never know if they’re going to follow-through. I used to play an online story-telling game, Storium, where everybody creates a character and writes out the story in segments. But virtually every game/story played out the same way: everybody’s gung-ho at the beginning, then after a week or two, there are only two players writing anything and the game fizzled out.

Even I, who have every incentive to make Kindle Vella work, found myself skeptical of the people who only have a handful of posts. Some posted once a week for four weeks, then stopped over a month ago. Why would I pass them a token when Hugh Howey is sitting at twenty chapters? Plus I know he can write.

On the flip side, why would I expect these writers to keep writing if nobody’s spending any tokens on their work? This circle of life contains a great disconnect in the circle of life. I have friends who refuse to watch a tv series until it’s been picked up for a second season. I know where he’s coming from, having been burned by countless unresolved series, but on the flip side, not watching a show increases the chances it will be canceled.

Especially when you add in that whole iOS-only bullshit. 

Not to mention you’re losing the rights to your work with each post. If I post five chapters and it flames out, I can’t pull the plug and put them up on Wattpad or my blog. They belong to Amazon. I can put them all together into a book, as long as it only sells on Amazon.

In the end, it seems to have all the drawbacks of self-publishing. On the plus side, you only have to provide a small picture instead of a full cover. That takes away one of the biggest headaches of self-publishing. Although I assume ninety percent of the pictures from the internet are copyright verboten. 

Still, I’d have to edit it myself. And if I’m editing my own, so is everyone else, which means there’s gonna be a lot of shoddy content out there. That would seem to depress the demand a bit more. Is it going to come across like fan fiction?

Even worse, I have to market it myself. How the hell does somebody with no name rise up against established authors? Also, as far as I can tell, it won’t link to your regular author profile. I just searched Hugh Howey on Amazon, and I got all his regular books, but only get the Vella one if I go to that portion of the website. And on his Vella book, I can’t click on his name to see his non-Vella books. They’re separate entities.

So I’m still on the fence. A lot of agents won’t look at you if you’ve self-published unless you’ve sold hundreds of thousands. Will they hold Vella authors to the same regard? Amazon implies no, that this is a fun Wild West where we can try new things.

Maybe, instead of posting my serial to Amazon, I can just post it to my blog. Sure, I’d miss out on tens of cents at a time, but at least I’d be able to look at the stats and see if anyone’s reading it. And if that answer is no after a few installments, I can go back to opining on COVID and flatulence. 

Or maybe I should just go back to writing the book I got bored with before.

Nah.

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