ven though I'm too young to remember them, I've heard tell of the Saturday "serial" movies and how stories were once published in bite sized pieces that kept the reader coming back each week to get the latest installment.
Now, serial stories have reemerged in the twenty-first century for those who love to read but just can't sit down and read for long periods of time.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to put in the August issue of WOW! I knew I had to include this market. Not only does Virtual Tales send your weekly reading installment to your inbox, they need great writers.
I had the privilege to chat with Sheri Gormley, Business Manger, of Virtual Tales.
WOW: Sheri, thanks so much for taking time from your busy schedule. Why not start at the beginning. Tell us about Virtual Tales. How she came to be, what you want to accomplish, how things are going.
Sheri: KeepItComing.net (KIC), the original website for eSerials, went out of business in the fall of 2006, but its Yahoo Group site remained active and many of the authors, artists and customers posted notes, wondering what to do. After going through a long debate about what worked for KIC and what didn't, eventually four felt they had the core skills needed to successfully launch a start-up Internet publishing venture and see it through.
Dave Law (Chairman) has a great deal of publishing-business experience, which has opened many, many doors for us and helped us develop a good business model. I'm a marketing professional, so it was natural for me to serve as the Marketing Director to oversee the branding, marketing and promotional activities for the site. Daniel Repperger (Director of Technology) is a professional web developer who has completely automated delivery of our serials and other services. And June Diehl (Director of Submissions) is a professional editor who orchestrates our story submission and evaluation process, as well as our editorial process.
“...many small press publishers are sprouting up who are willing to publish works that won't make the NY Times Bestseller list...”
I wanted to give a special plug to Daniel and June here, because while Dave and I seem to have the most visibility (as Chairman, Dave is quoted in almost every press release, and because I'm the press contact, my name is all over the place), Daniel and June are the ones who really make our business work. One of main reasons that KIC failed was that it was owned and run by a single person who didn't know how to develop an automated web application that could manage all the orders and deliveries in the background. She had to set up each and every serial issue in an e-mail template and manually send out e-mails to all the customers every day.
And she didn't have a team of editors who could work with each author to proofread and polish the stories, so the writing quality was often hit or miss. June and Daniel have enabled Virtual Tales to give our customers polished, professional stories that are delivered on time, week in and week out. It's what sets us apart from all the other e-Literature websites, frankly.
As for what we hope to accomplish, the mainstream, New York based publishing industry has become extremely selective about what it will publish. It's to the point where they aren't willing to take on very many new authors as they are only willing to publish works that have a chance to become bestsellers. In response to this ever-shrinking marketplace, many small press publishers are sprouting up who are willing to publish works that won't make the NY Times Bestseller list but will still find an audience. The Portland/Vancouver metro area is a hotbed for small press publishing right now, and we are positioning Virtual Tales to be one of the best and brightest members of this growing community as we move into the next phase of our product offerings, which will be print books.
“A serial in the classic sense was a novel that was published incrementally in a newspaper or magazine.”
Our business plan calls for us to generate the maximum exposure for each of our stories by offering it in as many forms as possible. So a story starts out as an eSerial, then moves into the eBook format, then goes to print. The next phase, of course, would be to offer it as an audio book, giving each of our titles access to the widest possible audience. Right now, we expect that our very first print book will be available on Amazon.com by August 2007, so we are at stage three of our business plan. Whether you want the convenience of an eSerial, or are hooked on eBooks, or prefer the familiar paperback format, we have lots of great titles for you right now, and more are on the way.
WOW: This sounds so wonderful. I'm definitely going to check out Virtual Tales in detail. But just so we don't get confused, what is a serial and how does it differ from a series?
Sheri: A serial in the classic sense was a novel that was published incrementally in a newspaper or magazine. These serials reached the height of popularity during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were two of the most popular serial authors of this time, and when their serials were complete, they were published as stand-alone novels. A series is number of books that revolve around a single character or place, like the Wizard of Oz books or the Martian Chronicles. Sometimes, you can have a serial that is part of a series, as was the case of the Sherlock Holmes stories. They started out as serials and were published in a series of novels.
“For a serial to be successful, you have got to hook your reader.”
Virtual Tales publishes eSerials, which take advantage of today's technologies to send each issue directly to our customer's e-mail boxes. We charge the same amount for an eSerial as an eBook, and the price is based on the number of words and/or issues in a story. Our stories range in price from $3.95 to $8.95. Even if you don't have an eReader, you can still enjoy the paperless experience on a variety of other gadgets. For example, I still have my old Palm m515 PDA, which I use to carry my calendar and address book. Even with this older piece of technology, I can still carry dozens of eSerials with me wherever I go.
Every time I sync up with my computer I can upload all the new issues of the stories I'm following and read them when I'm stuck in a waiting room or just sitting on bench eating lunch during a workday. I've got my Palm in my purse anyway, so why not use it for something fun? And, if you've got one of the Nokia cell phones with Adobe Reader, you can read your issues on your cell phone.
WOW: You've been writing serials for a while now. Just what does it take to make a great serial?
Sheri: For a serial to be successful, you have got to hook your reader. We offer the first four issues of all our serials as a free trial, so if you can't hook the reader in those first four issues, they won't buy the story. As a writer, you've got to make a lot of interesting stuff happen in those first four issues if you want to make a sale.
WOW: What have you found to be the best way to hook the reader? Great characters, a complex plotline, or a combination of both?
Sheri: I think that it's largely a matter of appealing to your audience. Certain genres require more of one and less of another; others require both. For me personally, I am more interested in great characters. I enjoy getting into the minds of each character and finding out what makes them tick. My husband, on the other hand, likes to read stories with tightly formed plotlines; the characters are not as important as the story. So as a writer, I think you just have to trust your instincts and know your genre. Read some Sci-Fi, read some mysteries, see what you like about them and then make sure your story is the best that it can be.
“...we have some of the best covers in the business, hands down.”
WOW: There are so many genres out there. Is there a genre that does better as a serial than the others, is more popular or readers seem to prefer?
Sheri: Our titles run the gamut of popular fiction genres, and our customers buy titles in each and every genre. I think what is most important is the quality of the story. We spend a lot of time working with the author and the editor to pull an exciting bit of story to post on the website as an excerpt, to craft a story synopsis and promo copy that really gives the reader a good feel for what's inside. And we have some of the best covers in the business, hands down. Some of our book covers have been nominated for awards and have even won awards, and our artists are just amazingly talented. I've read some of the reader comments on MobiPocket and other eBook sites where we sell our products, and more than once a customer has posted a comment that they decided to buy the eBook because the cover was so cool. So that's an important marketing tool as well.
“It depends on what they want, really...”
WOW: One thing I love about Virtual Tales is you have something for the reader and the writer. How does Virtual Tales work for the reader? How do they receive their stories?
Sheri: It depends on what they want, really, especially as we are moving our stories into every format imaginable. At this point, all of our works are available as eSerials, which can only be purchased on our website. They are delivered to subscribers twice a week via e-mail
Most titles are also available as eBooks and can be purchased at the Virtual Tales website, as well as at MobiPocket, Fictionwise and other eBook websites. Every vendor has their own delivery methods, but if you buy an eBook at the Virtual Tales website, it will be sent to you via e-mail.
We are also starting to roll the most popular titles out in print now, and these will be available through the Virtual Tales website and Amazon.com.
WOW: And for our readers who might be interested in submitting a story to Virtual Tales. What are you looking for in a serial and could you give our writers some tips that might give them a better chance at having a story accepted by Virtual Tales?
Sheri: It's funny you should ask that! June, our Director of Submissions, just posted a blog entry about this so I'm going to refer you and your readers to that link.
Aim for Successful Submissions
WOW: I know this information is posted on your website but how is the writer paid and how much of the purchase price goes to the author?
Sheri: All of our talent (writers, editors & artists) are paid through PayPal once a quarter. Authors receive 60% of the profits from sales of the eSerial and eBook versions of work; editors receive 20%, artists receive 10% and Virtual Tales keeps the other 10%. The split for print is a little different due to extra overhead and costs, but it's close.
“...we jump at the opportunity to work with someone who writes well and sends us a great story, regardless of whether they've been published or not.”
WOW: There are so many things to love about Virtual Tales I have a hard time deciding my favorite. But one of those things is the fact each author works one on one with an editor. How does this work?
Sheri: Initially all submissions are reviewed by a group of editors, who read the submission and share their recommendations with the Board of Directors. Based on their feedback, the Board will either reject the work or request the full manuscript. When the manuscript is received, it is assigned to a single editor for detailed review. If the editor thinks the work has merit and is willing to take on the assignment, the Board of Directors evaluates it a bit more before deciding to issue a contract. Once the contract is signed, the author will begin working directly with the assigned editor to polish the story for publication.
WOW: How do you feel about working with new writers?
Sheri: Actually, that's one of the reasons we're in business. There are so many talented new authors and fewer and fewer agents and publishers who are willing to take a risk on someone who's unpublished. So while we reject the vast majority of submissions we receive, we jump at the opportunity to work with someone who writes well and sends us a great story, regardless of whether they've been published or not. We can do this because our editorial process ensures that we will produce a polished final work, as our editors are professionals and know how to coach and guide their writers to create great fiction.
WOW: What do you not want to see? (Erotica, lots of foul language, violence?)
Sheri: Virtual Tales uses the ratings guidelines from the MPAA, and we won't publish anything that goes beyond an “R” rating, including works with excessive language, violence or erotica. June covers this in great detail in her recent blog post, so I'll refer you and your readers to that.
(Submission guidelines are here.)
“...every single story on our website is available for a free trial...”
WOW: There are so many stories to choose from. Would you like to recommend any stories for our readers to try?
Sheri: The Virtual Tales stories that have created the most “buzz” so far include EARRINGS OF IXTUMEA, a young adult fantasy by Kim Baccellia, CURIOUS ACCOUNTS OF THE IMAGINARY FRIEND, a horror anthology by P.S. Gifford and CHASING THE WIND, an action-adventure thriller by B.J. Kibble. Irish author Jack Scoltock has given us two amazing pieces, “FIRST COMMUNION” and “GOLDEN WEDDIN' AND THE B.V.M” and frankly, there are so many others that it probably better to just go to our website and take a look for yourself.
Remember that every single story on our website is available for a free trial, so you it costs nothing to try something out. And there's no limit on the number of titles you can sample for free; you can sign up for each and every one if you like. A free trial gives you the first four issues of a serial. If you like it, you can subscribe to the serial or buy the eBook or print version (if available). If not, try something else! It's like going into a bookstore and reading the first four chapters to see if you want to buy a book, except that we send those chapters to you so you don't have to leave home.
WOW: You've given us so much great information. What's coming up soon that we should be on the lookout for?
Sheri: Our books are starting to come out in print and we expect them to show up on Amazon.com by August 2007. We're in the midst of a major site upgrade, and once that's done we'll have our own Forum Boards available on the website, which will enable us to sponsor an amazing free contest for wannabe authors, "Serial Idol."
The specifics are still being worked out, but basically, we're going to let people sign on and post the first four chapters of their novel and then let our visitors vote for the ones they like best. We'll also have a panel of judges that will weigh in, and we'll select the top ten entries to participate in the contest. Each contestant will then have to post a new chapter of their novel once a week, and our visitors and judges will vote for the best ones until we narrow it down to one clear winner, who will get a contract to finish their piece. They'll get an editor to work with, an artist to design their cover and the thrill of being a published author.
It should be a lot of fun, and so we encourage your readers to start planning to participate. At the very least, it will be a great way to get free feedback on your story idea, and could even lead to a publishing contract.
At this point, the start of the contest depends on completion of the site technology upgrade, which we are hoping will be finished this summer. If we can stick with that schedule, then look for the contest to debut this fall. We'll post all the finalized details as the contest gets closer.
WOW: See, another thing I love about Virtual Tales, Serial Idol! Did I miss anything or is there anything you'd like to add?
Sheri: Yes. I'd like to offer a “buy one, get one free” special to your readers. If you go to the Virtual Tales website and buy one of our eSerials or eBooks, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with your Virtual Tales order confirmation number and mention this offer. Include the name of another story you would like to receive and we will send it to you for free. And it's okay if you sign up for a free trial first, too.
WOW: What a great offer! Thank you so much Sheri. And again, thank you so much for spending time with WOW!
Jean Lauzier is Editor of WOW! Women On Writing.