Kindle Serials: What It's Like To Write One

A great hero of mine, the old-school New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, once said, about the formula to his success, "I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and write better than anyone who can write faster."

People used to pay attention to writers when they bragged, and often honored those brags as truth, which, in Liebling's case, it was. He was that rarest of birds: A journalistic hack with a novelist's eye and a playwright's ear. His serialized fiction, if he'd seen fit to write it, would have been excellent.

I won't make the same claim about my own writing, but I think I write pretty well, and I know that I write really fast. So when my editor at Amazon approached me about a new Kindle-based serialized fiction program, I didn't even have to think about whether or not I'd say yes.

Here was what she laid out: A book published in installments of 10 to 15 thousand words, over the course of a few months, with each segment ending in a moment of suspense or uncertainty. Each segment would be copy-edited, and edited for content if necessary. Then, when the whole thing was done, the book would get another complete edit, and would be issued in a full Kindle edition as well as a paperback one. The whole process would take about six months.

For any writer who's spent any time slogging away in the morass of Big Publishing, or even Small Publishing, where a book can sometimes spend two years or more grinding through the editorial process after you finish the first draft, that level of publishing speed is simply astonishing.

So I told my editor that I'd do it, and then I pitched her an idea that I'd been percolating for a while: a "yoga detective" mystery called Downward-Facing Death, written with the attitude and pacing of old-school noir fiction, but set in the contemporary L.A. yoga scene. It was a little high-concept, but it was my concept, and I wanted to give it a try.

She said that sounded great, and then told me I had a week to write the first 10,000-word segment. So I did, occasionally taking time out to shower and eat and walk the dog, and then she read it and gave me a couple of simple editorial suggestions.

I fixed those in an hour, and a week later, the segment was professionally copy-edited and I was looking at a cover design that was cool beyond anything I could have dreamed. So then I wrote another segment, which went even more smoothly, and then I wrote a third. As of Thursday, fewer than three months after I began the project, Downward-Facing Death ($1.99) went on sale on the Kindle store, after being announced at a press conference by Jeff Bezos.

You can say what you want about Amazon--and people in the book world have said a lot of really negative things--but they have proven, again and again, that they know how to roll out a product, and do it well. Downward-Facing Death, for all the speed and experimentation, is a professionally-made book. I've been extremely impressed by the quality of the editing, and the smooth look of the design. It's every bit the equal of what a traditional publishing house can accomplish, and it's being done at the speed of the Internet. Amazon hasn't eliminated the gatekeeping function. It's just that the gates open much more quickly now.

Of course, this is an experimental program, and I have my doubts. I have no idea how the book is going to sell or how much money I'll make. Readers can respond to the characters and plot in real time, and are going to make suggestions on the bulletin boards that Amazon provides. I'm a bit wary about that. My own ideas are hacky enough.

Then again, I'm not Jonathan Franzen, trying to write something putatively important while snootily dismissing technology. This is an Internet-published murder mystery with a "yoga detective" as the protagonist, for Shiva's sake. If people aren't grooving a certain character, I might be persuaded to kill him off or write her out of the script. Why not?

The fact that Amazon decided to launch its first eight serialized novels alongside serialized versions of Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers gives me much hope. Sure, I'll be the digital Charles Dickens! Where do I sign?

Expect an update on this process in a couple of months or so. Maybe by then, I'll actually have finished the book.