So, What Sort of Series Do You Like?

Jo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in April of 2009.

I love series because when I love something I want more of it. Sure I’ll buy an utterly new book by an author I like, but I also want to find out what happened to the characters I already know I care about. I never realised quite how much genre readers love series until I got published though. People are always asking me if I’m writing a sequel to Tooth and Claw (No!) and if I’ll write any more of the Small Change books. (No!) Some people really don’t want to let go. And of course I’m the same, when I heard Bujold was writing a new Miles book I bounced up and down for hours.

So, fine, everyone loves series. But what kind of series do you like?

The Lord of the Rings isn’t a series, it’s one long book published in three volumes for technical bookbinding reasons. Cherryh’s Union-Alliance books are a series, they’re all independent stories with their own plots and their own characters, but set in the same universe. Away from those extremes there are Bujold’s Vorkosigan books and Brust’s Vlad books where the books are about the same characters but are all independent stories and you can start pretty much anywhere, and in contrast Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths books and Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet where the individual books have their own story arcs but the later volumes really aren’t going to make as much sense if you haven’t read the earlier volumes.

what makes this book so great jo waltonSo, there’s style one, The Lord of the Rings, one book with extra pieces of cardboard.

There’s style two, Doctrine of Labyrinths, where you have volume closure but need to read the books in order.

There’s style three, Vlad and Vorkosigan, where the cumulative effect of reading all of them is to give you a story arc and more investment in the characters, but it doesn’t really matter where you start and whether you read them in order.

And there’s style four, Union-Alliance, where the volumes are completely independent of each other though they may reflect interestingly on each other.

I’ve been thinking about this because just as I’ve been thinking about the Vorkosigan books and the way they’re a series, Sarah Monette made a post in her LiveJournal in which she talks about the way her books have not had a series name or numbers attached to them, and how the reviews of the fourth book, Corambis (2009), seem to assume that it’s a bad thing that it’s part of a series and you need to have read the others for it to make sense. And she goes on to ask some interesting questions about the marketing decisions made with those books.

Personally, I like all four kinds of series, as you can tell by the way I can come up with examples of all of them off the top of my head and from my own bookshelves. What I can’t stand is when I pick up a random book in a bookshop or the library and it’s part of a series and that isn’t clearly indicated anywhere on it. I’ve picked up random volumes that are clearly part of a series in style one or style two, read a bit, been utterly confused, and never looked at the author again. I hate this. But Sarah says this is what marketing specifically required:

(M)y editor told me that we couldn’t put Book One of the Doctrine of Labyrinths on the cover or in the front matter. Marketing wouldn’t let us.

She explained their reasoning to me:

If a person buys a book and then discovers it is part of a series, they are more likely to buy the other books, whereas if a person picks up a book in a bookstore and sees it’s Book Two, they won’t buy it. (I think there’s a self-defeating flaw in this reasoning, since it assumes that Book One will not be near Book Two on the bookstore shelves, but that’s neither here nor there.) Never mind the fact that a person who buys a book only to discover it’s Book Two is likely to be an unhappy person, and never mind that, since the damn thing ISN’T LABELED as Book Two, the person has no immediately obvious and easy way of figuring out either which series it’s a part of, nor which books in the series come BEFORE it. . . . Marketing said, Thou Shalt Not Label The Books Of Thy Series, and lo, the books were not labeled.

Crazy for a style one or two series. But it’s going to work fine with a style three or four series.

Now, the Vorkosigan books (style three) are very good about this. They don’t say “Volume X of Y” on them, but they don’t need to. But they do have a timeline in the back that tells you precisely how to read them in internal chronological order. When I randomly picked up Brothers in Arms in the library many years ago, I could tell it was a series book and read it anyway.

I wonder if publishers and marketing people are sometimes mistaking a style one or two series for a style three or four series, or mistaking what works for a style three or four series as something that ought to work for all series. Or maybe they want every series to be a style three series—in which case, they should perhaps mention this to their authors. Certainly nobody has ever said this to me, and my first two published books were a style one, and it looks as if nobody has said it to Sarah either. And are style three series what readers want? I mean I like them, but as I already said, I like all these kinds of series.

How about you? What sort of series do you like, and how would you like it to be labelled?

Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.


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