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Once upon a time, almost all new SF novels, at least those published within the genre, were published in magazines. Usually this meant serialization: the novel would appear in several parts (usually two to four) over a period of some months. (On occasion, a shortish novel might be published complete in one issue of certain of the thicker pulps.) Only later, sometimes years later, sometimes never, would a novel be published in book form.

After World War II, when specialty SF publishers appeared, and paperback books became a major market category, many more SF books began to appear. The market was soon big enough for more novels than could be accommodated in the genre magazines, and many SF novels began to appear first as books. This process accelerated over time, and by the 1980s there were hundreds of SF books published per year, only a few of which were reprints of serializations. Still, when I was first reading SF magazines, in the 1970s, most magazines ran serials fairly often, even if they represented only a small fraction of the total novels published.

Nowadays, though, just after the turn of the millennium, serials have become quite rare birds. Unusual enough that the publication of a serial in Asimov's was worthy of special comment. Unusual enough that one way for the new Scottish magazine Spectrum SF to distinguish itself is to publish serials. Unusual enough that I doubt many people notice very much that they are almost gone.

Why the Decline?

Why the decline of serials? There are a number of fairly sensible reasons. Readers evidently are resistant to waiting too long to assemble all the parts of a complete serial: even monthly magazines don't like to make the readers wait more than three months (four issues) from the first installment to the last. For publications that publish less frequently, as for example Absolute Magnitude, the reader must wait even longer.

The increased length of contemporary SF novels is another important factor. A three-part serial is typically 60,000 or 70,000 words, and at most a little over 90,000. A four-part serial might range up to 110,000 words. Thirty years ago, most SF novels were only 70,000 words long or so -- these days it is rare to see a novel of less than 100,000 words, and novels of 150,000 to 200,000 words or more are quite common. Thus, most recent Analog serials have been four-parters, and even at that length, they are often expanded when published in book form. (For example, last year's Analog serial, Ben Bova's "The Precipice," was about 105,000 words. The book was some 130,000 words. To be sure, it was not uncommon in the past for the book version of a story to be expanded from the serial version, but not usually so drastically.)

Which is to say that when a magazine is offering a serial, they are often offering the reader a shorter version of the novel. They are also often asking the reader to wait up to three months or more to assemble the complete novel. They risk turning off the casual newsstand buyer, who might encounter Part 2 without having seen Part 1 or expecting to see Part 3. They risk turning off subscribers who plan to buy certain books anyway, and who may feel that the serial is taking up space that would better have been dedicated to additional stories. In contrast to the early days of the genre, SF novels are routinely published as books, so readers are used to getting their long stories from outside the magazines. And, finally, the magazines are in the position of having no chance to publish many significant novels, those which would be impractical to cut to a serializable length. It's no wonder that serials are becoming uncommon.

F&SF editor Gordon van Gelder, asked about his position on serials, confirmed that he has no plans to publish any, though he doesn't call that a hard and fast rule. But he argues that a good serial will likely see book publication anyway: why take up space that could be used to publish more good short fiction? Asimov's editor Gardner Dozois expressed the same idea, mentioning in particular his fondness for novellas, and noting that the space taken up by serial parts is exactly that space most readily occupied by novellas. Novellas have a hard enough time finding homes -- should we cut their slots even further? And Paul Fraser, editor of the serial-friendly new magazine Spectrum SF, cautions that book publishers often control serial rights, instead of authors, which can make it more difficult for magazines to acquire serials.

Why Have Them at All, Then?

But of course there are positives to serials. Readers like novels, after all -- evidence suggests that they like them more than they like short stories. (After all, novels generally sell much better than short story collections.) So why not offer them the occasional novel? Even for a reader who buys plenty of novels, a serial can be an inexpensive way to get a novel they wouldn't otherwise buy -- and sometimes well in advance of book publication. (One reader even told me that he sometimes reads the first parts of serials to evaluate the entire novel. If he likes it, he will either look for the next issues of the magazine, or just buy the book. If he doesn't like it, he is happy to have only wasted the time and money for one part.)

In particular, a serial might represent a good way to try out an unfamiliar writer. This may be especially important for those writers whose forte is novels -- many writers simply aren't as effective at shorter lengths, and trying to evaluate them based on short stories might be unfair to them, and might not accurately reflect the strengths of their novels. And from the magazine publishers' financial viewpoint, the word rate for serials is often less than that for shorter fiction, so they can fill the same number of pages of fiction at a lower cost.

And the writers? Indeed, writers can benefit quite powerfully from serialization in a popular magazine. Look at the dramatic results for a number of recent Analog serials. Going back to 1988, Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free was a surprise winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Surely the exposure, and the many extra readers, gained from the Analog publication, were a major factor in the novel's favor. Asked about this, Bujold said "It's unlikely that more than a fraction of the same 60,000 SF readers . . . would have picked up my little original paperback in the bookstores." Note that even though sales of original paperbacks at that time were probably roughly comparable to Analog's circulation, the magazine's readers represented a largely different swath of the overall SF readership -- hopefully gaining the author a new set of readers who would look for her books in the bookstore in the future. (I myself was one of those Analog readers who didn't try Bujold until she appeared in the magazine.)

Bujold went on to win a Hugo for another Analog serial, Barrayar. She doesn't rule out placing further novels with Analog, though she confirms some of the difficulties with doing this. She points out that many of her later novels have been too long for serialization, and that it can be hard to coordinate magazine publishing schedules with book publishing schedules. She also points out an interesting new wrinkle: her publisher, Baen Books, releases new novels in online versions called "webscriptions." Often this involves sort of a partial serialization, whereby the first several chapters will be posted piecemeal over some months prior to publication. This too might complicate the scheduling of a magazine serial.

Another somewhat unexpected Nebula winner was Robert J. Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment, serialized in Analog in 1994/1995 as "Hobson's Choice." And very recently, Catherine Asaro received her first major SF award, the Nebula, for The Quantum Rose, about half of which was serialized in Analog in 1999. For a writer, having a novel serialized pretty much guarantees exposure to quite a few new readers, likely including readers who would otherwise have skipped the book. It may also be true that the readership of the magazines is more closely aligned with the subset of SF readers (and, in the case of the Nebula, writers) who vote for the major awards.

There is one other useful aspect of serialization: it provides a niche for publishing stories in the awkward range of 30,000 to 60,000 words. Stories of this length, these days, are mostly considered too short for books, but too long to fit in single issues of magazines. An answer is the serial, particularly the two-part serial. Interzone, which only has room for about 40,000 words of fiction per issue, often uses this format for longer novellas. Analog also often features short novels of about 40,000 words as two-part serials -- likely a novel such as P. J. Plauger's "Wergild" (1994), or Edward M. Lerner's forthcoming Analog serial "Survival Instinct," would never have seen print in any other form. (Although Lerner notes that his serial was originally two novellas, which worked better combined into one story. One wonders if writers aiming at publishable lengths tend to avoid the 45,000 word slot -- even when it's the right length for a given piece.)

On the other hand, Gardner Dozois believes that novellas are best read as a unit, and he doesn't feel they are well served by publication in parts. Novels, on the other hand, generally a bit more episodic and more leisurely paced, may be more amenable to reading in increments, he suggests. (This highlights a difference between my reading habits and those, apparently, of many other readers. I always wait until I have all the parts of a serial at hand before reading any of it. Evidently many readers read each piece as they get it.)

Early History

Let's look in some detail at the past of the SF magazine serial. As mentioned before, for some decades almost all genre SF appeared in magazine form. Which naturally meant most of it was short stories and novelettes. But from the beginning readers have craved longer stories, and novels have always been popular. So it became standard for some SF magazines to regularly carry serials. Indeed, the very first issues of the first American SF magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926, serialized Jules Verne's novel Off on a Comet (a reprint, of course).

The classic genre novels of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, such as E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman and Skylark series, were all serialized in the pulps of the day. Typical serials, then as now, were in three or four parts. In those days, however, longer serials were somewhat common. Smith's The Skylark of Valeron, for example, appeared in 7 parts in Astounding Stories between August of 1934 and February of 1935. Such fairly well remembered novels as Jack Williamson's The Legion of Space and John W. Campbell's The Mightiest Machine appeared in 5 parts. But as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, the standard SF novel was fairly well established as a three-part serial of perhaps 60,000 to 70,000 words.

The SF book market, as I have noted, appeared as a category following World War II. The initial source of novels for this category was reprints of serials. Of course the magazines continued to publish new serials. Also, many novels were published complete (or slightly cut) in single issues of pulps like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Fantastic Adventures, which were thick magazines with room for stories up to about 60,000 words. Examples include Theodore Sturgeon's "The Dreaming Jewels," published in a 47,000 word version in Fantastic Adventures for February 1950, and Leigh Brackett's 43,000 word "The Big Jump," in Space Stories, February 1953.

The standard length for a novel remained roughly constant, at 60,000 to 70,000 words, which fit tidily into three parts and into a trim 190 page paperback. Two-part serials were also common, and there were book markets, such as the Ace Doubles, for those 40,000 word stories. Longer novels were fairly rare, though Astounding, at least, was not averse to the occasional four-part serial. But throughout the 1950s, the market for original, never-serialized, novels increased.

A standard publishing history for a novel would involve serialization in one year, followed by book publication the year after. In many cases the serial would have a different title from the book, rather unfortunately for the inattentive buyer. (For instance, Sturgeon's The Dreaming Jewels appeared in paperback as The Synthetic Man.) In many cases, also, the serial would be a slightly different version. The most common difference from serial to book would be that the former version would be cut, though not by any means necessarily. This could result either from a longer novel being cut, either by the author or by the editor of the magazine, to fit the magazine's length restrictions; or from a shorter magazine version being later expanded by the author.

On rare occasions both versions survive independently. One of the most interesting such cases is Fritz Leiber's excellent novel The Sinful Ones. The story was originally aimed at the classic fantasy magazine Unknown in the early 40s, but abandoned when Unknown went out of business due to wartime paper shortages. Around 1950, Leiber finally turned his original story idea into a full-length novel. Unable to sell that, he placed a much shorter version (40,000 words) as "You're All Alone" with Fantastic Adventures. A few years later a low-end paperback publisher finally bought his 75,000 word version, but the publisher added some spicy scenes to fit his market, and chose the title The Sinful Ones. Finally, in 1980, Leiber was able to reissue the novel in a form closer to his original intent (with the spicy scenes either eliminated or rewritten to Leiber's taste). In the mean time, "You're All Alone" has been reprinted as well. Both versions are well worth reading.

Signs of Decline

By the 1960s longer novels were increasingly common. And in the nature of things these were often more ambitious. The serial remained a standard feature of many magazines, but magazines were rarely able to attract the newer, bigger novels. One striking exception involves the publishing history of Frank Herbert's Dune: Analog published it as two separate serials, a three-parter called "Dune World" in 1964, and a five-parter called "The Prophet of Dune" in 1965, the same year that Chilton published the complete novel in hardcover.

Why were longer novels more common? One reason may be an increasing tendency at the time towards hardcover publication. It also seems that book marketing people decided that the reading public wanted fatter books -- more bang for their buck. And in more recent years, many have suggested that the ubiquity of word processing has made it easier for writers to produce longer books. At any rate, as novels became longer, fewer were potentially serializable.

I began reading the magazines in 1974. Serials were still standard features of most magazines at that time. (Oddly, the first issue of Galaxy I ever bought featured two different serials, the conclusion to Bob Shaw's "Orbitsville" and the opening to Edgar Pangborn's "The Company of Glory." Having parts of two serials in the same issue of a magazine was pretty rare, however.) The habit of changing titles remained: one of the first Analog serials I read was Alfred Bester's "The Indian Giver," which became a book called The Computer Connection, or Extro! in the UK. I was to some extent a test case for the problem I mentioned earlier -- buyer resistance to magazine issues with only the last part of a serial. Not only did the first issue of Galaxy I saw have a serial's conclusion, so did the first issue of Analog. But I was so besotted with the idea of having an actual science fiction magazine in my hands that I didn't care! Interestingly, that first Analog serial, "Star Gate," by Tak Hallus, when published in book form, instead of featuring a title change, featured an author change. By 1976 when the book came out Stephen Robinett had abandoned his unusual pseudonym. ("Tak Hallus" means "pseudonym" in Farsi, or so Robinett claimed.)

Shortly after this, the frequency of serials diminished. Galaxy slowly died, and its last five issues (before an unsuccessful mid-90s revival) featured a drip-by-drop serialization of Frederik Pohl's brilliant novel JEM. This took nearly two years (from the November/December 1978 issue to the Summer 1980 issue) -- the book was out in both hard covers and paperback before the final issue of the magazine reached newsstands. Galaxy's "slot" among the "big three" U. S. magazines was taken by Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which has almost never published a serial. (There have been only five in the magazine's history, not counting "stealth" serializations, as with Frederik Pohl's novel, The Cool War, which was chopped into three long novellas for publication in separate issues of Asimov's. (Though one of these novellas was actually a two-part serial!)) F&SF ceased publishing serials entirely: and even Analog, as the 1990s went on, reduced the frequency of their serials, to roughly two a year.

One other SF magazine, new to the 1990s, has published a few serials. This is Absolute Magnitude, which has featured serializations of novels by Barry B. Longyear, Hal Clement, Daniel Hatch, and Shariann Lewitt. Finally, Algis Budrys' Tomorrow, now sadly defunct, ran a few serials during its run in the 1990s. More idiosyncratically, the Dean Wesley Smith/Kristine Kathryn Rusch project Pulphouse made an effort to go to weekly publication in the early 1990s. They never succeeded in publishing even close to weekly, but one of their innovations, intended to dovetail with such a rapid publication schedule, was to publish serials of very many very short installments. Thus, 15 parts of S. P. Somtow's novel Jasmine Nights appeared in Pulphouse between 1991 and 1993. This could conceivably have been successful with a truly weekly publication, but spread over a much longer time, I don't think such a program is workable.

The Present, and Prospects for the Future

Thus the present day, with serials rare enough to be remarked upon. And as we've seen, they are plenty of sound reasons for their lack of frequency. But, despite their shortcomings and inconveniences, I like serials, and I like seeing them in magazines. So I'm happy that Spectrum SF has run part of a serial in every issue so far. They have printed two novels by British SF veterans: "Drek Yarman," by the late Keith Roberts, and "Bad Dream" by John Christopher; as well as the first novel by hot newer British writer Charles Stross, "The Atrocity Archive."

These serials show another benefit of serialization: an opportunity to rescue worthy but commercially uncertain projects from oblivion. For example, "Drek Yarman" was apparently written in the mid-80s, but as Roberts' career (and health) foundered he was unable to place it with a publisher. It is undoubtedly a dark story, and its bleakness may negatively affect its commercial prospects. It is also fairly short. Thus it was perhaps understandable that no publisher would take it on. But it's a fine, different, work that I'm happy to have read. With John Christopher in semi-retirement, "Bad Dream" also may not be a novel a publisher can get behind enthusiastically.

As for "The Atrocity Archive," Charles Stross has pointed out that it is an untypical novel, not easily put in a genre. For career reasons, as Stross suggests, it might even be unwise for a new author to place such a novel with a major publisher in these days of the midlist death spiral. This is because such an idiosyncratic novel probably has limited commercial potential, which may reduce the book buyers' orders for future novels. In addition, its uncertain genre (spy novel? comedy? Lovecraftian horror?) may result in confusion among the chains' book buyers, who are alleged to prefer readily describable books, with certain expected sales and categorization. But as a serial, it's available for readers to find, without risking pigeonholing the author's name in booksellers' computers.

I suspect that the serial will remain, relatively speaking, a rarity in the magazines in the near future. But it will live on to some extent. Analog still publishes at least one per year (they have just finished running Robert J. Sawyer's "Hominids"). Asimov's recently ran their first serial in over a decade, with Silverberg's "The Longest Way Home," though Dozois states that he has no express intention of publishing any further serials. Spectrum SF bravely continues to run them, I hope they will for a long time. I particularly like editor Paul Fraser's philosophy -- he regards the serial as a home for otherwise orphaned novels, that may be too quirky, too short, or for whatever reason of suspect commercial appeal. (As Fraser notes, this is to some extent making a virtue of necessity: those are also the novels a new magazine is more likely to be offered. As well, Gardner Dozois suggests that if he were to publish future serials, he would prefer to use the space for good novels that won't otherwise be published.) And even some online magazines run serials -- in Strange Horizons's case only two-part novelettes, but SCI FICTION often serializes novellas (even up to 40,000 words) in four parts throughout a month.

The serialized novel has an honorable place in the history of this magazine-dominated genre. As the importance of magazines to the genre has diminished, it is no surprise that the importance of serials has likewise diminished. But there is still a place for them, and I for one will not regret the opportunity to read these words again -- TO BE CONTINUED.


Reader Comments

Rich Horton is a software engineer for a major aerospace corporation in St. Louis. He writes a short fiction review column for Locus Magazine, a column for 3SF Magazine, and his essays and reviews have appeared in Locus Online, SF Site, Tangent Online, Antipodes, and elsewhere. For more about him, visit his Web site.

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