Friday, October 2, 2015

An Experiment in Serialization

Guest post by Bruce Cantwell

In 2014, the long-running radio program/podcast “This American Life” decided to conduct an experiment in long-form storytelling called “Serial.” 

This was a canny decision. Although the show was very successful with one-off episodes featuring stories built around a common theme, if the theme for a given week’s show didn’t particularly grab me, I didn’t feel compelled to listen to every episode. 

Ira Glass knows an awful lot about storytelling, and every author who keeps her eye on the bestseller list understands the value proposition of a series. It’s a staple of books, television, movies, why not podcasts? 

As a long-time reader and short-time author of mysteries, I didn’t find the pilot episode of “Serial” presented on “This American Life” to be particularly compelling. I'm a stickler that mysteries should have conclusions. “Serial” told the story of a real life murder. Someone had been arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime. For the series to have a compelling conclusion, its creator Sarah Koenig would have to conclusively prove that the person convicted was wrongly accused or strongly suggest who the actual murderer was.

I was in the minority. When “Serial” became the most popular podcast around, and I came down with a nasty case of the flu, I decided to binge listen to see what all the fuss was about. The rest of the series didn’t win me over, but I was really curious about how this huge audience would react to a true crime mystery…

…without an ending.

Sarah Koenig, also very cannily, did her pledge drive appeal for a second season with the penultimate episode. The audience responded. The money for a second season was in the bank before the inconclusive conclusion.

As a long-time writer/marketer, relative newbie mystery writer getting the word out about my first mystery in years, which did have a definitive conclusion, I decided to take a stab at serialization.

Here are some of the marketing virtues of “Serial” approach as I saw them. By telling a long-form story into twelve episodes, I lowered the barrier to sampling. If “Serial” had offered its first episode free and tried to get me to buy the remaining episodes as an audiobook, it would have been a hard sell. Each episode was less than an hour. I kept my episodes to under 30 minutes of reading time. Reasonable even for people who don’t read books.

“Serial” used an RSS feed to automatically notify subscribers of new episodes. No one questions the need for authors to maintain an email list. Aside from notifying subscribers about new episodes, I created Mysterious News to make the communications more social. I gave precedence to subscribers’ pre-sale dates, encouraging reviews, and on-sale dates. These are all very important for authors in driving visibility on Amazon. It benefited subscribers and saved me time in content creation. If you write in the mystery and suspense genres and would like to subscribe, I’d love to announce your work, too.

People could listen to “Serial” on a wide range of devices, including their smartphones. I know from feedback that readers of my serial have consumed the episodes by reading them on laptops, on their smartphones, on Kindle, and on paper (deciding to print each episode out).

“Serial” used its website as a repository for additional information about the case to increase listener engagement. With each episode of my serial, I provided a discussion of a related movie in the noir and neo-noir genres, a music link (including an actual karaoke playlist for my karaoke episode), and an establishment to drink beer and/or grab a bite before or after exploring a Portland location mentioned in the episode.

“This American Life” funded season one of “Serial” as an experiment to see whether there was a market for it.
This is something I really found appealing. As series fiction writers, especially as series fiction writers, we often have to write several books before we get enough sales data, reviews, and other feedback to know whether there’s a market for our first book. All I had to do to gauge my market was leave a tip jar at the end. If it fills up, I’ll know I’m onto something. If not, I can go back to the laboratory and try another experiment.

Full disclosure. My decision on whether to try this again may not be completely scientific. The experiment was a hell of a lot of fun!

Reviews for Last Heartthrob

"Get your noir on!" Cindy Brown, author of the Ivy Meadows mysteries

"Totally hooked on The Last Heartthrob serial by Bruce Cantwell. Checking each day hoping for the next episode." – Stephen Campbell, The Author Biz and CrimeFiction.FM

"Evokes memories of the past era of detectives, femme fatales, and action set pieces that grip the reader." – Robert Hellinger on Amazon Write On for Kindle

"I'm hooked!" – Femme Noir

About Bruce Cantwell
My sixth-grade research paper traced the modern detective story from Edgar Allan Poe’s the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who had yet to face his final Curtain. Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, and CBS Radio Mystery Theater met in my first full-length play Who Shot Captain Dark?, which received a staged reading at Northlight Repertory before its subsequent Chicago production. Last Heartthrob was conceived when an overheard aha moment for a murder mystery, coupled with the tale of a most unusual real-life romance became an on-the-fly movie pitch. A former advertising co-worker turned indie movie producer called frantically searching for a low-budget, quick-turnaround script for a director to shoot as a calling card between his no-budget debut and a much more ambitious project. The director went in a different direction, and the more ambitious project never happened, but the idea for Last Heartthrob got stuck in my head.

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