Why You Should Buy the First Books of Unfinished Series

Posted: November 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I like to read SFF-related blog sites, especially those that deal specifically with print SFF. When I see that there’s a post describing the first book of a new series, though, I usually see about twenty percent of the commenters saying something along these lines:

This series sounds good. However, I have a policy of not starting series until they’re finished. That way, I always know that I’ll have a complete story.

I always get annoyed with these sorts of posts. And yet, I can sympathize.

So, what are my problems with this?

Well, first of all, not all fantasy series are the same. Fantasy series can be broken down into two main types:

1. Open-ended fantasy series, like Discworld or the Dresden Files, in which each book is much more like an episode in a long-running TV show, and…

2. Series that are building towards an end.

Type 2 can be broken down further into two subtypes: those where the number of books is preset from the beginning, and the series only lasts for that many books (such as your standard fantasy trilogy), and those that the author says has a definite ending, but that ending is an indefinite number of books away (like A Song of Ice and Fire, or, up until recently, Wheel of Time.)

And when people say they don’t want to read series, it’s usually the WoT/ASoIaF kind that they don’t want to read. A series that ends up going for decades with no end in sight.

(Case in point: when A Memory of Light is published next year, the Wheel of Time saga will have lasted twenty-three years between publication and completion– outlasting both its author and original cover artist. The Game of Thrones books have been around for almost that long, with the first book being published in 1996, and it has no end in sight. Interesting fact– both Jordan and Martin both initially planned their respective series as trilogies.)

I can understand not wanting to pick up a new series and wait years, or even decades, to get to a conclusion. I’m a reader and a fan. I’ve been in the same boat.

But when I see comments from people online that they never pick up the first book of an uncompleted series, that makes the writer part of me a little bit freaked.

Let’s look at it this way: it’s an incredibly rare author who sells an entire series first cat out of the bag. Usually publishers look at the sales of a first book of a series to decide whether there will be further books. And when you’re looking at sales of first novels from new writers, it’s low. Fantasy is a lucky genre in that first-novel sales are typically higher than most other genres, but even still, that number is often in the low thousands. Writers like Patrick Rothfuss, who explode onto the scene out of nowhere and get to major positions in the genre with a single book, are incredibly rare. Writers often have to toil in obscurity before they can even begin to build a following.

And that’s part of the problem. Sure, it doesn’t impact the industry at all if just a couple of people choose not to read uncompleted series. But when more and more people choose to opt out of buying a book because it’s the first book of a series, that takes away from sales. And the higher the number of people that don’t buy a book, the bigger the chance that the publisher won’t ask for another book in a series.

What this means is, if enough people don’t buy the first book of a new author’s series, there will be no series. The first book will be the only book.

This wouldn’t be that much of a problem in another genre, like literary fiction (where stand-alone novels are most common) or mystery (where most novels are parts of open-ended series revolving around the same protagonist). But fantasy (and, to a lesser degree, SF) thrives on the serial. And it’s an unfortunate fact that in our genre, the standard unit of storytelling is the trilogy. I’d love nothing more than to see more stand-alone novels in fantasy. But partly due to writers, and partly due to the market, the market expectation is that any novel is part of a series (typically an open-ended series in urban fantasy, and a serial in epic fantasy).

I guess that sounds a little counterintuitive. I was just saying before that if enough people stop buying the first books of series, then no more series will be published. And yet I just said that the standard unit of a fantasy story is the series. How can this be reconciled?

Well, because when a publisher publishes the first book of a new series, even with no guarantee that there will be a second book, they’re publishing it in the hope that it will get a fanbase, or a following, or something, so that it can be a perennial seller. A publisher that publishes a lot of first novels is basically throwing a lot of darts up into the air and hoping that some of them will stick. Some of them do, and go on to become consistent sellers for both the author and publisher. And some of them don’t, and if that’s the case, then the publisher doesn’t have to waste time or money with publishing a second book.

If people don’t buy those first books, though, it means that none of the darts stuck.

There will be no new fantasy series.

There will be no new authors.

And that’s a problem for me. The Lotus Imperiate, my current project, is the first book of a trilogy. And a lot of the reason why I chose for it to be a trilogy is because that would be more marketable to publishers. And my hope is that one day, The Lotus Imperiate finds a home with a good publisher, and that people will read it and like it and buy it, thus giving me shiny gold rocks with which I can buy goods and/or services. But if nobody buys it, then I have no shiny gold rocks, and I can’t buy things. Which means that I’ll have to get a job as a telemarketer or something, and this will eventually end with me dying sad and unfulfilled. 

Basically, what I’m saying is that if enough people don’t buy book one of The Lotus Imperiate, that means that there’s no guarantee that books two and three will get published either. And it’s the same for other new writers too.

I know that people don’t want to get burned with a new fantasy series. They don’t want that book to break their hearts. They don’t want to wait years until they find out how the story ends.

I understand that. I do. But if enough people do it, it hurts the book market. It means that no new authors can enter the fantasy genre, which hurts the genre as a whole, until there’s nothing left but big-name authors who can sell their series because they’ve proven to be marketable. And this would be a terrible thing. What would the fantasy genre today be like if there were no Mistborn, no Kingkiller Chronicles? If nobody bought those first books, then there would be no series. And with that, the world would lose something.

So go ahead. Buy that first book of an unfinished series. Let it break your heart. Because broken hearts can heal, and you might just fall in love again.

~ Ian


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