Serial Novel: Hitting the End

I’m no Charles Dickens, but like the great litterateur I’ve been laboring recently in the serial novel industry. My novella, Fatman Descends, ended yesterday with installment number 50. (Missed Fatman? You can find all the episodes in the Archive.)

Dickens: Maybe the bar got set too high.

Dickens: Maybe he set the bar too high.

In case there are others out there considering a career in this racket, here’s a report on how it went.

For starters, I reaped $1000 in arts money that was floating around the light-rail project here in St. Paul. The arts org Irrigate offered just about anybody who claimed to be an artist $1000 for “creative place-making projects” related to the development.

The premise of Fatman Descends was that light-rail construction opened a portal to the underworld, allowing the vengeful dead to escape and settle old scores in Frogtown. Creative place-making? Who knows? But in the end the folks at Irrigate cut a check to me for $1000.

That also created some complications, however, since part of the deal was to collaborate with community organizations or businesses to produce a visible product. My original intent was to get out postcards announcing the online publication of Fatman, do some guerilla posters around Frogtown light-rail stops, and then start publishing daily installments for anyone who was interested. That really wasn’t enough, the folks at Irrigate told me.


The Fatman postcard.

So I ended up making a deal with a local restaurant, Que Nha at Victoria and University. I figured I could do a reading there for the dozen or so people who would show up. We’d have a meal (worth noting: it’s a very sweet restaurant), drink some tea and go home. Mission accomplished. Then things got complicated.

Unexpectedly, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the StarTribune both promoted the event. The St. Paul paper featured a big picture of my grinning mug on the front of the local section. I did a Facebook event listing and heard from a couple dozen people who said they might attend. I began to fear that the Fatman event was getting a little out of control. Luckily, I got bailed out by Model Cities, the organization that owns the restaurant building.

Model Cities staffer Kizzy Downie offered me the nicely appointed meeting room in the back of the building, and waived the usual fee. I ordered a bunch of snacklets for the crowd from Que Nha, plus vats of tea. So much for collaborators.


Me and famous actor, Bart Cannon.

That matter settled, another problem presented itself. A mere reading, with middle-aged me shuffling a pile of papers, seemed lame — especially if the audience was to include more than my immediate family. I needed to step up my game. I enlisted my daughter, a pal of hers, my wife and a friend to help me do a dramatic reading from Fatman. I got them the appropriate costumes — togas, street-walker gear, a cop’s uniform. (More photos here.) We lined up sound effects and even some lighting. Not quite the Guthrie, but better than the mumbler’s gig I originally had in mind. The show was on.

About 50 people appeared for the costumed reading. We could have jammed more into the room, but it was enough to feel like a crowd. I want to think it was an amusing performance. Or at least amusing enough, considering the price. Which was free. That same day the online publication of Fatman Descends began.

Readers filled out a very simple online sign-up form to get the day’s installment sent to them via email. They could also visit the website and harvest the latest episode or any previous installment. This was advertised via 1000 postcards I distributed at local businesses, with chalk messages written on the sidewalk near University Ave. light rail stops, in the StarTribune and Pioneer Press stories, through various online news aggregators, and through Facebook. I also sent an email notice to people in my address book.

Sidewalk advertising.

Sidewalk advertising.

Did the masses come a-calling? Not quite. I ended up with 104 subscribers. About half of them actually opened the daily emailed installment. Another seven or eight people visited the website every day. A generous estimate is that 60 people read Fatman daily.

As a path to fame and wealth, well, this is not necessarily one I would recommend. Of that $1000 upfront money from Irrigate, I spent about $200 on postcards and food for the reading. So I pocketed $800, or $16 per episode. Considerably less than minimum wage when all was said and done.

Thankfully there were other satisfactions. I had faithful readers, and they went out of their way to let me know. They could cite chapter and verse; they worried about the characters; they were revolted by the villains. Reader quality trumped reader quantity.

And, lucky or unlucky for me, while I’m happy to have readers along for the ride and to put some money in the bank, it’s not my biggest reason for writing. Sorry to be such a solipsist, but there you have it.

I might reform if, like Dickens, I had ten kids staring up at me each morning, wondering where that day’s porridge would come from. Of course it would also help if I were, like Dickens, a genius.

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