A Brief History of Serials

Serialized fiction has been around so long, its origin almost seems like fiction in itself. Once upon an Arabian Night, a woman named Scheherazade, like a thousand before her, was forced to wed a king who liked to marry a different woman every day, right after killing the previous day’s wife. In order to ensure her safety, she came up with the idea of telling the king a story every night, ending it at an unresolved point so that the king would have to keep her alive through the following day to find out what happens next.

Thus, the cliffhanger was born—the heartbeat of serialized fiction.

Thankfully, the history of serialized fiction became a lot less brutal after that. Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when European newspapers were trying to get people to buy daily papers instead of weekly, one particularly shrewd businessmen realized the same thing that Scheherazade did—cliffhangers will always keep people coming back for more. His Parisian newspaper skyrocketed after he decided to include daily serials, starting a trend that would forever change the publication industry.

Enter Charles Dickens.

Fresh-faced and 24-years-old, Dickens saw the trend emerging and decided to serialize his publication of The Pickwick Papers because he knew most of his audience couldn’t afford to buy his book in full. He released installments at a cheaper price instead, and overtime, ended up making more money with this approach than the publishing norm. With it, Dickens became a literary household name, and suddenly everyone wanted to include serials in their publications. It was even known to cause a riot or two back in the day.

Serials peaked in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; however, they gradually lost the appeal as advancements in the publishing industry made books more available to the general public. But while these technological advancements ultimately reduced the demand for serial entertainment (think paperbacks), the idea remained alive and is now currently popping up more and more thanks, in full, to the internet.

Serialized writing websites like Wattpad, AO3, Figment (the list is growing by the day) offer an interesting platform for undiscovered writers: combining stories and social media to build an audience. Not only do they capitalize on what Scheherazade discovered, these sites are changing the publishing industry game again. Suddenly authors have more power than they used to—if they’ve already built an online audience, they immediately have a group of people to market to if they decide to self-publish. No publishing house required, and they retain all of their rights and royalties.

It’s fascinating to watch the influx of trends in the world of entertainment. And even more exciting is the fact that undiscovered writers now have far more options for getting their work read than they used to. People might think the publishing industry is in decline, but in reality it’s just shifting gears again, adjusting to new mediums and opportunities. At the end of the day, people want a good story. How they get it is personal preference.

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