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Series rambling

I feel the need to preface this one with a big disclaimer: I'm not an editor, I'm not a publisher, I'm not an agent. These ramblings are my observations, but I observe only what it's in my nature to observe, and while I attempt objectivity, am fully aware that I achieve filtered subjectivity.

Many, many writers would disagree with what I've said in places. I'm not trying to discuss process because, frankly, there are so many excellent writers on LJ who do just that -- but I feel I have to stress the fact that the discussion of a business-eye-view isn't the only thing that's important.

Okay. yhlee asked a question about series books, which I'm rambling about here.

I did not set out to write a series, but it didn't seem to me to be a detrimental career thing to do. At the time, it even seemed wise. People get different things out of reading; some people crave the fizzle of the new and the different. Some invest enough emotion in a character and a world that they want to know more about both. At best guess, either works, depending entirely on the type of story you have to tell.

Romance is still mostly single book, for instance, and no one can tell me Romance doesn't have readers. In the past, a Romance series was a set of books that featured minor characters from a previous novel, but the story itself was enclosed. Now, it's less clear to me that this is the case, as romantic elements carry through various stories in which there's more to tell. I don't know a lot about Romance; it's just the biggest example of successful non-series writing I can think of in publishing.

To go back to yhlee's comment, though. Yes, these days it's more common to have stand-alone novels in SF than it is in fantasy. This doesn't mean that one dies if that's all one writes. It also isn't meant to imply that series sell where stand-alones don't, because I've seen plenty of series books disappear from view.

For the purpose of our discussion, a series can mean one of three things, so I'm using the term loosely.

There are trilogies, or xxologies, in which the entire story plays out in xx books, rather than in one; there's not a lot of story resolution at the end of each volume, and the characters are often left hanging. Readers too. Obvious examples: Robert Jordan. George Martin.

Then there are the books which I think of as series in the television sense: There's a beginning, middle and end to each book, but the character growth and arcs can continue in later books. Examples of these: Jim Butcher. Tanya Huff. Lois McMaster Bujold. Stephen Brust's Vlad books.

Last, there are books which take place in the same universe, but can be read completely independently, because the only continuity is the world itself, and off the top of my head, I can throw out China Mieville. Err, throw out is probably an unfortunate use of words, but you know what I meant. Early C. J. Cherryh SF. Oh, wait, I'm enormously stupid -- Terry Pratchett.

There are more fantasy examples, because that's what I write. I pay attention to fantasy with a bit more hawkishness for that reason. But I can come up with books that fit the categories above in SF just as easily. David Brin's Uplift books are both; the trilogy and the separate novels which take place in the same universe. Iain M. Banks and his culture novels (as separate novels which take place in the same universe). William Gibson. Gene Wolfe (as xxology). Dan Simmons (Hyperion books). David Weber.

If anyone thinks that series=garbage, the exit is to the left. Find it, because my foot is going to be chasing your butt.

When I speak of a series, I speak of these three things. I realize that's a bit nebulous, but that's what I mean when I say it. Technically, if the book can be read as a stand-alone, it can be argued that that's what it is, but in terms of marketing, that's exactly not what it is, and I'm veering toward the marketing, so bear with me. The point of marketing a world is sort of creating a small brand name. If the publisher effectively 'owns' the world, in the sales sense, it can leverage that if reader interest is there. There is a sense that connected novels will draw more readers, so if the book does stand alone, it doesn't matter if the publisher thinks it can get a larger preorder by tying it in with a previous book.

There are several authors I can think of who have done well publishing books that stand alone. Where "done well" in this case means that they've got recognition and a steady publisher for their works; I can't speak to their overall sales because I've never asked for hard numbers. In SF, it's vastly easier. Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson come instantly to mind. Connie Willis (although I do realize that technically two of her books are connected, I don't think that fact made much difference because they weren't marketed that way).

In fantasy, it's not nearly as easy to come up with good counters. Guy Gavriel Kay, with the exception of his first trilogy (the Byzantium book had to be split, but it's really one long book). Charles de Lint is probably the foremost example of this that I can think of (I exempt the Newford collections because they're short work). Christopher Moore, although I'm not sure he's really considered in genre as such, (he does write genre work imho). I have much better luck if I turn to the dark fantasy writers: Clive Barker. Neil Gaiman. Poppy Brite.

It becomes pretty clear that a majority of what's published is series work. Why? Because it sells. There are more readers who want to know more about a previous world they've invested emotion in than there are those who don't. There are a truckload of very vocal people who dislike series books, but in this gambit, it's the people who talk with their wallets that have the loudest voices, even when they don't raise them otherwise.

So why doesn't everyone write a series? Because some people don't have that type of story to tell. I don't suggest trying if you don't, fwiw, because it seems a good prescription for a lot of pain and anguish, but not a good book. There are good marketing reasons to write one -- but actually, only if the first one sells. If you've got a series that's six books long, and the first one doesn't sell, you might very well be looking at a three book series, because it'll take that long to figure out that they aren't. Selling, that is. Any number of series books die on the shelves. Because more of the books are series books, its always going to be easy to point to the ones that didn't; basic numbers. If the first one didn't sell, and the first one has to be read first, it harms the sales of the second book in a way that standalones aren't harmed.

The truth is that there are authors who have been pointedly told to abandon a world and start something new because the world itself isn't living up to publisher expectations (yes, this means sales numbers). This is good and bad. Bad, if you haven't finished what you feel you need to say; good, in that the publisher has confidence in your writing, just not in this set of books.

If you're one of those authors who doesn't do the big world sprawl, your chances are similar to those who do -- more do, but in a purely book by book way, the chances are the same on the shelf, especially for a first novel. That's the good news. If the first novel does sell, you might feel some hopeful pressure from the publisher to write another set in the same world, or possibly with the same characters (if that's even possible, and if you've ended the world, it isn't) -- and at that point, it's up to you. If your second novel isn't connected, it's kind of the proof of concept: Do people love the word for word writing, or do they love the creation? Your early books are really your market research. You are, however, more likely to feel some pressure if you're writing high fantasy.

If you're one of those authors who has had great success with a particular world, and you want to leave it, you're sort of screwed. The numbers for your standalone novels won't come up to the numbers of the connected books. If you leave the world for a different series, it often doesn't do as well, either. There are exceptions to this, but not so many that it isn't clear from a behind-the-cash-desk perspective. This is the point at which agents will often talk about career books. Some authors don't budge; some try to fan older fires.

But if the standalone novel is your form, it certainly didn't kill the careers of Connie Willis or Neil Gaiman or Robert Charles Wilson, and I think it's more important to write the book that only you can write, period, full stop.

Comments

( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
dsgood
Aug. 25th, 2004 09:27 pm (UTC)
"There are trilogies, or xxologies, in which the entire story plays out in xx books, rather than in one; there's not a lot of story resolution at the end of each volume, and the characters are often left hanging."

One technical term for this is "roman fleuve" -- French with the literal meaning "river novel".
msagara
Aug. 25th, 2004 09:39 pm (UTC)
One technical term for this is "roman fleuve" -- French with the literal meaning "river novel".

It's a good term, too -- it's just not one in common marketing parlance <wry g>. I think my definition of it tends to be a bit more narrow -- I tend to think of historical "family" sagas, where the stories pass through generations and historical changes.

Also, if I used it in the store, people would either glare at me for sounding pretentious or ask me what it meant <g>.
buymeaclue
Aug. 25th, 2004 09:34 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to say again how much I (and others I've talked to) appreciate these posts. Very handy and very reassuring in an odd sort of way. Thank you.
msagara
Aug. 25th, 2004 09:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you <g>. This is oddly comforting; I think when I just rant, I tend to get more comments, so I often wonder if people are plugging their figurative ears for some of the more serious bits <g>. Not, of course, that I don't take ranting seriously...
(no subject) - buymeaclue - Aug. 25th, 2004 10:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - redempress - Aug. 26th, 2004 02:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 26th, 2004 11:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
rachelmanija
Aug. 25th, 2004 09:56 pm (UTC)
Patricia McKillip is another successful (I assume) writer of non-series fantasy, as is Neil Gaiman. But they're not exactly thick on the ground. Most of the ones I can think of aren't known for hot sales.
janni
Aug. 25th, 2004 10:05 pm (UTC)
It's interesting to me that the majority of the writers I feel the most sympathy with in my own work--the ones I look at and say "I want to write books like that" or "I want a career like that" are writers who manage to build a career on (mostly) unconnected books.

I'm not sure whether that's trying to tell me something or not. :-)

I do know that, while I'm capable of writing both series and standalone books, and of enjoying the process of writing both, the standalone publishers seem more interested in what I send, both in terms of sales and near-misses.

Which no doubt is trying to tell me something. Especially since I noticed a similar divide when I first began submitting to children's/YA and adult markets--both were rejecting me early on, of course, but the children's/YA markets were rejecting me in a much more near-miss sort of way.

All of which is probably taking up far too much of Michelle's journal space pondering the arc of my own career. :-)
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 25th, 2004 10:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - janni - Aug. 26th, 2004 06:57 am (UTC) - Expand
schulman
Aug. 25th, 2004 10:11 pm (UTC)
Martha Wells is currently in the middle of writing a trilogy, but her previous books are standalone, and mostly unconnected. She does have a tendency to write about cranky middle-aged women and tall blond barbarians, which is the kind of continuity I think we ought to see more of.
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 25th, 2004 10:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - schulman - Aug. 26th, 2004 11:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Aug. 25th, 2004 10:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - janni - Aug. 26th, 2004 07:01 am (UTC) - Expand
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msagara
Aug. 25th, 2004 10:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Series and stand-alone
Marion Z. Bradley's stuff

Of course! I really was doing the off-the-top-of-the-head dash, and the top of my head is flat <g>.

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Re: Series and stand-alone - msagara - Aug. 26th, 2004 12:03 am (UTC) - Expand
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msagara
Aug. 25th, 2004 10:41 pm (UTC)
...of course, I also realize it's silly of me-in-particular to be worrying about this right now when the real problem is Finish A Novel Any Novel Worth Not Burning. ^_^

Funny thing, though -- ask any writer at the right (or wrong) point in a manuscript that's already been sold and they'll tell you the Exact Same Thing <wry g>. As in the burning part.

I think I would like to cultivate diversity in my ability, though. Which probably means cultivating the ability to write things longer than 1000 words, right now. *rueful look*

I experiment a bit with diversity in the short pieces -- with the most out there probably being either "Elegy" or "How to Kill and Immortal" -- but I admit that, given the majority of my output has been in one universe with a zillion viewpoints, I haven't tried to diversify much in the novels recently <g>. Although, come to think, the Luna novel is very different, but it's also a Sagara novel.
I know the feeling! - kaitiana - Aug. 26th, 2004 06:38 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I know the feeling! - janni - Aug. 26th, 2004 07:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: I know the feeling! - msagara - Aug. 26th, 2004 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: I know the feeling! - kaitiana - Aug. 27th, 2004 06:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
phantom_wolfboy
Aug. 25th, 2004 11:43 pm (UTC)
In fantasy, it's not nearly as easy to come up with good counters. Guy Gavriel Kay, with the exception of his first trilogy (the Byzantium book had to be split, but it's really one long book). Charles de Lint is probably the foremost example of this that I can think of

If I read this right, and I may be misunderstanding, you seem to be saying that Kay and de Lint are examples of writers of stand-alone fiction.

I would argue rather that Kay is an example of a writer who has continuity within the world (lately; since the Lions of Al-Rassan all his new books have been set in the same world, just at different points in time), while de Lint writes what you call the series in the TV sense. Almost all of his books are set in one of three worlds: the Ottawa of Tamson House, the high-fantasy world of Riddle of the Wren, or Newford (which is really in a different area of the same world as Tamson House's Ottawa).

Ummm. And if I've misunderstood what you were saying, I apologise.
msagara
Aug. 25th, 2004 11:58 pm (UTC)
No, that was what I was saying.

I consider the Kay books to be stand-alones because that's how they're marketed; they aren't sold as connected works in any way. At least not in Canada (where I think you also live). I don't know how they're marketed in the US or the UK, though; he's one of the only writers I can think of in genre who always has a separate Canadian edition and publisher for his works.

Ditto the de Lint books re: world. It's been a while since I've read his earlier books, but I didn't see the connection between HARP or WOLF or WREN (three of the high fantasies), and I don't remember the connection between MULENGRO and YARROW or MOONHEART (although SPIRITWALK is directly related to MOONHEART); I can't remember anything that connected SOMEPLACE TO BE FLYING, but that could be me. The Newford short story collections, I've exempted, and I suppose I can throw in ONION GIRL as well, as the character is based on those, but in essence, de Lint books sell as standalones, and are pretty much marketed that way.

Which is sort of the opposite of what I was saying when I said that you can argue that some books are standalone because they're loosely connected by world or place, rather than story or character, and I said that I was thinking of the way they were marketed, as opposed to their actual content <wry g>.
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(no subject) - lnhammer - Aug. 26th, 2004 07:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - phantom_wolfboy - Aug. 26th, 2004 06:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
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phillip2637
Aug. 26th, 2004 05:55 am (UTC)
From my perspective as a reader only, I find I enjoy a broad scattering of fantasy books from the various styles you mention (single, series, episodic...).

What I notice about series books, though, is that my attention span may be shorter than the average for the market. There are many examples where I started out being a big fan of a series, but then felt that many words were being published after the stories had all been told. (The examples I'm thinking of don't include anyone here nor anyone mentioned in the comments so far.)

My question, though, is from a market point of view: which of the following is most likely to cause the ending of a popular series?
- The author decides that everything has been said
- The publisher anticipates the end of the ride
- Sales suggest that there's been one more release than necessary
msagara
Aug. 27th, 2004 05:23 pm (UTC)
My question, though, is from a market point of view: which of the following is most likely to cause the ending of a popular series?
- The author decides that everything has been said
- The publisher anticipates the end of the ride
- Sales suggest that there's been one more release than necessary


If the series is popular? The author decides that everything has been said. Period. By popular, I'm assuming you mean it sells. So, for instance, the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton is going to continue to be published until she either a) stops writing them or b) they stop selling.

It's when the series is no longer popular, and the sales are in decline, that sales would be a factor.

But if the sales have declined from a very high plateau of a million copies to a humbling 250,000, the books are still going to be published.
(no subject) - phillip2637 - Aug. 27th, 2004 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )