Series Mania

Until comparatively recently, in the speculative fiction field, fantasy was the home of the endless, or seemingly endless series, while science fiction sported stand-alone titles or short series. From what I can see, now there’s little difference between fantasy and science fiction in the sense that more and more of new S.F. titles being published are those in a series… long series after long series.

What’s behind this shift? My gut reaction, unsupported by any statistical or other empirical evidence, is that it’s the result of the confluence of marketing gurus and the ever-decreasing attention span of the vast majority of readers, who tend to forget authors more quickly if they don’t see their books on shelves or the internet equivalents. It’s also easier to market a series by an author than individual stand-alone and unrelated novels, and a series also provides marketing continuity.

I’ve already noticed that the sales of my books drop off far more rapidly after the book is released than was the case a decade ago. Part of that is, of course, because more sales come from Amazon and other online sources than ever before, and many of those sales are pre-release, something that was effectively impossible before internet marketing, so that a greater percentage of sales occur either before a book’s release or fairly immediately after release. Another factor is the decline of mass market paperback sales, which often persisted in significant numbers for months, if not years. Now those continuing sales tend to exist only for on-going series, especially those with media tie-ins.

With comparatively fewer and fewer titles being released in mass market paperback, and those being printed in smaller numbers for most authors, authors of single books lose market presence, because readers don’t see their books for as long on shelves or on new release lists. The answer? Write books in a series. I’ve also heard from at least a few up-and-coming writers that editors and agents want a commitment to a series.

Personally, I’m finding it harder and harder to discover stand-alone SF books, and I can’t believe I’m alone. At the same time, it’s also very clear that stand-alones generally generate far less revenue than volumes in a series, which is why I write fewer of them. But I haven’t given up yet. Whether I do, in the end, though, is up to the readers, and whether you buy the stand-alones, such as Solar Express, which will be coming out in November.

10 thoughts on “Series Mania”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    While I don’t know the industry incredibly well, I’d also ask, could it be suffering in a similar way to how the movie industry is? A Film critic named Bob Chipman gave a great example for why we keep seeing reboots, remakes and continuing sequels in film.

    Two Producers green light films. The films look good initially but do terribly financially. Both have a meeting with their bosses afterwards where they are effectively asked “What were you thinking?”

    Producer A says: I don’t know what happened. We all know that (insert film source) is popular within (insert targeted demographic). Our research and our polls show that this is a popular character and everyone was really excited for the film. I just don’t know what went wrong.

    Producer B says: I made a judgement call. I loved the script, we got great talent involved and it just felt like a really solid, original movie.

    Producer A gets to keep working as it’s clearly not his fault. Producer B gets fired.

    Could this be an issue in the book world as well? Even for yourself where your name will to some extent promise success. Did Imager, Legacies or Soprano Sorceress do as well as a Recluce book would have in the same publication slot?

    Even with the “Superstar names” Sanderson had what appears to be a fairly low turn out for Alloy of Law for all that it’s still part of one of his main two series, but it does like your books do and jumped to a completely different time line with different characters and it wasn’t that same group fans wanted.

    1. The Imager Portfolio books appear to be doing as well as the Recluce books. The Spellsong Cycle and the Corean Chronicles did well, but not so well as either the Recluce or Imager books. As I’ve noted, none of my SF books do as well as my least well selling fantasy books.

  2. Cal says:

    Well… I’ve already pre-ordered the physical copy of Solar Express from Amazon. So I feel like I fall into all different sides of the issue being addressed.

  3. R. Hamilton. says:

    I find I like a single book if ideas overwhelm characters; but if the characters are strong enough, I prefer a series. If they become friends or at least acquaintances after awhile, I don’t want to say good-bye too soon. 🙂

  4. Jim S says:

    I — and I’m sure I’m far from alone — noticed several years ago that it was getting harder and harder to find anything published that wasn’t part of a series, usually by a “name” author. I’ve suspected that the reason was simple, and alluded to by Ryan Jackson: a known successful series is predictably going to sell. A new author or a non-series? The publisher is taking a chance. Can’t say that I’m right, since I’m not a publisher or author.. but that’s been my interpretation of what I see.

    I do know a few writers have had some success self-publishing through the ebook market, with some print on demand. But… a lot of their sales there are to people who are already fans, and seek the material out.

    I’ll also agree, in part, with R. Hamilton. Some stories and characters become “old friends” and I want to hang out with them, or see what happened later. (Or, in Mr. Modesitt’s case, sometimes hear the story behind something… like all the backstories in Recluce.) Other stories aren’t — and trying to stretch them just gets dull and uninteresting. Or formulaic.

  5. Jim says:

    Yes, I enjoy seeing what a :friend” gets up to next, or find out what that tantalizing bit of history was really all about. However, I also look forward to a new story from an author I know…more so than when I first started buying my own books ( a great many years ago :-)). I thought it was just me, becoming more conservative in a way as I got older, but maybe the whole industry is going that way

  6. Jim says:

    PS Happy July 4th to all you Americans! Despite any and all modern grousing and angst, what your forefather’s envisioned and pulled off was a huge step forward for all of us who aren’t Kings, Warlords, Dukes, Earls and other assorted entitled people. Let’s hope the new Entitled Class don’t manage to re-subjugate us all!

  7. D Archerd says:

    I’ll be the first to confess that I often enjoy series, and when I do, it’s for many of the reasons noted above: I enjoy the characters and want to see what happens next with them, or I enjoy the world the author has built and don’t want to leave it. I thoroughly understand the marketing pressures in favor of series, and the perceived lower risk for the publisher. I also think it’s driven by the shift from purchasing in bookstores to purchasing online. When I’m in a bookstore, I tend to buy more one-off books, both because I’m able to browse, read the cover blurbs, etc. for books that catch my eye, but also because a bookstore often doesn’t carry an entire series on the shelf. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up something in a bookstore that looked intriguing only to put it back down in disgust because I notice that it’s “Book 4 of the Windhammer Series” or some such and the store only carries books 3 & 4. Online, if an interesting book turns out to be part of a series, I can order book 1, see if I like it, and then order the rest of the series if so.

    I’d also like to observe that even though the marketing pressures are in favor of series, there are many different reasons for writing one, and not every reason works. Sometimes a series is really a single book, broken into smaller pieces by the publisher, the way Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was, and there are several more contemporary examples of series that are really one very long story following a single character, e.g. C.J. Cherryh’s “Foreigner” series. Other times, a series can be different stories but in a single world the author has built, such as LEM’s “Recluse” and “Imager” series.

    Unfortunately, too often a series is written simply to milk the audience for as long as they can, even when the plot has grown incomprehensibly convoluted and the author has clearly tired of writing about the characters. George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series comes to mind here.

    But the worst situation occurs when an author – usually a very successful one – is persuaded to keep running a series well past its logical plot conclusion…and then dies before they can actually finish the story, e.g. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series and most notoriously Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series. “Wheel of Time” would have made a truly great series if he’d had the guts to end it with book 6, IMHO.

    But I would encourage all of us to keep looking for those new, single books, preferably from authors we’ve never seen before to keep speculative fiction alive and vibrant.

    Which is not to say that I won’t continue to eagerly await the next book in a beloved series from a favorite author!

  8. Larry says:

    I know that for me, in addition to liking the opportunity for greater character arcs provided by a series. I’m also a HUGE fan of well-thought out magic systems – and while some authors can do that in one book – even the really good ones tend to get better when given the run of a series to develop it. For instance, I’m still getting more and more out of your books with each one (and I’ve read all your fantasy books.)

    And also, a series is a sign to me that the author is doing something right. On the theory that they wouldn’t keep writing those books if they weren’t selling.

    I don’t really trust most ratings systems except in a general way of “I suggest you look further into this book.” My own conclusion is that a series suggests a large market likes it.

    Now, this might have changed with eBooks, because there may not be publishers behind it… but surely an author wouldn’t waste their time on something that wasn’t doing well.

    Foolproof? No. I still run across my share of garbage that doesn’t align with that – but it does kind of work for authors that I’ve heard of before.

  9. Joe says:

    I’d like another book in the Adiamante universe. I like the Construct and the notion of paying true cost.

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