What Do Authors Think of Amazon’s Vella?

No worse than the alternatives

Key Takeaways

  • Vella is a new serial-fiction service from Amazon.
  • You can read the first few chapters of a series for free.
  • Payments are made with a confusing tokens system.
library shelves full of books

Susan Q Yin / Unsplash

Vella is Amazon’s new serialized-fiction platform, and like any good publisher of regular content, the first few installments of any series are free.

Amazon is muscling in on the popular territory of serial-fiction platforms like Radish, and to a lesser extent Wattpad, which is more focused on publishing entire stories. Serialization is more open than conventional publishing, even in the age of self-publishing direct to Kindle, and has a lower barrier to entry. But will Vella turn Amazon into a gatekeeper? Can authors trust it?

"I don't trust Amazon to treat authors right. I hope to be treated somewhat decently, but I'm not expecting it," multi-platform serialization queer dark fantasy romance author A.W. Frasier told Lifewire. "It's a business, [and] we're cogs in a big factory that makes a certain CEO a lot of money. I'm just hoping to make some for myself, as well."

Serial Killer

Serialized fiction is so hot right now, and it’s easy to see why. The short-form, constant drip of new episodes fits right in alongside our social media habits, and short pieces are perfect for the small screen. Serialized stories also create a buzz. They supply chapters on a regular schedule, which again fits our modern reading habits.

And this mobile-first strategy is obvious from the beginning: You can read Vella in the iOS Kindle app, or on Amazon.com. Neither Kindles, nor the Android app, are currently supported.

"I believe that for authors, serialized writing allows the freedom to explore aspects of writing that you can’t in a tightly plotted novel."

"Many serialization sites allow comments on every chapter, and following along while it uploads gives the readers a sense of finding something before it's cool, a sense of "I was there!"—especially if the author is engaging with their fanbase," says Frasier. "There's also the anticipation. The wait is exciting! You're reading a chapter and oh no, it ended on a cliffhanger and now you've got to wait until the next chapter comes out.

"It resembles waiting for another episode of your favorite tv series, which in a time when a lot of series drop a whole season at a time, can feel a little nostalgic."

"I believe serialized fiction builds more investment in characters," agrees Vella author AJ Arnault. "Week by week, you get excited to learn what’s going to happen next. Cliffhangers, plot twists, and whodunit moments take on a new meaning through bite-sized episodes."

Frasier publishes on Radish and Tapas, two serialization platforms, and also on Wattpad. These platforms are dominated by genre fiction, which also seems well-suited to serialization. In terms of audience, and the interaction between readers and writers, they seem like they live in a different universe to regular novel publishing. This is exactly the kind of buzz that drives big tech crazy, so it's no surprise that Amazon is interested.

Freedom

One of the best aspects of self-published, serialized fiction is the freedom. There’s freedom to write what you want, reaching audiences that are not always served by long-form fiction that has to go through a publishing house.

"There are very few gatekeepers within serialization—which, as a queer author, is a definite plus," says Frasier.

"I don't trust Amazon to treat authors right. I hope to be treated somewhat decently, but I'm not expecting it."

And also the freedom to play with the form:

"I believe that for authors, serialized writing allows the freedom to explore aspects of writing that you can’t in a tightly plotted novel," says Arnault. "For instance, I worry less about word count and fitting into an industry standard and allow the story to unfold in its own way and own time."

The novel is not the ultimate literary form. It’s just the form that grew to fit the size and shape of the printed book. Popular art often changes its form to fit the way it is used or sold. 

In his book, How Music Works, David Byrne explores how drum music fits open spaces, church music moves slowly to account for the long, slow echoes, and pop music songs shrank to around three minutes to fit onto 7-inch vinyl 45s. Today, the form of a pop song has changed to fit Spotify, often beginning with the chorus or hook, and made short to encourage repeat plays.

Token Payment

Regardless of who Vella is good for, its payment method seems designed to confuse everyone. Instead of just paying for new chapters (or episodes, as Amazon calls them) you must purchase tokens. A token pays for 100 words, and tokens are available in packs of 200 ($1.99), 525 ($4.99), 1,100 ($9.99), and 1,700 ($14.99).

black woman on her phone while laying on a couch

Joyce Busola / Unsplash

Microsoft did something similar with Microsoft Points back in 2005. This obfuscated the actual cost of games, as well as forced people to buy more points than they needed. Vella tokens look like they have similar goals.

Amazon is well-positioned to take serialized fiction mainstream, and that’s good news for authors and readers. Whether it affects rival services remains to be seen. Amazon is not exactly well known for building online communities, which seems to be the lifeblood of modern serialized fiction. For now, it looks like Vella might be just another way for authors to self-publish their work.

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