Kindle Vella

I keep getting emails from Amazon or KDP or whatever, telling me about the New! Shiny! Kindle Vella method of telling a story. It’s a way of publishing a chapter at a time. The idea is so actively repulsive to me that I practically recoil physically.

Here’s a post about this at Indies Unlimited: Kindle Vella: Return of the Serial

Amazon, never content to rest on its laurels, has announced a new avenue for storytelling: Kindle Vella. Many writers have already discovered the lure of publishing a serial, a short episode or a chapter at a time. Hugh Howey’s Wool, if you remember, started as a short story, then he expanded on the series little by little. It was already wildly popular before he accepted a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster.

We’ve all seen how some series, either books or movies or both, can garner a large following. If we’ve got a captivating story line with complex characters interacting in interesting and surprising ways, our readers want to know what happens next. And while some of us might go months, even years between books — possibly losing readers during the hiatus — a series of short chapters released relatively quickly can keep those readers engaged and wanting more.

It’s sort of complicated — there will be a Kindle Vella store of some kind, with tokens readers buy and then exchange for episodes of books, or something like that. I’m not interested enough to actually pay attention to the details. I know the first few episodes will be free — that’s certainly essential — and other than that I don’t know.

I guess it’s like a giant Amazon version of what I think some authors are already doing via Patreon, except that Amazon takes a cut of 50% of the royalties. Which is no doubt fair enough, since they’ll be collecting readers’ attention and providing a marketplace for this sort of serialized work.

I think this is actually a neat idea! For someone else.

You know what book this would have worked great for? The Martian. Or the Touchstone Trilogy. Stories which are by their nature rather episodic. Think of the scene where Cassandra leaps into the water to get away from the Cruzach, when she accidentally winds up in Kalasa and has her swimming marathon and all that? End the chapter with the splash as she hits the water and everyone would be DYING to see what happened next.

But for works that don’t naturally break into episodes, this modality would be more difficult.

Also — I was talking about the writing process with Sharon Shinn not that long ago, and we happened to discuss how awful it would be to publish a work a chapter at a time, because we both do so much smoothing out between the first draft and the second. We both go back and add foreshadowing and remove unnecessary characters and tweak the timeline and so on and so forth. All this is absolutely crucial.

So, I would say, for an author who is a real outliner — who writes a tight outline and sticks to it — the something like Kindle Vella might work well. But for an author who has a ton of work to do in smoothing out the first draft, there’s no way.

Well, there’s one way, obviously. Write the whole thing, polish it up, and then publish it one episode at a time via Kindle Vella. Of course the Amazon people are encouraging that. You can unpublish a current book and put it out in Vella, for example, and no doubt some people will try that out. It may well be worth it, especially at first, when Vella doesn’t have that many works and therefore there’s less competition for eyes.

However, if the Kindle Vella people are smart, they will add this statement to relevant works as a marketing tool:

This work is finished. Every chapter of this work has already been loaded to Kindle Vella and is guaranteed to be released on schedule.”

Because, as a reader, I can’t think of anything in the wide world that would turn me off more than repeatedly starting a serialized work that did not reach a conclusion in a timely fashion. You know where you can get finished works that reach a conclusion? The regular bookstore, that’s where.

As a related side note: raise your hand if you generally refuse to start a series unless the series is already finished.

As a general rule, I’d raise my hand there. Not absolutely all the time, of course. Any series I started reading decades ago and the thing is still going, well, that’s not covered by the rule. And I deliberately chose to read the available Steerswoman books even though I knew perfectly well the series was incomplete. (Which I definitely do not regret, this is among my all-time favorites and absolutely #1 for series I would most love to see completed before I die. Everyone should read it.) But as a RULE, I strongly, strongly prefer that a trilogy or longer series is complete before I start it. Either that, or it’s all right as long as each novel in the series stands alone.

I will just add — I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but not lately — for a traditionally published book, it’s absolutely deadly for readers not to pick up the second books because they’re waiting for the third to be published. The odds are rather good that the publisher will see poor sales for the second book and pull the third. If you want a trilogy or series to be finished, then you’d better buy the books and put them on your real or virtual shelves. THEN you are okay to wait until the series is finished before starting Book #1.

As yet another addendum on that topic, I have to admit, I have four or five complete series on my physical TBR shelves that I’ve never read. I read and liked Book #1, picked up the other books as they were published, but have never read them. Honestly, this is terrible. One day I will make it a project to read all those series.

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15 thoughts on “Kindle Vella”

  1. Allan Shampine

    I just finished the four Steerswoman books. I had not realized when I picked it up that the fourth book was published in 2014. That’s a long enough gap I don’t believe the series is ever going to be finished. Although I would love to see the last two books, and I enjoyed the books that exist, I just advised my dad not to read them. There are series where I don’t mind them just petering out, but my dad and I don’t like having a single overarching plot arc that just stops in the middle. That’s a deal-breaker for us. So, in that vein, I would be much more likely to pick up a Kindle Vella if 1) it was episodic, so I didn’t care so much if it just ended, or 2) I had a guarantee that the whole thing was done and it would not just leave me hanging.

  2. It sort of depends on how much I trust an author to follow through on their series, but I definitely was relieved to hear Wen Spencer has finally turned in the draft for the final Elfhome book – that one’s been a long time coming, and in waiting for it I realized she’d never finished a series and got pretty nervous.

    I’m still a little salty that Kate Elliot’s Jaran series never got finished.

    And, me too! Read the 1st diviners book by Libba Bray, haven’t read any of the others, but they’re in my bedroom.

  3. Yeah, I’m fine starting a non-finished series, but I definitely prefer a finished one – or at least a series where the stories are self-contained. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m following a deliberate strategy as an aspiring author to finish at least one series before I actually try to shop it around, because I HATE seeing plot holes in book 3 that could’ve been fixed with judicial edits to book 1, or third books that never get published.
    Or fourth books, for that matter; one of my favorite series has a terrible cliffhanger in book 3, and then the publisher pulled the series, so the author is currently sending out the first draft in newspaper format to at least finish the story he promised his loyal fans. Points for integrity, but I’d really prefer an actual book, y’know?
    All that being said, I suspect that Amazon is following trends abroad; there’s several large Asian platforms that have had great success with serial webnovels, and translation sites that are now bringing those stories to the English-speaking world, serially. While, again, I prefer a finished story that I can read in only a few sittings, serials are their own kind of fun.
    I do think your idea – to make a note that a work is finished and will thus come out on a regular schedule uninterrupted – would make me more likely to spend my money on a story, though.

  4. I wonder if this Vella is meant to be a competitor to Wattpad or Serial Box (which is now Realm)? Although I swear they previously had another Kindle Serials thing… ah yes, Seanan McGuire’s Indexing is one title, the blurb notes that it was “previously published as a Kindle Serial.” That didn’t last too long and I would be surprised if this does either. The token system especially sounds like a real mess, paying by the hundred words??

    I seem to recall that Touchstone was originally serialized in blog format, although I did not read that version myself.

  5. I think it makes sense that Kindle Vella might be intended to pick up the Wattpad audience. I don’t know about the token system, but I DO know that I think it would be very, very wise to streamline the process as much as possible for readers and the token system doesn’t offhand sound like it does that. If it’s the least bit annoying to actually USE Kindle Vella, KU reads would probably outcompete it before Vella could really get started.

  6. Andy Weir originally wrote _The Martian_ in serial form on his website, too, so both of your examples are better than you realized. (He did change it for publication, I understand.)

  7. To be honest… I already know a number of sites that post web serials (and I read a lot of them). Serials to me are fun for their low investment and generally high percentage of topics that I find fun but aren’t usually published over here (many of these are translations from foreign languages; there’s some REALLY GOOD Korean stories I’ve fallen in love with that…. would just never be published here because they aren’t book-books).

    This to me sounds like Amazon’s trying to jump on a trend that’s been building for a while in other spheres. It will possibly work to hook in people who aren’t familiar with the other stuff, and maybe those that are if they can provide a nice enough interface. But many of the web serials that are actually good do tend to go on and put things out in ebook form (usually with some editing/new material to convince people to bite), and the profit sharing sounds really bad here, so I don’t know how many good serial authors will bite.

  8. Megan, I would love to know where you’re reading those Korean stories! I would never choose a serial format over a whole book format if I had the choice, but I read manga and webtoons that come out serially. (Though, to be honest, I drop most of them after a while. It takes a lot of emotional investment to keep up with a story that way, so it has to be pretty darn compelling, and seem to be going in an interesting direction, to be worth it. Lots of them start out great but then lose their way.)

    I agree that it might be a great way for new authors to get a readership, but only if they already have the whole story ready to go. And then I would rather a system where I got to read a few chapters for free or for a nominal fee, and then had the option to buy the whole book. I’m not a patient reader!

    (We haven’t given up on Kierstein finishing Steerswoman, have we?? Queen’s Thief finally finished, and that took almost as long!)

  9. I tend to find the stories through sites like NovelUpdates (warning, a lot of crap gets posted here too, but user reviews and looking at the story tags can generally filter out anything undesirable).

    Some recommendations:
    Dragon Maken War (Korean, no longer hosted on original translator’s site but can still be found if you use a search engine) – Fantasy about a war hero who went into a dragon’s hibernation shortly after winning the war to undo a curse, and wakes up 200 years later, weak as a kitten. He struggles to regain his old strength, make new allies, and fight against some long standing plots from his old enemies. Story is complete. Still one of my favorites.

    God of Crime (Korean, same situation as above) – Modern-day with light fantasy. A man falsely accused of murder is given the death sentence, but right before the execution occurs he makes a deal with a devil and is sent back in time. Now with a mirror that allows him to acquire “crime skills”, he’s tackling crimes big and small while aiming for the reward money to pull himself and his family out of their life of poverty. Story complete. End is a bit rushed but still pretty good.

    And I would also like to nominate a new favorite, originally written in English but a fantastic example of both a cultivation novel (think historical-Chinese-magic-martial-arts) and a satire of cultivation novels. Royal Road is the site, and the story is titled Beware of Chicken. A young man from modern-day times suddenly finds himself in the body of a young cultivator, and immediately vetoes the whole cultivation lifestyle for being way too violent and amoral for his tastes. He tries to take up life as a farmer in the most peaceful land he can find . . . but everything AROUND him is still functioning like a cultivation novel. His rooster (and other barn animals) are achieving enlightenment, gaining powers, and treating him like their Great Master. Book one is complete, book two is nearly complete. Updates several times a week.

  10. Kim, we definitely have not given up on Kirstein finishing The Steerswoman series. Or at least, I haven’t. I know she still planned or at least hoped to finish it a few years ago, because I met her at a convention and asked. I’m not exactly optimistic, but I’m not pessimistic either.

  11. I actually made an account a few weeks ago on JJWXC, one of the big Chinese webnovel sites, just to purchase the original chapters of a novel I’d been enjoying in translation. I think the model for these serials is generally to have the first 30 chapters or so free, and then the rest monetized — but they’re REALLY cheap, just pennies each. The authors make money through a combination of frequent updates (often daily chapters) and massive readership.

    I can’t imagine how Amazon’s going to handle the monetization–people won’t pay $0.99 per chapter if they’re used to $5 for a whole book! Or one Token per 100 words, or whatever.

    I have noted, at least in Chinese webnovels, that the serialized story form often leads to stories that are extremely long and episodic, with narrative arcs that might seem disconnected but build eventually towards the overall plot (or serve, at least, to further the characters’ development). It’s a storytelling style I actually enjoy: the story and characters have a lot more time to breathe than in the fast pace of a lot of modern SFF. Would be interesting to see if that storytelling style comes back into vogue along with the serial.

  12. Mary Beth, there’s serial novellas à la Murderbot and Penric. Sort of the same idea, exploring characters and world with episodic plots and some overarching themes.

  13. Kim, that’s true! I have a stack of Penric novellas on my Kindle waiting for me (I just need to grit my teeth and tackle the one about a plague, and then hopefully the rest will be easier).

    The particular book I was thinking of on JJWXC is currently 276 chapters and still updating daily. Chapters seem to range between about 3500 to about 6000 characters, which is maybe 2275 to 3900 English words? So fairly short updates, but a very lengthy story!

  14. Mary Beth, in theory, you could skip the one about the plague. Literally nothing happens except there’s a plague. Well, and the sorcerer with the Very Good Dog is introduced, but fundamentally, this is a very skippable installment.

    Great point, Kim, about novella series working a lot like a serialized novel!

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