In the nineteenth century the publication of popular novels (and by this I mean both good novels that were popular and mass-market pulp fiction) was a process probably more similar to the way comic books are published now.
Not initially released as whole novels (the story from beginning to end, bound in one book, as we’re used to seeing them), they were serialised monthly, several chapters bound together, and sold at news stands. They even contained advertisements to cover the cost of distribution and generate more revenue for the writer.
Some of these would run for ten, twelve or twenty months, however long was necessary for the story to be told. The authors would be writing their stories during this publication process, not writing the complete novel and then releasing it piece by piece. When the book runs had finished, they would be re-published as a whole novel.
Some of these stories, the soap operas of their day, were endless titles that ran and ran until public interest waned and they were no longer profitable to produce.
Because this was a cheaper means of publication, and therefore available to a wider audience, it suffered somewhat from the stigma of being a means of hack writers shifting poor quality work to an indiscriminate audience. Charles Dickens released much of his work in this format, and in his early career (before his reputation was established) he suffered the snobbery of those who assumed that the distribution method reflected on the quality of the writing.
With digital publishing having firmly established itself in the past 12 months and, given the sale of eReaders over the Christmas period, seeming set to take a growing portion of the market, I think we have an opportunity for this Victorian model of publishing to thrive.
Of course, releasing a novel whilst you’re still writing it isn’t for everyone; writers of Dickens’ talent are few and far between and the majority of us couldn’t get away with it without writing ourselves into a dead end or creating glaring inconsistencies between the beginning and end of the novel. But that doesn’t mean that serial publication can’t be an option once a novel has been finished and edited.