MIND MELD: Science Fiction Series
If you take a look around your local bookstore’s SF section, you can’t help but notice the preponderance of book series on the shelves, especially in the fantasy arena, which seems to specialize in doorstopper series. Inevitably, the store won’t have all published books in the series, leaving the customer out of luck if they decide to buy right then. Which leads to our question:
As a reader – I’m fascinated and perplexed by people who will pick up a series six or seven books in. Really amazed that anyone will do that, and surprised even more when folks do do that and then complain about being lost. That being said, I’m more amazed at the author’s who can pull off making a book so deep into their run comprehensible. I read Jim Butcher’s Proven Guilty to get a sense of what he’s about, and found no trouble jumping in despite the various levels of competing back story he’s obviously been developing across several books.
As an editor, I always feel a bit of trepidation when I’m pitched a multi-book story. If it takes off, as Mike Resnick’s Starship series has done for us, your golden, because you can return to it again and again. But if it doesn’t, then you watch each subsequent book perform less well than the one before. As to series as an impediment to gaining readers – I believe that Kay Kenyon is currently expanding her audience significantly with her brilliant quartet, The Entire and the Rose. Though my advice to first time authors would be to start with a stand-alone. If it has “series potential” that’s great, but don’t pitch it that way. At least not to me!
It depends, in part, on how the series is structured. If it’s the kind of thing where each new installment is BIG SERIES TITLE #X: SUBTITLE, then yeah, that could potentially serve as an impediment to new readers. But if each new installment is TITLE: A NOVEL OF THE BIG SERIES, then perhaps less so.
More importantly, though, I think that book series can work as an excellent way of keeping new readers.
There may be some readers out there who, if they get to the end of a good book, don’t want more of the same, but I’m not one of them. If I read and love a book by an author I’ve never read before, I’m likely to hunt out more of their work to try. And if the book I’ve just finished and loved is part of a series, I’m likely to pick up another in the series, as well. And I think that the latter is a more powerful incentive than the former.
Look at someone like Terry Pratchett. Or rather, imagine some alternate universe version of Terry Pratchett. This alternate Pratchett has written the same umpteen number of books as our more familiar variant, and at the same high level of quality. But this alternate author has decided that, instead of all being set in the same world, and involving a loosely connected cast of characters, his books will instead be completely stand-alone, each taking place in its own world, unrelated to any of the others.
The question is, will this alternate Pratchett’s books have sold as well, have resonated as much with readers, if they didn’t all take place in Discworld?
I think we’ve reached the point in book discussions where invoking the words Potter or Rowling is equivalent of calling “Hitler” in a flame war. Not that Rowling or Potter are anything like Hitler, mind, but that it signals an end to meaningful debate. Because in so many ways Rowling’s case was an exception, not a rule. But there’s a reason why the most successful children’s books are almost invariably part of a series, and Potter is just the most extreme example. It’s because young readers get invested in characters and storylines, and having reached the end of one installment are hungry to pick up the next. This isn’t a tendency we lose as adults.
Now, books need not be in a “series”, as such, to play into this hunger. That is, it need not be “Book 1 of X”, followed by “Book 2 of X”, and so on. Iain Banks’s Culture novels are a perfect example. They can be approached in any order, starting anywhere, but having read one, it’s very hard to resist the temptation to read another. An alternate approach is the way that Steven Erikson (and now Ian Cameron Esslemont) handle The Malazan Book of the Fallen, to cite an epic fantasy example, or Kage Baker’s The Company sequence, to cite a science fiction one: the books do exist in a set sequence, but there are several “jumping on” points where new readers can enter. Still another approach is the “stealth” example, where there are lines of connection behind the scenes, such as a shared setting, like the Newford stories of Charles de Lint, or an interconnected cast, like the early novels of Jonathan Carroll.
But the easiest, simplest type of organization for a series is the numbered sequence, starting with Book One and continuing from there. And it’s this one that I think plays into your question above. If the only installments of a series on a shelf are Book Five and up, does that deter new readers from giving the series a shot, since they can’t start from the beginning? Very probably. But if we’re talking about a hypothetical new reader who is already wandering the SF/F section of the bookstore considering trying something new, all that means is that they need to continue down the shelf until they hit Book One of something, and then if they like it, they’re hooked.
So having incomplete series on the shelves of bookstores isn’t an insurmountable problem so long as they aren’t all incomplete, and so long as they aren’t all numbered sequences. If at least a handful of series are stocked from the beginning, or the books are structured as stand-alones in shared environments (Discworld, Newford, etc), or the books have multiple “jumping on” points (like The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Company), then the chances are greatly increased that our hypothetical new reader might find something that they like, and keep coming back for more.
The counter example is a world in which there are no series or sequences at all, and every book is it’s own entity, stand-alone, without any connection or reference to anything else the author has done. And while it such a world it might be slightly easier to lure new readers into the fold, if those readers are anything like me, I think it would be that much harder to keep them.
While it is true that there are plenty of excellent single volume fantasy novels, the fantasy genre as a whole is built around the fantasy series. Or, if not, the perception of the fantasy genre is built around the fantasy series. The heaviest hitters (in terms of sales) writing fantasy today are those writing in series: Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, George R. R. Martin, Raymond E. Feist. Until this past year, Robert Jordan. The writers viewed as the future of the genre are writing in series: R.Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, David Anthony Durham, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson.
What does this have to do with the question at hand?
I don’t think that SF book series are a barrier to gaining new readership. I think that having series in science fiction and fantasy serve to grow readership. When the first time we hear about A Song of Ice and Fire is when A Storm of Swords is published, we want to see what all the fuss is about and we go find A Game of Thrones. If Republic of Thieves grows Scott Lynch’s readership people will go find The Lies of Locke Lamora.
Some customers may be frustrated that the particular book they want is not right there, especially in a series with waning popularity, but I think more often that not a series is a vote of confidence that the stories the author is telling is worth reading, that this particular tale is one worth spending time with and one that if we come to like the characters and the world, we’ll get a chance to revisit.
This question seems geared more towards “epic” fantasy than towards the rest of the genre, but knowing there is a new Bas-Lag novel or the hint that there may be more Ambergis stories presumably will likewise drive new readers to go and find Perdido Street Station or City of Saints and Madmen. Science Fiction works much the same, though there may be fewer open ended series than in fantasy.
From a publishing perspective, series are absolutely not a barrier to gaining new readership. And there’s a simple reason why: more books on the shelves equals more bookstore real estate devoted to the author, which equals more of a chance that the author’s books will attract the attention of a potential reader. Once you’ve caught a reader’s interest, it’s easy enough for them to find the earlier books online, or (gasp!) special order them from the information counter. (Or at least, I’m hoping it works this way when book 2 of my own SF trilogy comes out this summer.)
But even from an artistic viewpoint, series aren’t much of a hindrance. Most authors and editors are keenly aware of the realities of publishing, and take great pains to make middle books palatable to readers who haven’t read the earlier books in the series. I’ve gone so far as to include a 1,500-word synopsis of book 1 in the appendices of my upcoming book 2. A good number of authors steer away from “numbered sequels” altogether, preferring to write “related books in the same universe” that can be read in any order. (See William Gibson, John Scalzi, China Mieville, Orson Scott Card, Charles Stross, etc….)
All that being said… I’ve been frankly amazed at the number of readers who have told me that they were completely unaware my book 1 was, in fact, only the first part of a trilogy. The fact is clearly labeled on the book’s cover, on its spine, and on the title page. Still, I’ve clearly irritated some people by failing to wander around bookstores yelling the fact with a bullhorn. Which makes me wonder how carefully some book buyers are looking at these books before they buy them…
I don’t think series are an impediment to gaining a new readership. They can cause complications for new readers, but in general, I think they’re not a bad thing. If the books are clearly marked as being part of a series, that might deter a reader from picking up something labeled book three…or, it might make them go to the customer service desk (or to Amazon.com) and order book one. Ideally, of course, bookstores would carry the first couple volumes of a series as well as whatever the most recent title is, but I know that’s not always possible.
The thing that can really keep authors from gaining new readers, I think, is when publishers do everything they can to avoid calling something a series book when in fact it is–because the reader picks up the book not knowing it’s the second in a series and is befuddled when he or she starts reading it. That’s the kind of thing that will turn a reader off of an author, whereas if he or she had picked up book one he or she might have enjoyed it.
Of course, the best thing to do is write series books in which new readers can pick up any volume along the way and follow everything that’s going on without having to read the previous volumes. (See John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books for a good recent example of this.) Again, though, I know that’s not always possible.
The thing about series, too, is that every time a new volume comes out, it will generate new interest in past volumes in the series. So, say, when the new Elizabeth Moon Vatta’s War novel comes out, if you weren’t familiar with that series before, it might inspire you to go back and check out the first book. (And you should, they’re awesome!)
So I think that series have both pros and cons, but in the end, I think it might be a push. Ultimately, though, it depends on the type of reader you are, and what your book buying habits are like.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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