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:

Q: Are science fiction book series a barrier to gaining new readership?
Lou Anders
A 2007 Hugo Award and Chesley Award nominee and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), and the forthcoming Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008) and Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish,Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at SFSite.com, RevolutionSF.com and InfinityPlus.co.uk. Visit him online at www.louanders.com and www.pyrsf.com

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!

Chris Roberson
Chris Roberson’s novels include Here, There & Everywhere, The Voyage of Night Shining White, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, X-Men: The Return, Set the Seas on Fire, The Dragon’s Nine Sons, and the forthcoming End of the Century, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird, and Three Unbroken. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as Asimov’s, Interzone, Postscripts, and Subterranean, and in anthologies such as Live Without a Net, FutureShocks, and Forbidden Planets. Along with his business partner and spouse Allison Baker, he is the publisher of MonkeyBrain Books, an independent publishing house specializing in genre fiction and nonfiction genre studies, and he is the editor of anthology Adventure Vol. 1. He has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award three times-once each for writing, publishing, and editing-twice a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and twice for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form (winning in 2004 with his story “O One”). Chris and Allison live in Austin, Texas with their daughter Georgia. Visit him online at www.chrisroberson.net.

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.

Joe Sherry
Joe Sherry, noted cheeseburger enthusiast, writes about all things bookish over at his blog Adventures in Reading. He lives in Minnesota with his wife Sandy and three year old cocker spaniel Balou.

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.

David Louis Edelman
David Louis Edelman‘s first novel, Infoquake, was called “the love child of Donald Trump and Vernor Vinge” by Barnes & Noble Explorations and “THE science fiction book of the year” by SFFWorld. It was also named Barnes & Noble’s SF Book of the Year in 2006 and nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best SF Novel. His next novel, MultiReal, will be released by Pyr in July 2006. Also watch for his short story “Mathralon” in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume 2 this February.

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…

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the editor of the anthologies Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (Night Shade Books, January 2008), Seeds of Change (Prime Books, Summer 2008), and The Living Dead (Night Shade Books, Fall 2008). He is also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He has written reviews for Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and is the print news correspondent for SCI FI Wire (the news service of the SCI FI Channel). His non-fiction has also appeared in: Amazing Stories, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Locus Magazine, Novel & Short Story Writers Market, Science Fiction Weekly, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Subterranean Magazine, and Writer’s Digest.

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.

12 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Science Fiction Series”

  1. i like connected series, when they are 3 to 5 books long. anything longer and it tends to scare me away. it has to be exceptionally good to sanction a purchase if it is longer. books set in the same universe where the plots are not connected (like culture) are great, you get more of the same and still it has a different taste.

    just imagine that Peter F Hamilton would still be writing night’s dawn books :-S (i like the night’s dawn trilogie)

  2. I’ve been saying this here at SF Signal for a long time now. Other then the odd stand alone most of the books on store shelves are broken series. There is no more (even if there ever was) science fiction impulse book buying. Everything I buy these days is special order, even a series. My local bookstore carries The Endgame series in a boxed set and same with the Forgotten Realms books. I’d buy a complete series in a boxed set or Omnibus format. But seeing book 2 of a series, I’d never buy it off the shelves. Too many series in SFF these days.

  3. I think most of these guys are missing some huge drawbacks to series. While big series sell well, there isn’t much alternative that is given much press. I wouldn’t want to pull the good-selling series off the shelves, but I like fantasy (despite a post on my site titled otherwise) and the kind of fantasy I like is not well served in series fantasy.

    First big drawback is that these series are a big investment for the readers. For the people who are hooked, it means long term sales. But I don’t want to invest weeks of reading for what, to me, is the same amount of payoff.

    Second is that in most cases, starting on book X of a series is like coming into the middle of a conversation. Lame! I don’t have quite a bit of the context I would need to enjoy the book. Unless I am willing to invest the time contravening point 1.

    There’s a big qualitative difference between the Bas-Lag “series” and something like Robert Jordan’s series. Mieville’s Bas-Lag stories don’t have anywhere near the interdependence that Jordan’s work does.

    The S.F. end of speculative fiction has it’s own problems with series, but it doesn’t *seem* to me to be as dominated by them. Who wants to start at book 6 of Dune or book 5 of the Foundation series? Not I. I’ve been sucked in to one of Hamilton’s “fat-S.F.” series, but once I finish the ones on my shelf, I don’t intend to ever buy him again. He’s good, but I want to travel light.

  4. I think series can absolutely be a barrier to gaining new readership, namely the type of reader that doesn’t necessarily devote a lot of time to reading, or doesn’t read that much. Of course, bigtime (written) SF fans, or just generally voracious readers, look forward to finding new authors and their series, because a new series assures reading material for the near future. But if you’re reading just a couple books a year, facing the task of having to get through several books just to get to the actual ending can be a big turnoff to newbies. They might just say, oh well, give me the new Dan Brown, or something. And endings are kind of a tricky thing in SF anyway, a lot of books just don’t have good endings, so continuing a series is great for writers, who don’t have to come up with the solution to tie up all the loose ends that are inevitably created in a big series.

  5. I think this is a personal preference thing. I enjoy a series of books far more than a single book story. It allows the characters to rise and fall from book to book and if the author is doing his job properly we can see what the protagonist learned from their travels in an earlier book has modified their reaction to a similar situation in an later book. The fact that you can predict the characters reaction because you read the earlier story is super gratifying to me. This aspect is usually missing from a single book story and to me (again if done right) lends the protagonist a “wisdom” like quality.

  6. A good series will keep me buying, unless the price is to high. I have a problem with a eight or nine dollar paperback. I’m one who likes to return to a good book or series and price is becoming a factor over all other in my reading habits.

  7. In this discussion, folks have focused on THE BIG BOOK. That is, a tome that is the size of a small brick, that a reader would have to wade through just to see if he likes it. Personally, I have not even started Jordan’s Wheel of Time series for the mere fact that I’d be reading nothing else for months on end. And the more I look at bookstore shelves of SF/F, the more I see huge books.

    So here’s my question: what ever happened to the smaller book? The 200pp-300pp book? Is it the market that has driven smaller books away, what with $8.99+ cover prices for a paperback and north of $27.00 for a hardback?

    Over in the mystery field, there’s a line of books under the Hard Case Crime imprint. Those guys want to bring back old-school pulp fiction, complete with new cover art in the old style. All the books are $6.99. Almost all of them are 200-230pp long. All can be consumed quickly and carried around in my back pocket. And, for me, reading an old, formerly out-of-print book by an author like Lawrence Block or Ed McBain caused me to seek out other books by these authors.

    Is there a SF/F version of this out there? I’d like to think so. And I’d like to write for and read books from an imprint like that.

  8. To me, as a reader, it depends on what “type” of series it is.

    If it’s the type where Book 2 continues the story of Book 1, and Book 3 the story of Book 2, and the author is new to me, I won’t read Book 3 unless I can get Book 1 and Book 2 at the same time. Why? Because even though publishers may try to convince me otherwise, none of the books in that type of series are really and truly “stand-alone.” In this case, many times I will go to the library and get the books there rather than go to Amazon.com and buy the entire series – not what publishers want to hear of course.

    If it’s the type where there are several books set in the same “world” – and Mieville, as mentioned by a previous commenter, is a good example – I’ll buy the books as I see them, and not necessarily in publication order. (Although, I must admit, I started Mieville’s Bas-Lag series out-of-order and am very sorry I did so.)

    The really big problem with series though, for me, is that like with movies, the successive product is rarely as good as the one before. And when the author publishes the series ad nauseum, frankly I get tired of it after awhile – all the books begin to look the same to me – Pier Anthony and Terry Pratchett being 2 authors who I’ve stopped reading for this reason. And lots of times Book 1 isn’t interesting enough to get me to Book 2.

    The big problem with series, as Lou mentioned, is that today’s bookstore’s rarely have each book in the series on the shelves, their strategy being only to stock the most current books, even when the author is someone like Heinlein or Asimov.

  9. Once in a while I’ll jump into the middle of a series where the books are interdependent, but that’s getting to be more of a rare occurance these days. Rather, if there’s something in a review or online discussion or on the back cover summary that gets me interested in book X of the whatever series, I’ll hunt down book 1 and see if it’s worth continuing to read through to the others. If the book isn’t on the shelves, I’ll do a special order at my local SF specialty book store or buy it online. Admittedly though, if book 1 isn’t right in front of me on the shelves, there’s certainly less urgency in buying it – it’s more likely to go on my to-buy list that I carry around on my pda and get checked sometime later.

    Stand-alone books set in the same world though, that’s a different thing. I don’t mind buying whichever one catches my eye right away and jumping in that way. If I like it, I’ll buy the others.

  10. I don’t think they are a problem…if, when you come across a series several books long, you can still find the earlier books!

    This is a bigger problem than it used to be, as publishers are more reluctant to keep older stuff in print (always chasing the next thing).

    So, for example, a friend highly recommended the books of Catharine Asaro. I found one in print, knew that Baen was coming out with one in hardcover, was able to order several new copies of other volumes online, found some out of print volumes elsewhere…but…there’s one dang volume that has eluded me so far!

    :(

    The good news is that today the Webscription Free Library at Baen released one of her books so that gives me hope that Baen will pick up the rest of the series and release it. Maybe this is the “killer app” for eBooks, allowing publishers to maintain their backlist without a lot of physical inventory. (And if somebody could work out the combination of technology and “rights problems” for the whole POD setup as well…)

  11. My policy on “connected series” is to not buy anything until I can buy the whole series.

    This means I have to really want to read the series when the last book comes out. But this way I avoid years-long waits between books, or getting 4 books in and the remaining books are crap. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of books to read, even after eliminating unfinished series.

    On the plus side, reading all of “The Book of the New Sun” for the first time in one solid stretch…. That was years ago, and it still brings a smile to my face.

    I only broke this rule for Harry Potter, and even there I got books 1-5 together, and that was mostly because I was able to get them second-hand cheap.

  12. There are readers and there are readers.

    Why do we always focus on one particular type of reader?

    I keep hearing that writers/publishers must grab the obsessive-compulsive “completist” readership, the sort of “devoted” kind who become obsessed with a series and WILL NOT STOP until he gets every single book in a series… and wants a series to never end…

    …but you know what?

    Obsessive-compulsive people are a drag.

    They complain about a series’ drop in quality AND YET they keep buying the series. They rarely applaud innovation. In fact, they fear change (other wise they’d drop a series that’s going stale *COUGH*Wheel of Time*COUGH*).

    Cater to these tendencies consistently, and you’ll end up with an “industry” much like gambling or MMORPGs; nurturing the worst tendencies of fans, strangling creativity, setting itself up to become the genre ghetto all over again.

Comments are closed.