The eBook format has brought the dime novel back.
In 1860, Erastus and Irwin Beadle released Beadle’s Dime Novels, a series of cheap paperbacks that were shorter, cheaper and pulpier than fiction of the 1840s and 1850s. The term gained usage to define these books and their many competitors.
Typical dime novels were about 100 pages (30,000 to 40,000 words), published as serials revolving around a single heroic character, and had sensational content. Publishers cranked out westerns, potboilers, melodramas and other genres to a hungry reading public.
And yup, they cost a dime.
Between 1896 and the late 1920s, dime novels slowly gave way to pulp magazines (so-named for cheaper pulp paper that allowed cheaper printing).
Now they’re back, thanks to the eBook.
Not long ago, the eBook produced a golden era for small presses. These small publishers were able to develop lines targeting niche audiences the big publishers ignored. Then the indies entered the scene in bigger numbers and began competing with $3.00 eBooks. Quality in presentation and editing wasn’t there, but over time, indie authors got smarter. As publishing became democratized, authors could get good, affordable cover design, editing and advertising.
A few years ago, I decided to do more in that game. I looked at the market and considered:
* eBooks are typically priced at $3
* Authors need to produce series with new episodes coming out frequently
We’re very close to a dime novel model except for length; eBooks still tend to be as long as traditional novels, though, as Dean Wesley Smith eloquently argues, there is nothing sacred about longer books.
In my view, authors should be paid about $1 per 10,000 words if they are also going to take on the role of being publisher. If they can’t charge more, they should write shorter.
Here’s the dime novel model I adopted:
* Produce a series around a strong hero
* Produce 2-3+ episodes a year
* Each episode is 40,000 words (about half the length of a typical adult paperback novel)
* Each episode is $3
* Each episode is a complete story (not just a continuation of one long story)
* Each story delivers strong action and sweeps you through from start to finish
Guess how much a dime in 1860 is worth in today’s dollars? Close to $3 ($2.74 to be exact).
Something else to consider:
* Dime novel readers of the late 19th century tended to be young working-class people
* Pew Research indicates 18- to 29-year-olds today are more likely to own an eReader (34%)
* Pew Research indicates that 18- to 29-year-olds today are more avid readers (80% of young adults read at least one book in 2014, compared with 69-71% in other age groups)
As I’ve lost some interest in big publishers, at least for now, I’ve started doing more indie publishing. I have two dime novel series out now, CRASH DIVE (as sole author) and THE RETREAT (written with Stephen Knight and Joe McKinney). I’m also about to jump into Timothy W. Long’s FRONT zombie series.
CRASH DIVE, my adventure fiction series, is a good example of a dime novel series. The hero, Lt. Charlie Harrison, has joined the submarines during World War II and must take the fight to the Japanese. Each episode takes him forward in the war, serving on different submarines and at different ranks, with each story dedicated to a single mission. I’ve produced two so far, and they’ve sold very well and generated a lot of positive reviews–in a subgenre market of uncertain size where I started with no name recognition. I’m now working on the third book, BATTLE STATIONS, and will have it out by the fall, which will make three books in a series out in a year and a half. Around that time, I’ll take the first two eBooks and turn them into a paperback edition flip-book.
By doing this, I learned that shorter novels go against the expectations of some readers, but overall, it has not hindered reviews or sales, not if a good story is being delivered. In some ways, writing shorter takes quite a bit of craft, because you have to produce a compelling complete story with a “novel experience” at a shorter length, requiring extra attention to quality. On the other hand, writing a shorter novel gets done far more quickly and is far less daunting a mountain to climb than 80-100K.
I’m seeing more authors go in this direction. Is it the future of self-publishing? I know people get a lot of attention making grand pronouncements about the future of publishing (which usually turn out to be flat wrong), but I’m not going to play that game. I can say there’s a strong market for this approach among eBook readers, and I expect it to become more popular.
It may not be for everyone, but I can stay it works for me, and I’ll certainly continue doing it. I can produce maybe one big novel a year (100,000 words) plus a few short stories, or I can produce three episodes feeding 1-2 series that get published instantly, get more readers, and earn more income. And for me, at least right now, they’re a heck of a lot of fun.