Apr 18 2014 11:00am

Under the Radar: Mid-Series from the Mid List

In all likelihood you’ve heard of both God’s War by Kameron Hurley and Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes. Both were debut novelists with big pushes among the online community due in no small part to each author’s interesting social media persona. They were, in their moment, the kinds of titles that everyone talked about. They appeared on dozens of blogs and have managed long tails when it comes to name recognition. Hurley’s God’s War slightly more so due to her delayed release in the United Kingdom and a number of significant award nominations.

But despite the early successes of these authors, their second and third novels seem to have fallen into the black chasm of no one cares.

Having read Infidel and Rapture, the final two novels in Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, and Black Halo, the second novel in Syke’s Aeon’s Gate Trilogy, I find this a boggling scenario. Not only are they superior novels to the debut efforts in every conceivable way, they continue an interesting story, populated by engaging characters. Sure, we should expect the standard series drop-offs I’ve discussed in previous articles, but in both cases the rest of the series has not been able to resonate in any meaningful way among readers. The simple question is, why?

I would posit a two fold answer. The first is that most review outlets and even average readers are attracted by two paradigms when it comes to selecting fiction. Either they’re looking for the next big thing or they want to read the same kinds of things they’ve always read. In other words, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is widely read, but can she sustain that interest into a second novel and beyond? The reality is she’s in for an uphill climb. Despite achieving an almost zeitgeist status with her first novel bloggers won’t be as likely to cover the sequel, Ancillary Sword, in pre-publication. As a result, readers may not remember how much they want it a year later.

Reviewers are about as discerning as crows—if it sparkles we’re going to read it. I was once sent a debut novel wrapped in black tissue paper inside a black envelope. The title of the novel was Fade to Black. I started reading it the same day. When there are no debuts to catch the eye, the odds are that a reviewer will be looking at the new Brandon Sanderson, or Trudi Canavan, or Patricia Briggs. When it comes to getting buzz around a mid list authors’ mid series titles, the deck is stacked. And it’s not a friendly stack of cards.

The second part is that it is incumbent on the publisher to cue the reading public about the importance of a second and third novel for the mid list author. Debuts, to a large degree, sell themselves to the reviewing community and even to readers who find themselves intrigued by the new and shiny on the new release shelf. But, when those second and third novels come out it simply isn’t sustainable to expect the existing readership to find them. It’s time for a new push, one equal to the one levied for the debut a year ago. But, these scenarios are rare in publishing, particularly for an author who didn’t “break out.” Resources not allocated to the bell-cow authors are often directed toward new authors the publisher hopes to grow into big successes.

It can be a frustrating process for the mid tier author. Sarah Monette, known more recently as Katherine Addison, published a series of novels with Ace Books that did not perform particularly well on the sales ledgers. On her blog Monette revealed these facts, including the final outcome which was a rejection of her newest novel. Monette was forced to take the manuscript to market and sold it to another publisher. The book became The Goblin Emperor, published under a pseudonym. It has received a massive amount of positive buzz within the reviewing community and readers across the spectrum are excited to read it.

Sadly, the expectation has become that authors must be Athena to succeed. By that I mean they must spring forth from the head of Zeus, or in this case a publishing house, fully formed, ready to kick ass and take names. Stumbling out of the gate or finding a voice while actively publishing seems to be something the industry (and the reading public) is increasingly less likely to tolerate. I don’t have solutions to any of these problems. The process is complex and has so many moving parts that it’s impossible to really boil it down to any few causes. It’s why I’m here writing about two series I feel strongly about.

Neither God’s War nor Tome of the Undergates could be described by anyone as “Under the Radar,” but their subsequent novels are classic cases—great novels doing something unique, something special with a readership that is simply unrepresentative of their capabilities.

Hurley wrote a novel about Nyx, a woman who does all the horrible things a man can do and doesn’t apologize for it. She doesn’t seek out romance. In fact, if someone is willing to commit to the entire Bel Dame Apocrypha, they’ll find that by the end of the series Nyx rejects all the comforts associated with “happily ever after.” It’s a commentary on the gender politics of genre narratives in the same way that Joe Abercrombie’s work is a commentary on epic fantasy. Among the three novels in the series Infidel is my favorite. It’s the most clearly goal oriented. Nyx must hunt down a bunch of people just as corrupt as she is and bring them in. Her team, such as it is, is pre-constructed and Hurley is out of the woods when it comes to setting up her world. Given the most common complaint for God’s War centers around a very uneven first eighty pages, the freedom to write in an already established place is highly evident as Hurley advances in series. Infidel and Rapture are the novels that separate Hurley’s work from something merely edgy into what I consider the most human science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

Oddly, Sykes suffered from the same malady in Tome of the Undergates; the first hundred pages can wear readers down. However, where Hurley is spending too much time world building and expositing, Sykes is does far too much of the opposite, sending his six characters into a massive extended series of conflicts right off the bat. By the time Black Halo rolls around he’s figured out more about what he wants to do. And what he’s doing is reinventing old school fantasy. Imagine the Dragonlance Chronicles if Sturm Brightblade and Tanis Half Elven and Raistlin Majere were actually written with honesty as it relates to their obvious mental illnesses. Where Tome of the Undergates pokes at this dynamic it’s often more interested in high action and unexpected moments of humor. It isn’t until Black Halo that Sykes figures out where he wants to take it. It’s his second novel that establishes his work as one of the most significant commentaries on fantasy’s narrative forms.

In both cases, Hurley and Sykes are authors finding their voice in public. They are improving with each piece of fiction they release into the world. Reading through their first series is an exercise in watching that growth. Publishing might be disinterested in that journey, but you, the reader, should be. Constantly chasing the next big thing or merely reading the things you’ve always read only reinforces the notion that authors shouldn’t be given the chance to grow and improve. Not only are you missing out on watching two exceptional writers grow into something even greater, you might be creating a self fulfilling prophecy. Consider this a reminder to take a look at debut novels you’ve enjoyed or found intriguing and give those second and third ones a shot. I suspect you’re going to find yourself blown away, as I have, with the growth exhibited not just by Kameron Hurley and Sam Sykes, but by the legions of authors working in the field today.

Thankfully, both authors will be releasing new books in the latter half of 2014, with new publishers and new story arcs. Hurley’s The Mirror Empire from Angry Robot Books is a wholly new endeavor, while Syke’s The City Stained Red returns to his existing world, but with a new perspective. Regardless of whether I can convince anyone to pick up the second and third books in their debut series, I desperately hope thousands of readers invest in their new stuff. I cannot imagine two better voices to pay attention to among the next generation of writers.


Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

1. sterling
I read Hurley's whole series and really enjoyed them all! I'll definitely be watching for her next book. For Sykes, I didn't finish the first book and that's why I didn't pick up the rest. However, I'll be watching for a new series by him and will likely give him another try, since I could see that with a bit more writing under his belt he could be an author I'll enjoy. Sometimes new authors need a book or two to really figure out their style.

This happened to me with N.K Jemisin. I tried her first book and really couldn't get into it. However, I pegged her in my mind as an author to come back to after she'd written a bit more. Her Dreamblood series is awesome and now she's on my "buy everything she writes" list.

I don't know, I feel like most heavy readers are quite aware that new books are coming out by authors they enjoy. There's more ways to find out what's being published than ever before ( including Tor's posts each month) and I, for one, do pay attention. Maybe it's the readers who are only reading the stuff that's getting trumpeted about or is the new flavor of the week who don't have any staying power with series. And that's too bad, if that's the case.

Don't most people love finding a new author and stick with the discovery of a new person they can count on to write books they'll enjoy? I'm pretty loyal to authors who have given me a great read.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
There seem to be classes of mid-list writers, and its a hard position for writers to maintain. Some manage it, but many others seem to put out a couple of books, and then, just "poof".

Too often, authors I like are the ones that go "poof".

I do think the modern age of social media is going to change this dynamic, but how it will--remains to be seen
3. Fred Zimmerman
Can we have some Bookscan numbers on this, please? That would make the whole discussion far more insightful.
Robert H. Bedford
4. RobB
How much of this midlist issue is related to the publishers of these authors? While Nightshade and Pyr are well respected (well, WERE in the case of NSB) in inner genre circles, they were newer kids to the block of genre publishing when Sam and Kameron's books published.
Justin Landon
5. jdiddyesquire
@Fred -- Heh. Proprietary information. But, I've written extensively about how I believe making Bookscan and other data streams publicly available would greatly enhance understanding about what sells and what doesn't and why.
Justin Landon
6. jdiddyesquire
@RobB -- I think it's part of it, but there's no doubt authors with big-5 publishers suffer from the same struggles. You hear a lot of my publicist did nothing for my second and third book.
7. RyanJ
Speaking anecdotally about my experience as a reviewer, we want to maximise the spread of authors reviewed on our site. I've read a lot of first books, and I have a lot of second books ready to read, and I will get around to them at some stage.

For me to read a second book immediately it normally takes one of two things. Either I have to be really buzzing about the thought of reading it, almost desperate to find out what happens next. Or, the first book was mediocre and the second book turns out to be a huge improvement that redeems the author somewhat. I read Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes and really enjoyed it, and I felt really satisfied by the ending. I guess the plot resolutions didn't leave me with a burning need to read the next one, but I know when I do read Black Halo that I will end up getting a great story. That makes it sound like I'm advocating cliffhanger endings...

Its hard to describe how I actually go about choosing the next book on my list. Sometimes I've got sub-genre burnout, sometimes I'm just looking for the next really cool idea. I just have to go with what feels right, because if I force myself to read something for completions sake, I may not enjoy it as much as I could. It is very easy for a reviewer to lose interest in reading and see every next book as a job.
8. hoopmanjh
@PrinceJvstin -- I feel your pain and suspect there'd be some overlap on our "authors who went undeservedly 'poof'" lists. It's not just a problem with books -- it seems like a lot of media industries (film, TV, music, gaming) are having trouble figuring out how to support anything that's not the equivalent of a summer blockbuster tentpole.

(Also, this reminds me that I do need to read both Hurley's and Sykes' series. Maybe this will finally be the year.)
9. harmonyfb
I loved Hurley's entire series, myself (good golly, her worldbuilding! ::happy sigh::). I've been waiting patiently to hear what she'll publish next. I'm sure it will be action-packed, brilliant, and complicated. :)

I did notice that 'God's War' circulated significantly better than the sequels at my library. My reasoning was that lots of people picked the first novel up because of the cover (strong woman in a strong military pose). It looked like a military-fiction novel, and male patrons were twice as likely as female ones to check it out. The second book's cover looked like a generic science fiction title and did not feature Nyx, so readers had no visual continuity to remind them of the first novel. I wonder how much better sales might have been if Nyx had continued to be the center of each cover design?

There were also a number of patrons who checked out the first one and really disliked it, because they expected one thing (military-fiction) and got something else entirely (military-science-fiction from an implied Muslim-ish female viewpoint, oh noes!)
Claire de Trafford
10. Booksnhorses
I live in a small town in regional Victoria, Oz. We do have a local bookshop (about the size of a living room) and a good library which is willing to buy in books but we just don't get any real range of SFF books. I rely on the internet and blogs such as this for new book recommendations which is great but doesn't beat a good browse in a big store, and this, combined with genre and gender fatigue (been reading SFF a looong time, now trying to focus on female authors) means that I miss quite a lot of stuff, or come to it late. I've just got Gods War thru the post for instance and am going to hunt out Elizabeth Bear's latest series. If I miss authors ( and I buy a lot of books a year ) then I can easily understand how their sales can be very low.
11. Bob Mayer at Cool Gus
I spent 20 years as a mostly mid-list writer, including a couple of books with Tor with zero support. I wrote under four pen names as needed. I sold over 1 million copies of my Area 51 series with Random House and got dumped.

I left NY behind in 2009 after 42 books. I now have close to 60 and am doing quite well with my own publishing house, Cool Gus, and also having a series with 47North, Amazon's science fiction imprint.

As a member of RWA (the only male on the honor roll there due to NY Times bestselling), SFWA, and other groups, I have found the science fiction community to be, surprisingly, the most backward in terms of the changes in publishing. Romance writers, on the other hand, are on the cutting edge. Most SFF writers cling to traditional publishing as if it's the only game in town. It's as if most have never heard of the Internet or digital publishing. I make more off a $2.99 eBook than I did off a mass market paperback. I have complete control of my career. After a quarter century making my living as a writer, I believe it's the best time ever to be an author, but not much seems to have changed in the SFF world.
Shelly wb
12. shellywb
I have never heard of these two authors and series. But, and I find this funny, I have heard of Bob Mayer from comment 11. Maybe he has a point about SFF needing to change.
13. Kellan Sparver
Hurley's publisher also went bankrupt somewhere between books 1 and 2, as I recall. That the subsequent two books got published at all was lucky. Which is not to say I don't think she should be more widely regarded, but mostly I'm just glad she's still in the game at all.

Bob, if you're not seeing SFF turn to epublishing in a big way, you're obviously not hanging out in the same corner of it I am. Hang out with some young writers and you'll see a very different world.

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