About What Readers Want

Over the past few months, with the paperback release of Arms-Commander and the initial hardcover release of Lady-Protector, I’ve had a number of requests for another book about each of the protagonists.  Likewise, I’ve had a number of readers express disappointment that I would be leaving Rhennthyl, the protagonist of the first three books of The Imager Portfolio, in order to write another sub-series featuring a different main character set in a different time period in the history of Solidar.  The most extreme reaction of which I know is one I’ve mentioned before in several fora, where a reader got so upset that I had the main character of the first three Spellsong Cycle books die of old age in the second subseries… and the reader hurled the fourth book at a hapless bookseller while taking my name in vain.

If I look at the sales charts of fantasy books in particular, it’s fairly clear that readers reward handsomely those authors who write long and voluminous series about the same character or sets of characters.  The same trends are evident in urban fantasy and the thriller/mystery genres.  Yet while writing a long series with the same characters pleases many readers, there are those who want a writer, even their “favorite” writer, to write book after book where each book is significantly different from any previous book.

I can’t count the number of reader reviews over the years that complained that my latest book was too much like a previous one, even while the majority of my readers requested more books in that particular series and more books about a character that they loved.  Yet, at the same time, a significant number of readers also asked for more of my “different” science fiction books.

As many sages have noted, and even the late Rick Nelson in his song “Garden Party,” you can’t please everyone all the time, and, unhappily, if you’re an author, there’s always the chance that something you write will please almost no one.  And yes, I did have one of those books.  It was called The Green Progression, and I wrote it with Bruce Scott Levinson, and after twenty years I can count the number of people who truly liked that book and told me so on one hand.  But… if you’re one of the few who actually has a hardcover, I did see a bookseller offering a copy for $287.00.  Fortunately, only one of my books has been that kind of disaster, at least so far.

The other aspect of what readers want is that what they want often does not agree with what the reviewers think is “excellent,” and very, very few runaway best sellers receive rave reviews, at least in science fiction and fantasy. Some years in the past, one author, who shall remain nameless, received glowing review after glowing review.  That author is no longer published and has not been for quite some time, perhaps because the last book issued by a major publisher had over 90 percent of the copies printed returned unbought. 

Then there are other authors, who sell well enough to live comfortably, and who receive good reviews in general from reviewers at Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, but who tend to be ignored or panned by reviewers in the F&SF field.  Such authors seem able to balance technical skill and popularity to some degree, and make a living as writers, but seldom if ever, publish the runaway best-seller.

All of this suggests, as all of those of us who have endured as professionals in the field know, that for the reader what matters first is how gripping the story is, and how well it is told comes second, because what most readers really want is the story, and, for most, but not all,  preferably another adventure with characters they love.

18 thoughts on “About What Readers Want”

  1. Bob Howard says:

    I’d agree that a gripping story is paramount, but a hack writer can ruin even the most fascinating premise and plot. Case in point, a friend persuaded me to try Clive Cussler (yes, I know, but he’s a real friend)–typical thriller sort of “plot” but I simply could not progress more than a few chapters in before discarding each into the toxic waste receptical.

    I’ve also noted that the disconnect between reviewers and us poor unwashed masses does seem more stark in F&SF than in the mainstream. Are SF reviewers somehow after greater recognition for their artistic insight and critical acumen?…embarassed about reviewing traditional F&SF? Who knows (or cares)–I know what I like and while I do read widely, I always come back to my “comfort food” when I’m looking for a real diversion. I want a good read that will take me to another place and immerse me in another world, while still entertaining me with the traditional strengths of a good story and touching on universal themes that find new expression in novel circumstances that only fantasy and scifi can deliver.

    In your post, you seem pulled in two directions–continuing to explore the possibilies of one of your worlds and moving on to others. I sympathize with both classes of your fans. I want more stories in the worlds like Recluse, which grows richer and more complex with each new story, yet I also treasure your new worlds and stand-alone scifi novels. (Obligatory aside, gotta agree with the majority…didn’t really care for The Green Progression…sorry!) You are clearly a hard working author and produce a great number of wonderful novels, but I’m sure I echo the sentiment of your other fans in wanting even more. We have to accept, of course, that you have to write what interests you the most at the time.

    On the matter of long-term commitment to a single world or set of characters, there is a certain comfort in coming back again and again to a known quantity, settings and stories that you KNOW you are going to like and characters you’ve come to identify with and feel connected to. This is even more compelling with a series pointed toward an ultimate conclusion, like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. You have the same with Recluse, except that without the linear story line and “conservation of characters,” you have the flexibility to present a richer tapestry.

    It’s the whole package, really, stories and characters and writerly skill are all required. When we readers finds the magical sweet spot in an author’s unique world, we want to come back again and again. When we’re doubly lucky enough to find an author who consistently delivers that across all his creations, you have a fan base for life.

  2. Nate says:

    I don’t like to gush over my favorite authors for fear of sounding the sycophant; but I absolutely loved The Green Progression. I do have a hardcover copy of the book and wouldn’t dream of selling it for any price.

  3. Daze says:

    I veer from one side to the other of this, but maybe can provide some illumination from my recent library-downsizing exercise. I used to be a completist, trying to own everything written by authors whose work I like: LEMjr, CJ Cherryh, Sheri Tepper, MZB, Peter Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, Neil Gaiman …But we moved to a much smaller house, so some things had to go, and I eventually settled on a rule that went something like “will I ever feel like reading this book again”.

    The resulting cull had some interesting features: some writers I kept almost everything, yourgoodself included; some almost everything went; some most of their early work went but the later stuff stayed. I took the view, for example, that almost all the Darkover novels could go: for the purposes of this discussion, I’d give the opinion that, even though there were few novels with the same characters in them, the stories and the culture didn’t really change enough to be that interesting. Same with most of the Pern novels. OTOH, some long-running sagas I kept because, even with the same lead characters, the story arc and situations are fresh.

  4. Alison Hamway says:

    I like to read a variety of fiction (different characters, different worlds, different plots!) and appreciate that very much about your work. But I was surprised to learn that some rabid fans get very upset with their favorite author when he/she writes anything different, or doesn’t complete a book quickly enough. Some reader reviewers on Amazon share those views, almost as though that reader wants to have the writer personally obligated to write whatever that particular reader wants to read. The 4/14/11 New Yorker featured an interesting article by Laura Miller called “Just Write It!” about a subset of George R R Martin disgruntled fans who are very upset that he has not completed The Game of Thrones series quickly enough. It’s almost as though some fans see their favorite authors as being bound to feudal servitude! Do they not see any value to a creative process or imagination that allows for new and different books?

  5. Mikor says:

    I have been on both side of this equation as a reader: i wanted to read more about my favorite characters and worlds; and on the other hand I’ve been disappointed with series of books where a once-favored storyline became stale.

    You’ve been able to hit a reasonable compromise. Many of your fantasy books feature a character through 2-3 books, and leave the protagonist when he (she) completed a significant change in their life, and affected significant change on their environment.

    Long, open-ended series about a largely constant character sometimes work in Mystery (i.e. a detective story), but not so much in fantasy in science fiction. I am glad that you don’t try to overextend a storyline; and hope you will continue the trend of stopping before a character becomes stale.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      Hmm. Thinking. Kimball Kinnison in the _Lensman_ series was prominent in four books, if already being left far behind by his children in the last (not counting Masters of the Vortex, which wasn’t really mainline with the rest)
      But that story was a very two-tone (no shades of gray) conflict against an enemy with a hierarchy of subordinates that needed to be peeled a layer at a time. It worked for what it was, but it wouldn’t work if one wants to challenge the reader more. (although I’ll admit the two things I’d most like to have come from two different Doc Smith series: the Skylark of Valeron (esp. after refit and the addition of the 4D gadget), and a Lens)

      OTOH, while it’s not sci-fi (although some sci-fi was modeled on it), the Horatio Hornblower series went pretty long. Or the Honor Harrington books (which are sci-fi), not that I’ve read them.

      But as much as I like familiar characters, I also like good story lines and new ideas. Hard to keep one familiar, but keep all the rest always fresh.

  6. Dov says:

    I have a hard back copy of The Green Progression, even though I am unemployed not tempted to sell it. I am looking forward to your new Imager book. Can’t say I’m happy about character change but felt that way about Recluse series also & the books changed my mind.

    Have to say though it was your Ecolotian books I discovered first many years ago. Still have that paperback I found in used book store back in the ’80s.

  7. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’ll admit I was initially in the boat of wanting the same characters. In fact I remember back in 94 when my mother first had me read Magic of Recluce. I finished it, loved it, grabbed Towers of the Sunset and… Stopped. Lerris was nowhere to be found, I didn’t care about this Creslin guy. I set the book down and ignored the series for another year. (In my defense I was 14). Then after having finished every Wheel of Time to date and not really having an interest in the other books available to me, I picked up Towers. Read it and loved it. When I went to Magic Engineer I had a similar issue, but got over it very quickly.

    Looking back now, or even then once I got over my “Where’s the character I expected” stuff, I can see that the stories almost always end in a way where anything else would be boring. In fact I’ve noticed that the majority of the time I’m wanting a certain book from you it’s because it seems that there’s more to tell. Like the curiosity about the founding of Cyador. Or what happens with the children of protagonists in the Cyador books or the first Corean Trilogy. But a lot of the rest are done.

    Now if you were to publish a text book that just covered the rest of the lives of characters who’s stories are finished, I know I’d buy them. Even if just seeing that Lerris becomes a world renowned woodcrafter and dies of old age after raising his children, I’d be happy to see such. But I know not everyone would buy it, and I don’t really think a full book would be warranted for most of these figures.

    The other problem is how many of us would be happy to see a beloved character after the plateau? I’m sure Justin had many adventures in the century or so after The Order War. But how interesting would most of it be to us given that 1: We know what happens in the end due to other books and 2: After we’ve seen him do what he did in Order War, would anything else really even seem a threat to him or a challenge or all that interesting?

    You’ve always treated your stories as complete things, and no matter how much I may like to see someone again, I’d prefer to see the story the way you saw it instead of it being diluted and spread out just for extra novels. (Unless you chose to finish a book like Whedon did with the Angel series anyway).

  8. Richard Hamilton says:

    What I’d like to read:

    * any new Recluce novel, as long as it’s as good as the others have been! In particular, the arrival of the Rationalists and the founding of Cyador seems promising – the UFA vs Anglorian conflict and the dedication of “Meditations Upon the Land of Light” just _beg_ for that, even if they weren’t specifically intended as hooks for future novels (I think it might take two to get from the conflict in the techno-universe to Kiedral becoming the _second_ emperor). Another good suggestion (not my idea, but interesting) might be the founding of Fairhaven, esp. why it was so dominated by mages rather than following in the tripartite structure of Cyador. The founding of Hamor might also have some possibilities. As a last pair of open questions, it certainly seems there were humans in that world before the Rationalists arrived, but I just don’t buy parallel evolution in two different universes (or at any rate two domains separated by more than distance, between which somewhat different physical laws seem to apply); and the other open question would be the origin (before the Rationalists destroyed much and confined the rest) of Naclos.

    * Something transitioning from Rhenn to his daughter. It sure does seem as more than just _the story goes on beyond what you see_ to have a probably gifted child with two parents quite able in different ways to provide powerful examples, esp. a daughter in a world where women of power are to put it mildly, uncommon.

    * Maybe something from the days of the Spell-Fire wars (Spellsong Cycle)

    I don’t mean to neglect the other series, but I haven’t seen them all on a shelf together at once, so I haven’t been quite starved enough for reading material to chase them down one at a time.

    Of course, new standalone sci-fi novels would also be appreciated. Or any new series as good as Recluce or Imager. Oh, and you need a time machine so that you can write them faster, if at the expense of aging at twice the normal rate relative to the rest of us. 🙂
    (although I suspect that’s more an proofreading / typesetting / publishing / marketing delay than how fast you write)

  9. Tim says:

    I am glad you’re starting a new character in the Imager world. I thought Rhenn’s story ended well.I don’t really need to hear more about him. Maybe something in passing or history related if you create another series that takes place years after his time. Another book would just seem to be dragging out his story.

    I enjoyed the last 2 Spellsong novels about Secca, but was really sad when Anna died early in book 4. I almost wish the novel started after her death, but I think it worked really well and added to the story.

    A few years ago I finally found a copy of The Green Progression at a library to read and actually enjoyed it. The only thing I didn’t like about it were all the acronyms. It seemed most of the time they were never listed what they stood for, and maybe it was just the paperback copy I had, but there was no glossary that I could look them up. I kind of just blurred over them and used the context to approximate their function.

    Overall, I think you’ve done a good job knowing when to stop writing about a particular character. Some authors will keep going on about a character in many novels, and people then get tired of them and stop wanting to read anything from that author.

    A lot of the your novels, I do want to know what happened after it finishes, but I have always found that was something more for my imagination to fill in. Little things like about what Alucious is up to ( would like to see a novel about Alendra though, hehe) , or how Lerris is finishing out his life, or even what Rhenn is going to do. I don’t really think any of that merits another novel though. It is just something for each reader to supply themselves which I find lends to the experience more.

  10. ted says:

    I quite enjoy that your books are mostly focused on different characters. I’ve only read the Recluse books, and the Spellsong books, and although spellsong was entertaining, and I enjoyed them all, Recluse by far is the standout.

    When I first read ‘The Magic of Recluse’ and heard them mention Creslin, the Founders and such, then to actually hear the tales of these legends, and even further back to the Angels really gives someone a perspective on the whole universe you’ve written about. I would love to hear more tales about the history of that planet, how the initial settlers fought the great forest, how legends became legends.

    My favorite is still the tales of Cerryl and how one gets the other perspective of the same story as ‘the Magic Engineer’ leaves you thinking the ‘bad guys’ aren’t so bad after all.

    Keep up the good work, and I look forward to the next Recluse tale, no matter what character, point in time, or tale you wish to tell.

  11. Dave Ansell says:

    It must be the flux. I just finished posting something along these lines on the LEM Forum & then found this thread. I too believe that an author balances on a narrow line between his need for variety and his fans desire for MORE about a beloved character and I do think you handle this very well.
    But the thought occurs to me….
    Do you find when you meet fans (say at a book signing or convention) that they want to talk to you about various characters & what happens to them after the book finished? I know I’ve often wished I could sit down with you over a drink or two and have you tell me “the rest of the story”.
    Can’t ever happen (if we all did it you’d never have time to write any more books) but I do wonder how many other readers have felt the same way.
    I guess it’s an indication of how deeply some of us get caught up in the worlds & stories you create.
    Thank you for each & everyone of them.

  12. Brian Kelman says:

    Following the same characters’ adventures in a long running series is very appealing, which is why I have remained loyal to The Wheel of Time series. However, in between publications there, I started reading the Recluce series and discovered, much to my surprise, that I also enjoyed a variety of characters in different times within the context of the same world. A major plus is the primary point of view being from one of either The Whites (Cerryl, Lorin), or the Blacks (Lerris, Nylan etc) or the Grey (Justin). Multiple characters through time appeals to that sense of what French historian Fernand Braudel called the longue duree. In keeping with this theme I would be interested in a hardcore science fiction story about the conflict between the Rationalists and the United Faith Alliance and a sequel about how the first Rationalists came to the world and established Cyador. This would add yet a little more to the rich tapestry that is the Recluce Saga.

    Since the “Magic Engineer“ and the “Colors of Chaos“ occur at the same time, I read them at the same time. Certain passages occur in both and for both books it was fairly simple to write out a list of the pages between one common passage and another. Then I read one block of pages from one and then the corresponding block of pages from the other, alternating throughout. It really enhanced my enjoyment of the stories.(For the record: I was recovering from surgery and had way too much time on my hands)

    I am impatiently waiting for Amazon.ca to ship my copy of “Imager`s Intrigue“ when it is available (est. June 28, 2011). Although I’m sad to see Rhenn leave, I look forward to reading in the future about the adventures of a new character in a different time of the world of Solidar.

    Thank you again for making the investment in your books so worthwhile.

  13. Bob Howard says:

    Apropos the current discussion, try the interesting article on Tor.com: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/05/the-fandom-menace-what-were-really-owed-from-or-favorite-sff-creators

    @dave ansell: I’ve often had the same thought and wonder if you do think about the rest of your characters’ lives or what might have become of them, even when you do not plan to write about them further. A brief discussion of any of those would make for an avidly-read post!

  14. Cubanero says:

    About 6 years ago I had read almost everything you had in print, so I special ordered a used paperback copy of “The Green Progression” just to give it a shot. Initially, I was not overly interested in the story, but that quickly changed after about the first chapter or two. I really liked it and thought it had all the hallmarks of a “typical” LEM novel with a sophisticated plot, political intrigue, and strong character development. So add me to the list, maybe I can be the first digit on your other hand?


  15. Sean says:

    I think that you have done an excellent job telling your stories and I love the variety of tales you have told and look forward more of your works. I think it is actually good that you have written a variety of works and themes. I think of Conan Doyle who while being best remembered for Sherlock Holmes, wrote also wrote several books for the amazing Professor Challenger and dozens of historical novels.

    I personally want to see more of Solidar and world of the Imagers, however I have enjoyed all of your works. The only real cliffhanger of yours where I wanted the next book right away was the “Lord Protector’s Daughter”. “The Lady Protector” finally resolved that and the first Imager Trilogy was a worthwhile diversion.

    Green Progression was the one of the first books of yours that I was given. I enjoyed the book at that time despite being quite different from the Recluse books, with which I was more familiar. Now I will have to go find my copy and reread it.

  16. Tega Jessa says:

    I wonderered if you could ever do a wiki of the history Liedwahr. It wouldn’t have to be a book but just background information to help readers understand the events that shaped the world that Anna entered in the Spellsong cycle. What was so dangerous about dancing and why was the war between the Matriarchs started. These questions bothered me for years and it would be great to have a couple of answers.

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