In literature, a serial is a printed format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and are either issued as separate publications or within sequential issues of the same periodical publication.
The growth of moveable type in the 17th century prompted episodic and often disconnected narratives such as L'Astrée and Le Grand Cyrus. At that time, books remained a premium item, so to reduce the price and expand the market, publishers produced large works in lower-cost installments called fascicles.
Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain's Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution. A significant majority of "original" novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers. The wild success of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature. During that era, the line between "quality" and "commercial" literature was not distinct. In the German-speaking countries, the serialized novel was widely popularized by the weekly family magazine Die Gartenlaube, which reached a circulation of 382,000 by 1875.
In France, Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue were masters of the serialized genre. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo each appeared as a feuilleton. The Count of Monte Cristo was stretched out to 139 installments. Eugène Sue's serial novel Le Juif errant increased circulation of Le Constitutionnel from 3,600 to 25,000. Production in book form soon followed and serialization was one of the main reasons that nineteenth-century novels were so long. Authors and publishers kept the story going if it was successful since authors were paid by line and by episode.
Some writers were prolific. Alexandre Dumas wrote at an incredible pace, oftentimes writing with his partner twelve to fourteen hours a day, working on several novels for serialized publication at once. However, not every writer could keep up with the serial writing pace. Wilkie Collins, for instance, was never more than a week before publication. The difference in writing pace and output in large part determined the author's success, as audience appetite created demand for further installments.
While American periodicals first syndicated British writers, over time they drew from a growing base of domestic authors. The rise of the periodicals like Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly grew in symbiotic tandem with American literary talent. The magazines nurtured and provided an economic sustainability for writers, while the writers helped grow the periodicals' circulation base. During the late 19th century, those that were considered the best American writers first published their work in serial form and then only later in a completed volume format. As a piece in Scribner's Monthly explained in 1878, "Now it is the second or third rate novelist who cannot get publication in a magazine, and is obliged to publish in a volume, and it is in the magazine that the best novelist always appears first." Among the American writers that wrote in serial form were Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Herman Melville. A large part of the appeal for writers at the time was the broad audiences that serialization could reach, which would then grow their following for published works.
One of the first significant American works to be released in serial format is Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published over a 40-week period by The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue.
Serialization was so standard in American literature that authors from that era often built installment structure into their creative process. Henry James, for example, often had his works divided into multi-part segments of similar length. The consumption of fiction during that time was different than in the 20th century. Instead of being read in a single volume, a novel would often be consumed by readers in installments over a period as long as a year, with the authors and periodicals often responding to audience reaction.
Serialization was also popular throughout Europe. In France, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary was serialized in La Revue de Paris in 1856. In Russia, The Russian Messenger serialized Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877 and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov from 1879 to 1880.
In addition, works in late Qing dynasty China had been serialized. The Nine-tailed Turtle was serialized from 1906 to 1910. Bizarre Happenings Eyewitnessed Over Two Decades was serialized in Xin Xiaoshuo (T: 新小說, S: 新小说, P: Xīn Xiǎoshuō; W: Hsin Hsiao-shuo; "New Fiction"), a magazine by Liang Qichao. The first half of Officialdom Unmasked appeared in installments of Shanghai Shijie Fanhua Bao, serialized there from April 1903 to June 1905.
Other famous English language writers who wrote serial literature for popular magazines included Wilkie Collins, inventor of the English detective novel and author of The Moonstone; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialization in The Strand magazine; and the Polish writer Bolesław Prus, author of the serialized novels The Outpost (1885–86), The Doll (1887–89), The New Woman (1890–93), and his sole historical novel, Pharaoh (the latter, exceptionally, written entire over a year's time in 1894–95 and serialized only after completion, in 1895–96).
With the rise of broadcast—both radio and television series—in the first half of the 20th century, printed periodical fiction began a slow decline as newspapers and magazines shifted their focus from entertainment to information and news. However, some serialization of novels in periodicals continued, with mixed success.
Starting in 1984, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, about 1980s New York City, ran in 27 parts in Rolling Stone, partially inspired by the model of Charles Dickens. Rolling Stone paid $200,000 for his work, but Wolfe heavily revised the work before publication as a standalone novel. Michael Chabon also serialized Gentlemen of the Road in The New York Times Magazine in 2007.
During the late 20th century, the emergence of the World Wide Web prompted some authors to again try a serial format. Stephen King experimented with this format with The Plant (2000), and Michel Faber allowed The Guardian to serialise his novel The Crimson Petal and the White. In 2005, Orson Scott Card serialized his out-of-print novel Hot Sleep in the first issue of his online magazine, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. In 2011, pseudonymous author Wildbow published Worm, which remains one of the most popular web serials of all time.
The rise of fan fiction on the internet also follows a serial fiction style of publication, as seen on popular fan fiction websites such as FanFiction.Net and Archive of Our Own (AO3).
Many aspiring authors also used the web to publish free-to-read works in serialized format independently as well as web-based communities such as LiveJournal, Fictionpress.com, fictionhub, and Wattpad. Many of these books receive as many readers as successful novels; some have received the same number of readers as New York Times bestsellers.
In addition, the prevalence of mobile devices made the serial format even more popular with the likes of JukePop Serials with iOS and Android apps that focuses entirely on curating and promoting serialized novels.