BKAS ESSAY SHORT No. 10 (May 2023)

Serial Fiction and Advertising

Peter Robinson (Japan Women's University)

Advertising has always been the lifeblood of newspapers. Apart from the income derived from direct sales and subscriptions, a huge portion of their income comes from product advertising in a symbiotic relationship that continues to this day, despite the new digital medium. The importance of this connection can be seen in the layout of newspapers too. Well into the twentieth century, many newspapers had their front and back pages dedicated to advertising, not news headlines and sport which we might expect today. Advertising revenue allowed the newspaper to expand in scope and richness, and played a crucial role in supporting the provincial and local press where readerships would never sufficiently cover printing and production costs. Advertising itself changed dramatically in the nineteenth century, from small text-based advertisements in columns in the 1850s, to full-page colour advertisements featuring images of the products being sold by the final decade of the century. Waterman (pens) and Pears (soap) are two good examples of companies embracing the potential of newspapers to expand their markets. Figure 1 shows a well-known example of this taken from the New York Tribune's 'Sunday Magazine' in c1904. Advertisements burgeoned at the beginning of the twentieth century, not just in size and colour, but also in rhetorical sophistication, and were aimed at an increasingly expanding middle class in what would become known as consumer culture. It was primarily advertising revenue that allowed newspapers to pay record prices for serial fiction, and without it, serial fiction could not have been supported and perhaps many of the great writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would not have gained traction with the public.

Figure 1. Newspaper advertisement for Pears soap, c1904, The New York Tribune Sunday Magazine. (c) Shadowlands Newspaper Archive.

Serial Fiction as Marketing

The benefits of newspaper fiction for authors in providing an outlet for their work were clear, but in many ways the relationship was reciprocal. The layout of serial fiction was designed to maximise reader exposure to other products and features in the newspaper. While the first page of a serial was usually dedicated entirely to the story and increasingly elaborate illustrations, the story was invariably continued towards the back of the newspaper or supplement, ensuring that readers had to move through other pages, articles, and more importantly advertising, in order to pick up the story. It was the early-twentieth century equivalent of click-bait which plagues the Internet today. As the reader became more engrossed in the story, they would be literally drawn deeper and deeper into the newspaper, and of course the episodic nature of serial fiction encouraged readership loyalty too. Research has shown that the majority of serial fiction was targeted towards middle-class women, who not only had the time to read stories, but also controlled the family purse strings and spent readily on the vast array of consumables that were on offer.

Advertising became more complex as technology improved, tapping into its artistic potential. Huge double page advertisements -although never common- not infrequently adorned the pages of the New York Tribune and other broadsheet formats, and were incredibly expensive to produce, often printed separately by the American Lithographic Company and inserted into weekend editions. A good example of the increasingly elaborate and rhetorical sophistication of advertisements is the advertising campaign for ‘Moon-Glow’ silk just after WWI. The advertising campaign for this product used at least three superimposed photographs starting with a moonlit seascape. On top of this image a euphoric female nude appeared, and on top of that, a translucent silk veil. [See Figure 2]. What is particularly interesting about this image is that it only appeared a couple of times before the female nude was removed, leaving just the moonscape, presumably because of complaints about its risqué nature.

Advertising fiction

Newspapers were very adroit at advertising their own serialisations, the popularity of which made them a highly important part of marketing and market appeal. They ranged from small leaders describing forthcoming books, to sophisticated advertising campaigns, depending on the nature of the serialisation. For Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, first serialised in the New York Tribune's 'Sunday Magazine' in 1914, numerous adverts were posted with an image of Sherlock Holmes and various crime motifs such as a masked knifeman or simply a footprint [see Figure 3 for example]. Leading up to its publication on 20 September 1914 the New York Tribune began a carefully calibrated and choreographed advertising campaign. Firstly, in order to reacquaint readers with the author Conan Doyle, on 6 September their 'Sunday Magazine' issued a two-page illustrated biographical feature with Doyle’s picture on the front cover [Figure 4]. The following week the magazine's cover featured characters from previous Sherlock Holmes stories, as a form of tantalisation. Which of the characters would reappear, if any? [Figure 5] The advertising peaked with the launch of the first instalment on the 20 September, when the story was billed as a thrilling ‘American Mystery’. Further advertising made use of the full gambit of techniques available, such as the ‘grab while you can’ inducement, stating that The Valley of Fear was ‘likely to be the last detective serial by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’.

The Synopsis

A key feature present in serial or serialised newspaper fiction essential for it to play a wider role in selling newspapers is the synopsis, or ‘summary of the plot so far’. A synopsis historically accompanied the fiction of monthly or bi-monthly literary periodicals such as The Strand Magazine, as well as fiction purveyed in weekly newspapers. For perhaps obvious reasons, they occurred less frequently in fiction serialised within daily newspapers, where the speed of reading made remembering key plot lines or characters less challenging, and therefore the synopsis redundant. This is important because the synopsis may be seen as a form of non-authorial intervention in the text, helping to fill the lacuna between authorial intention and reader’s understanding.

In serial fiction, the synopsis has two principal functions: firstly, to refresh the memory of existing readers or bridge or bridge missed issues, and secondly, to allow new readers to pick-up the story and rapidly orientate themselves. Since newspaper fiction was widely used as a way of attracting new readers and subscribers, and once they were ‘hooked’, to secure reader loyalty (at least for the duration of the serialisation) the necessity for a well-written synopsis should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, it was still important that as many readers as possible started reading the serialisation from the first issue, which unwittingly produced an incomparable collective reading event (perhaps the nearest thing in recent times would be the release of a new Harry Potter novel). The start of a new serialisation was always advertised the previous week, and for expensive serialisations by famous writers as we have seen in the case of Doyle's The Valley of Fear, promoted weeks in advance, and often accompanied by biographical sketches to heighten anticipation. If readers did happen to miss some parts of the story, perhaps due to vacationing or business commitments, a well-written synopsis was a good substitute, ensuring that reader’s enjoyment of the story was not compromised. Every serialisation had a certain point, a moment in the extended publishing event of the serial, at which a synopsis no longer served either of these two purposes. This point was determined partly by the periodicity of the publication carrying the serial, and partly by the total length of the material being serialised. Generally, the synopsis disappeared when, on the one hand, it was impossible for new readers to realistically pick up the plot and engage with the story in a meaningful way, while on the other, readers already engrossed in the story had sufficiently ‘fixed’ or ‘created’ the plot and characters within their own minds and a synopsis ran the risk of contradicting the character images they had self-fashioned. Somewhat unusually, in the case of Doyle’s The Valley of Fear (1914), the synopsis carried its own illustration, offering a visual representation of the story not given within the previous part. The synopsis grows over parts 1-4 by the addition of extra lines and the retention of the preceding synopsis.

Given that it had been determined that a synopsis was necessary (a long enough periodicity, and sufficient number of parts), the newspaper's or periodical’s literary editor typically supplied the synopsis with no further input from the author, thus it was fundamentally an interpretive task: a form of reading, where elision, abridgement, and selection, as well as other linguistic forces came into play. Considered in this light, drafting the content of the synopsis was no easy task and required considerable skill in striking a balance between synthesis and retelling. In effect, the synopsis is a condensed narrative retelling of the story in the third person.


In any form of illustrated fiction, the relationship between image and text is highly significant, but especially interesting in the context of newspaper and periodical illustrators who were often also engaged in advertising work for the same publications. Illustrated serial and serialized fiction had become a staple of periodical literature by the mid-nineteenth century. However, for newspapers, which were by their very nature designed to be cheap and disposable, there were significant financial hurdles: the costs of commissioning an illustrator, and more importantly of printing pictures, first in black and white, and later in colour, were initially prohibitive. The Illustrated London News was one notable exception. However, when improvements in print technologies and use of wood-pulp paper reduced costs, and an expanding readership coupled with increased advertising revenue improved the balance sheet, the number of illustrations exploded exponentially. Starting as small black and white illustrations in the 1880s, by 1900, special Sunday supplements were being printed on glossy paper, with front and back covers in full colour. The formation of large syndicates that supplied off-the-shelf customisable magazine content also helped to reduce costs significantly. Yet despite the arrival of the illustrated newspaper and elaborate supplements, illustrations did not simply jump fully-fledged onto fiction pages. There was a significant period of transition, of experimentation, and immense artistic creatively. Just as the potential of comics as an expressive medium had developed exponentially from the simple four-strip supplement in 1915 to large sections full of dynamic content, so too the illustration of fiction became a highly competitive, innovative, and lucrative business.  Many training courses and colleges advertised their services in newspapers of the period, promising plentiful work and handsome remuneration. It seemed the whole of America had become one great sketchbook.

Fundamentally, any illustrator of fiction has a powerful interpretive role in helping the reader create an imaginative world but also in attracting readers in the first place. Illustrators have not only the difficult task of choosing what to illustrate, but also a responsibility to the text and the author. They must attempt to provide a faithful rendering of a fundamentally unfaithful text. These difficulties were parodied in a short article, ‘How to Illustrate a Best Seller’ by famous newspaper and magazine illustrator, James Montgomery Flagg in 1909, in which he satirised the illustrator’s approach to a commission.

Despite Flagg’s rather flippant description of the illustrator’s method, the remarkable rhetorical sophistication and aesthetic qualities of early twentieth century serial illustration should not be missed. Editors were careful to ensure that the chosen illustrator’s style suited the genre and plot of the story. For example, Joseph Clement Coll’s highly detailed and realistic line drawings, evidently with strong Pre-Raphaelite influences, were deemed a perfect match for Conan Doyle’s medieval romance, Sir Nigel, in which text and image had great historical fidelity. Coll’s illustrations are not confined or restrained by the text in boxes, but move sinuously through it, intertwining with legs and arms that step in and out of the text with organic fluidity. Clearly, such extravagant interplay between text and image required complicated typesetting and was therefore considerably more expensive, and thus reserved for premium authors such as Doyle. Clement Coll’s front cover for Sir Nigel (New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, 4 February 1906), appears to depict only a knight on horseback, but as you look more closely the shawl around the knight doubles as a multi-headed serpent, and the horses’ cape forms the shape of a wild boar, part of the family crest, which is itself repeated by the boar print pattern. This represents a sophisticated use of allegory, which echoed the medieval predilection for synthesis and transformational continuity. In 1914, Coll provided the centrefold for an issue of the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, ‘Characters from the Books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’ [Figure 7], in which there is an unlisted depiction of Sherlock Holmes (a character he is not previously known to have illustrated), and this was part of the Doyle fever that had gripped America pending the release of The Valley of Fear.  

Clement Coll was not alone in experimenting with the possibilities of illustration in the genre of serial fiction, with the appearance of interesting artistic epigraphs and multi-layered images all helping to distinguish one serial fiction from the next. Illustrators were certainly not one-trick wonders either, working for a range of newspapers, magazines, and publishers both at home and abroad. James Montgomery Flagg was perhaps the most prolific of all early twentieth century illustrators, producing front covers, illustrating serial fiction, non-fiction, drawing a comic strip, and producing a number of satirical books. His satirical Tomfoolery (1904), containing a self-portrait sports an early advertising dust jacket (insurance in this case), and bears the ex-libris stamps of Fukuzawa Ichitaro, the former president of Keio University (1922-1923) and son of its founder, Fukuzawa Yukichi. As well as being a prolific newspaper and magazine illustrator, Flagg is perhaps most famous for his WWI war propaganda posters, and especially the recruitment poster (based on a self-portrait) depicting Uncle Sam with the slogan, ‘I Want YOU for U.S. Army’. The patriotic role played by illustrators in selling the idea of nation, is worthy of particular note, as they sought to present the ideal American type. Many were overtly involved with political causes. For example, works by the American artist Howard Chandler Christy such as ‘Buy American’ (The American Weekly, 26 March 1933) and Vincent Aderente’s ‘Patriotism Turns the Wheels of Industry’ and ‘Colombia Sows the Seeds of Prosperity’ (The American Weekly, 19 November 1933; 26 November 1933) were used to help sell the New Deal directly to American readers in their arm-chairs, as they read the latest instalments of serialised fiction that the magazine purveyed.

Figure 6 Characters from the Books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, NYT Sunday Magazine 1914

When seen in this light, we are reminded that advertising books or serial stories whether through powerful illustrations or pre-launch adverting was very much about selling ideas and the concept of American life.

[1] Parts of this paper have been adapted from text captions accompanying the exhibition, 'Novelists & Newspapers: The Golden Age of Newspaper Fiction, 1900-1939', held at Komaba Museum (29 April - 25 June 2017), and from the paper, 'Serial Fiction Trailers in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Tribune, 1900-1914', Advertising Print (Online Symposium), 18 March 2023.  Completed March 2023, posted on 13 May 2023 due to image quality enhancement.