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Discover the World of Serial Fiction with Award-Winning Author Simon K. Jones

I caught up with writer Simon K. Jones on publishing cross media, writing serial fiction and much more. Our interview is below. Enjoy!

About Simon: Simon K Jones is a Norwich (UK) based writer, specialising in weekly, serial fiction. His debut novel A Day of Faces won a Watty Award in 2016 and has over 190,000 reads. He followed it with the 3-year weekly run of The Mechanical Crown, which concluded in 2019. His third novel, No Adults Allowed, was published in paperback in 2022.

He's currently serialising his fourth major fiction project, Tales from the Triverse, which is sent out to over 4,000 readers each week with behind-the-scenes insights and tips on how to write serial fiction.

He's spoken at the Primadonna Festival and for the National Centre for Writing and the Society of Authors. He's taught for the BBC, FutureLearn, LinkedIn Learning and Access Creative. He works at One Further by day, helping arts and cultural organisations with their digital activity.

Online publishing

Lloyd (LM): How did you decide to start publishing your work online? What’s the difference between online publishing via a platform (like Wattpad) versus publishing the book on Amazon? And how did you choose a platform?

Simon: I was always quite an ‘online’ person. I was a teenager in the 90s as the internet properly took hold, and was always interested in the possibilities. Having always claimed to want to be a writer, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I properly got round to it, and that was all thanks to deciding to try an experiment in online serial writing.

This was around 2015. It was intended to be a short, multi-part serial that I’d write over a few weeks. I wondered if it might help me be more focused in my writing. I’d been to SXSW in Austin the previous year and had ended up at a party talking to a guy who worked at an online fiction platform. It might have been Tapas. Anyway, he inspired me to try writing a serial, but clearly his pitch didn’t quite work as I ended up on Wattpad. That seemed the most vibrant place at the time.

Amazon wasn’t something I could consider, because I didn’t have a book! Back then, the challenge was actually finishing a project. Turns out, serial writing really suits me.

LM: How did you go about it? That is, how did you choose a publishing platform, find readers, market the work, etc?

Simon: This was 2015, so back when social media was still fairly effective. Whenever I posted a new chapter on Wattpad, I’d share it to Twitter and Facebook, probably some other places that no longer exist. Wattpad itself has a huge userbase of readers, so a lot of people just showed up through magical algorithmic hand waving.

That first serial, called A Day of Faces, did really well in terms of reader numbers, and won a ‘Watty Award’ in 2016. Not only had I actually finished a project, but it had been well received. It was a critical moment for me as a writer.

picture of people walking on a blue background
The latest novel by Simon K Jones

Lloyd: In hindsight, what do you know now that you wished you’d known years ago?

Simon: After that first serial I dived into a second, called The Mechanical Crown. That ended up being a massive fantasy novel, which also did well in terms of readers and was my second completed project. I was so busy focusing on the writing that I didn’t think too much about where I was writing, and in retrospect I probably should have started thinking about getting off Wattpad at that point.

Instead, I stayed on Wattpad through to 2021, following up with a third serial called No Adults Allowed. Then in 2021 I heard about this thing called Substack, which was a newsletter platform that had a payment structure that was designed more for writers than corporate marketers. I’d had a mostly abandoned Mailchimp account for years, but at that point I decided to make the jump and fully commit to newsletter writing.

I wish I’d known to do this earlier. I should probably have committed sooner to newsletter building, or publishing via Patreon or similar. Wattpad was a total dead end, but I’m still grateful to it for giving me my start. But for anyone on a similar path, it’s essential to start building and owning your own readership, especially now that social media has imploded.

To expand on that last point: the social platforms that have been our main focus for the last 10-15 years have shifted their systems over time to the point where they’re not really fit for purpose. In the early days they were the great levellers: suddenly an unknown writer could get their work in front of an enormous number of people. The algorithms now mean that it doesn’t matter whether you have 40 or 40,000 followers, because barely any of them will see your stuff unless you’re paying. The equation is upside-down. Increasingly they suppress anything that links off to external sites, so promoting your book or newsletter or crowdfunder or whatever else on Facebook or Twitter of Instagram doesn’t work.

In a lot of cases, it’s wasted effort. Whereas building an email list, and having a way to contact people directly, is something that has been far more reliable for far longer. The email newsletter has been around since the 1990s and still works (although Google and the others are trying their best to ‘disrupt’ it). Sending newsletters pre-dates the internet; it’s a concept that’s been around for decades.

LM: How has the online publishing world changed over the last ten years?

Simon: There used to be a bit of a stigma around publishing work online, especially for free. The assumption was that it wasn’t good enough to go out any other way.

That’s largely gone away, partly because readers love online serials, and partly because an increasing number of writers have started giving it a go – including big name writers. You have to take a form seriously when you have Chuck Palahniuk, Salman Rushdie, Luke Jennings, Brian K Vaughan and many others fully embracing it.

Beyond publishing actual fiction, it’s now commonly accepted wisdom that all writers need a newsletter. You can take a newsletter with you as you change agents and publishers, or shift between indie publishing and traditional. It gives writers some independence.

Around the edges, the social media landscape has collapsed. Twitter is gone. Instagram is no longer useful. Facebook is super uncool and similarly useless. TikTok is on the verge of being banned in the US. Everything is so volatile, and social media generally no longer really works for individual creators trying to make progress.

Kickstarter, Patreon, Substack, Ghost, Beehiiv – these platforms which enable creator ownership over material and audiences is where all the interesting stuff is happening.

Writing serial fiction

LM: Can you talk about the similarities & differences between writing a book and serialising it? Both in terms of how you approach them and how the reader consumes each.

Simon: It depends how you do it. Some people literally write a novel, then release it chapter-by-chapter. Some of my earlier serials tilted more in that direction. Alternatively, you can lean into the serial medium and design the narrative structure to more tightly fit the format.

In both cases, the key difference is in pacing. With a book, the reader fully controls the pace: they can read the whole thing in one marathon sitting, or over a few days, or take weeks. It’s up to them. If they want to keep reading, they simply turn the page.

A serial flips that on its head, certainly during its initial run. The author controls the pacing, based on when each instalment arrives. That could be daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly. The experience for the reader is much closer to a TV show than reading a book.

I love being able to reference something I wrote and published two years ago and have it properly resonate. Not all readers will make those links, but for those that do it’s a special moment.

Man in front of bookshelf
Simon K. Jones

Lloyd: How do you know what will be a book versus a series?

Simon: I write in the serial form because it’s what I find most comfortable. It keeps me coming back each week, knowing that people are already reading. When I used to try writing an entire novel by myself, in private, I’d always get distracted by something new and shiny, and struggle to finish projects.

The are some considerations when writing serials, such as chapter length, end-of-chapter hooks, how to help new readers jump on board halfway through the run and so on, which you don’t have with a novel. It’s not impossible to convert from one to another, but it’ll usually require a bit of restructuring for the delivery.

Lloyd: Do you ever make a book from the series or vice versa?S

Simon: If I was clever, I would be making paperback and ebook versions of all my serials, either as I go along or once they’re concluded. In reality I’ve only done this once, with No Adults Allowed. It’s about finding the time, really.

With No Adults Allowed it was a deliberately shorter serial, which made it a faster process to adapt into a novel. The paperback version is significantly revised, with some character arcs tweaked and other aspects expanded, plus a general polish throughout. The paperback and ebook is what I consider to be the definitive version, but it wouldn’t exist without having been a serial first.

LM: Serialisation also gives your audience the chance to provide immediate feedback. Do you ever wait a few days or weeks to publish something to have some space, or are you happy to hear what readers think as soon as you’ve finished?

Simon: I tend to be very seat-of-the-pants, and publish as soon as I think the chapter is ready. I’ve published written work and video and podcasts in my day job and as a novelist for twenty years, so I think I’ve got used to the idea of receiving fast feedback. Once you get used to YouTube comments, the sorts of responses you get from readers is easy to handle.

LM: How has the experience of releasing an audio version of your serial been? How have the readers responded?

Simon: I started recording the audio voiceover this year, as a bit of an experiment. I wasn’t sure if I had the time in my weekly schedule to fit it in, but so far it just about fits. It’s a challenge, though. The point was to give people an alternative way to get the story, so that if they were too busy to sit and read they could listen while doing housework, or on the commute. Every writer is competing for time, so giving readers those kinds of options can only help. It’s also a good thing to do for accessibility, of course.

What I wasn’t expecting was how useful it’s been for proofing and improving the text itself. The audio version I do last, but quite often pick up on things that need fixing, or which could be improved, while recording. Transposing it into that new form enables me to spot things in my own writing which I’d otherwise miss.

Writing a newsletter

Lloyd: Talk a bit about your Substack newsletter, its beginning, evolution and where you’re at with it currently.

Simon: I theoretically had a Mailchimp newsletter before, but never quite knew what to do with it. I always felt like I had to design a corporate-style marketing mailshot. It never felt right, and I only ever sent about five newsletters in a decade.

I came to Substack after interviewing Elle Griffin back in 2021. It looked like a much simpler, more writing-focused way of sending a newsletter. Free, old school in a way, but with a really solid technical foundation. Because it’s free to write on Subsack, it’s much more compatible with smaller-scale writers, especially fiction writers who are unlikely to be making money from their writing.

At that time I’d grown a little weary with Wattpad, which was far too unpredictable. I wanted to have a go at something where I was more in charge. It was fortuitous timing, as social media imploded a couple of years later. Having already started a newsletter put me in a good position to ride that out.

The short version is that writing my own newsletter has helped me write more. I still do weekly fiction, but I also put out a weekly newsletter about writing, plus a couple of podcasts, and a TV rewatch blog. It’s a lot of fun.

Lloyd: What are some of the strengths of the Substack platform, and what are some weaknesses? For writers starting out with serialisation or newsletters, do you recommend the platform? What should they take into consideration before deciding to set up a Substack?

Simon: Substack is a very mature product. It just works. Everything about it is designed with writers and creators in mind. It doesn’t over-clutter itself with random features. It’s really easy to write and send, and to include audio and video if you want. Offering paid subscriptions is incredibly easy, if that’s of interest.

It means you’re less beholden to social media algorithms. You send a newsletter, it goes to people’s email inboxes. Simple. In theory, anyway-  Google and the other providers are in the process of destroying that last bastion of predictable, reliable communications. The Substack app might help us ride that one out.

For readers, newsletters are good for non-fiction and one-offs. It’s a less natural fit for serials and long-form fiction. We’re all working on that, though, figuring out the best formats and presentation. Plus, I expect we’ll see some interesting moves from Substack itself within the next 18 months.

It’s an evolving platform. Whether or not you choose to publish your actual fiction this way, it’s essential for all writers (and creators generally) to have and build a newsletter. It’s been the most reliable way to contact people since the 1990s, and we all sort of forgot that over the last decade of social media obsessing.

If you don’t have a newsletter, start one right now. It gives you independence, and freedom, regardless of how you publish you work. Traditional, self-publishing, serials like me – a newsletter helps in all cases.

Lloyd: Your newsletter has become quite multimedia, with audio and video. Has that impacted how you write the newsletter or decide what topics to explore?

Simon: I have a background in video production from an earlier career, so had been looking for a way to incorporate that into the more educational aspects of the newsletter. Same with the audio – I used to produce a major podcast for the National Centre for Writing in the UK and was missing that experience. I’d love to bring more people on and interview other serial fiction writers, but as usual it’s a matter of finding the time.

None of it is strategic, really. That’s the good thing about a newsletter, and especially writing on Substack. I don’t feel the need to contort myself into awkward shapes dictated by algorithms and weird super-rich CEOs. I can just write, and produce video and audio, and follow my interests, and readers come along for the ride.

It’s immensely satisfying and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write every week and have some people read it.

You can read more of Simon's work on his very popular Substack


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