The NY Times (11/21/2011) reports that the writer, Mark Z. Danielewski ("House of Leaves," "Only Revolutions") is planning a 27 volume novel, titled "The Familiar." The novel is planned to be released with one new volume every three months, beginning in 2014. Knopf Doubleday is reported to have paid one million dollars for the first ten books.
Danielewski has an optimistic view that a huge, long-running, serial release like his will generate perhaps daily, or at least ongoing, buzz about the characters and story-line. He hopes for something similar to what unfolds in newspaper columns, radio talk shows, and public conversations during a season of popular TV episodes, like the recent "Sopranos," or the current "Mad Men."
"Literature is capable of being a subject that people want to catch up on or discuss, whether at a coffee shop or a watercooler," Mr. Danielewski said. "It can become an intrinsic part of their dialogue." His editor says the books will be an attempt to create a "serial relationship" with the readers.
Well, certainly J. K. Rowling had epic success with serial releases (7) of her Harry Potter fantasy novels over about 10 years. According to Wikipedia, her book series has sold about 450 million copies.
Another greatly successful novel series was the eight books, beginning with "Anne of Green Gables," written by Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery, and published between 1908 and 1921. The books track the life of Anne, beginning when she arrives as a precocious 11-year old orphan at a farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada, up until she is a teacher there in her early fifties. The books have sold about 50 million copies, according to Wikipedia, and are included in school curriculums all over the world.
An example of success in serial novel publication in a different genre is Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin seafaring adventures, which included 20 novels published between 1969 and 1999. Jack Aubrey is a British Royal Navy officer, and Stephen Maturin is ship's surgeon, who serve together at sea during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This series sold over 2 million copies, according to Wikipedia.
A more common serial novel enterprise is, perhaps, the more manageable trilogy. A good example of a well-done trilogy is the recent "Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins. It is a young adult, science fiction series set at some time in what could be a not too distant future, in which the surviving sociopolitical structure of North America has been reduced by internal wars to a despotic capitol and twelve outlying districts--a thirteenth was assumed to have been annihilated--and wherein the districts serve all the economic needs of the capitol. Annual 'Hunger Games,' gladiatorial contests organized by the capitol, in which a male and female from each district are selected by lottery to fight until the death of all but one, serve to keep the masses sufficiently traumatized, and entertained. Each of the books in this series were on best-seller lists, and were critically acclaimed.
It is interesting to note in Wikipedia the structure adopted by Collins for each of her books in the series:
Each book in The Hunger Games trilogy has 27 chapters and is further divided into 3 sections of 9 chapters each. Collins says that this format comes from her playwriting background, which taught her to write in three acts. Her previous series, The Underland Chronicles, was written in the same way, as Collins is "very comfortable" with this structure. She sees each group of nine chapters as a separate part of the story, and comments that she still calls those divisions "act breaks".It seems interesting to organize the structure of a story, as Collins has done here. It is reminiscent of the very organized and focused method advocated by Jon Franklin in his "Writing for Story." Franklin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author. His craft has been honed on creative non-fiction short stories, but his writing advice seems equally valuable for fiction writers. More next time on Franklin's methods that may be of use for serial novels.
That's it for some reflections for now on writing serialized fiction. Most 'unsung' writers would probably be happy to have the one novel that sells on the order of 30,000 copies. Onward!