Working in a book store, I get to chat about a lot of different book-related topics with customers. Some of the most commonly asked questions are “how many books are in this series?” and “how many of them are currently published?” More often than not, they will wait for the entirety of a series to be out, and then buy the whole thing all at once. As an avid SFF reader myself, I have often been faced with the desire to buy a new book that really piqued my interest, while considering that I might regret not waiting to binge-read the series once it has all be released. Reading books as they come out or all at once is certainly a matter of personal preference, but my experience as a bookseller indicates that the majority of people prefer to wait for a series to be completely published, buy it all then and read it all in one go. It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone in this day and age where almost every TV show out there can be binge-watched in a day or two. That is what we now expect and want from those who create content to be consumed. Should this be taken into account by publishers?
Over the last few months, I have seen more authors and bloggers comment about this topic on social media and I wanted to write some of my thoughts and experiences down for sake of discussion. One of the first things I discovered when I started following the SFF community on twitter, is how most authors are really counting on a first book of a series to sell in order to get the publisher to order more books from that series. I certainly cannot pretend to know about the intricacies and caveats of the publishing world, but at its core, the simple fact remains: waiting for a full series to be out before buying it can hurt authors more often than not.
As someone who loves books, their authors and want to support the book writing business, I decided to look deeper into this issue, and list out the different scenarios I encounter at work. Over the last 8 weeks, I have talked with over 200 customers who were browsing the SFF section about this topic. It was great that most of them were interested in sharing their take on it. In the end, these are the two most common scenarios I encountered:
- 76 people said they usually prefer looking for a new book to read and don’t care if the book is a stand-alone, the first of a series that is already out, or the newly released first book of a series. They will buy what they think they will enjoy right now and won’t worry about anything else.
- 131 people responded they were mostly interested in buying series that are completed, where they can binge the entirety of it without having to wait years for the next entry to be released. This was often due (though not always) to a preference to immerse themselves completely in the world and story as they felt that reading the series in one go will provide them with the best experience possible.
Looking at the data gathered, it would be safe to say that for an author, the first group of customers provides more immediate support than the second. As we will see below, most authors depend on their first book’s pre-order and early sales to get publishers to sign off on the next books planned for their series. If those early sales are not hitting projections, the author could very well be facing the grim reality of having their series cut down to fewer books, or simply cancelled.
It seems the only viable solution that would be satisfactory to series binge-readers who also want to support authors by buying their books on release, would be for them to purchase all the books they are interested in as they are released, stack them on their shelves and wait a few years for all the books of those various series to be published before actually reading them the way they prefer. As a consumer, this solution definitely has it’s disadvantages. The main one being that if you buy the first book of a series, proceed to read it right away and realize this isn’t your cup of tea, you probably won’t spent more hard earned dollars on the next book of that series and will look for another one that is more to your liking. In this instance, the reader would probably not feel like they lost money as they still ended up reading the book they paid for.
Now imagine the same person but instead of reading that first book when they buy it, they shelve it until five to six years later, when they finally have the complete series ready to go. When they finish book one and realize it is not for them, they would assuredly feel that they lost money on the other books of that series they never plan to read. Sure they can give them to someone who might very well enjoy them, and that is great, but assuming this person does the same process for every big Fantasy series they plan on reading, they might end up quite unhappy about having paid for more than a few books they never end up reading. This would obviously be affected by personal taste, but it doesn’t change the concept illustrated here.
From the Authors
If we want to understand this situation from all possible angles, there are none better positioned to explain these realities then the authors who live them. I have reached out to several authors in hope of asking them questions about this issue and share some of their thoughts and experiences with the public. Here is what they had to say.
Q – As a published author, could you share your insights on pre-orders and early purchases of a book, and their influence on your ability to write more?
A – “For a new author, or any author whose books aren’t blockbusters, pre-orders and early sales are huge. Publishing isn’t the juggernaut it was, say, two decades ago, and I’m not sure most readers realize how tenuous a writing career can be. I know I didn’t. I thought every author wrote full-time, and that once you got published you were set for life. But boy, was I wrong. Unless your book sells extremely well, most authors can’t survive on the money they earn through writing alone. My book, Kings of the Wyld, had a very successful first year. It was, I think, among the top three best-selling fantasy debuts in 2017, and yet a lot of readers were surprised to learn I was still serving tables in restaurants two years later so I could pay rent.
When a book gets a lot of pre-orders, or garners a lot of buzz within a few months of being published, that tells the publisher that the author is worth investing in. If a book doesn’t sell well and is part of a planned series, then the author (especially a new author) is in very real danger of having their series cancelled and their careers cut short. This was a shocking realization to me, and it’s scary as hell.”
Q – Is it different after you have had success with your first series?
A – “Definitely, yes. If an author earns out (which is to say their share of the book’s profit exceeds what they were paid as an advance) then they’re considered a success. Heck, even if they don’t earn out it’s possible the publisher, who makes a lot more than the author per book, has recouped enough money to offset the cost of publishing and marketing the entire series, in which case they’re likely to see it through to the end.
That said, just because you’ve had success with one series doesn’t necessarily mean your readers will follow you to the next. So while you’re undoubtedly in a better position than most, until you’ve reached a truly meteoric level of success, you can’t help but feel like you’re treading water.”
Q – Could you share your thoughts on this particular issue authors are facing?
A – “I know plenty of people who say they won’t touch a series until more than 2 are out. Hell, I’m that way myself sometimes. So I accept the fact that some people won’t pick up my series until more is out. In some ways, I’m a bit interested to see what happens when Book 3 comes out — whether there will be a bump in new readers.
I’ve been pretty blessed with constant growth. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone into Goodreads and HAVEN’T seen new reviews for my books — including THE LAST SUN, which was published years ago by now. (And I go into Goodreads at least twice a week.) And I think a lot of that growth is due to the accumulation of reviews I have — it gives people a certain comfort zone in spending their time or money on me.
Honestly, maybe that’s it? I think it comes down to people waiting to know a series is worth their time. Personally, as an author, I’m hoping that having 3 books out, plus a really decent slate of reviews on GR and Amazon will be a good thing for me.”
Q – Have you ever experienced this issue as an author, and could you share your thoughts about it?
A – “I have very much experienced this. My first series, The Burned Man, ended on a massive unresolved cliff-hanger that wasn’t my choice. The reason? Partly that the publisher changed hands and my editor left, but also partly because sales of the third book just weren’t where they needed to be. It was supposed to be a five book series with a definite ending, but it ended up being a trilogy that just stops. Not what I had in mind. It’s business, it happens, and it happens a lot more frequently than many authors are prepared to admit. And the whole “I won’t buy into an unfinished series” thing is a big part of why. I had, and five years later still have, fans who are very unhappy about this. I can’t say I’m best pleased either.
I don’t mean to sound bitter; part of me understands this. I know how a P&L (profit and loss statement, basically a projection of sales revenues versus incurred expenses) works, and I know a publisher has to make a return on their investment before they’ll consider renewing an author’s contract. That makes perfect sense. But here’s the thing: there is an elephant in the room that it seems we’re not supposed to talk about, but as you asked me I’m going to. There are two, maybe three very famous fantasy authors with unfinished series, and two of them at least don’t look like they’re ever going to be finished. This has upset a lot of people. An awful lot of people, who have been waiting ten-plus years for a book they may never get.
I’m not going to speculate on the private lives of gentlemen I don’t know. There may well be very valid personal reasons for this. But none of those potential reasons is because the publisher dropped them. I guarantee it. These guys are mega-sellers. Mega-sellers are what publishers bank on to support the rest of their list, the mid-list authors like me and the debutbooks that they take on from new voices. These guys don’t get dropped, ever.
Something that’s changed in recent years is publishers’ risk appetites. It used to be normal that you sold a trilogy off the back of the first book, and contractually they had to publish a trilogy. Now it’s more common to see offers on the first two books, maybe even just the first book, and they’ll offer on the subsequent ones if sales are good. That’s a business model, but it relies on those early books selling. If they don’t, because people won’t buy into a series until it’s complete, then that almost guarantees it never will be complete because early sales won’t be where the publisher needs them to be. This is self-defeating for all concerned; publisher, author, and reader.
I saw this again with my current series, War for the Rose Throne. Priest of Bones and Priest of Lies have done pretty well. They’re in development for television by Heyday Production as we speak and have sold to multiple foreign territories, but I still got dropped by my US publisher because sales didn’t hit what their P&L said they needed them to be. Maybe they just paid me too much up front, I don’t know. There is nothing quite as opaque as another company’s P&L forecast, and we can only ever speculate. Thankfully my UK publisher Jo Fletcher Books has renewed the series for the final two books, Priest of Gallowsand Priest of Crowns, and picked up US distribution too, so in this instance the series will definitely be finished worldwide. But despite its relative success, it nearly wasn’t.
And this is because of three authors. Big, famous ones, yes, but only three authors nonetheless. The vast majority of us, the hundreds of mid-list sellers with our smaller but no less enthusiastic fanbases, reliably put out a book every year to eighteen months. If you want us to be able to keep doing so, please consider buying and ideally pre-ordering our books on release, rather than waiting for us to be done. Otherwise we may never have the opportunity to be done.”
Q – Could you share your opinion on this very real situation authors and readers are facing?
A – “Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I think it’s important to talk about, because your concern is very real, but also not a weight readers should carry around their shoulders. It is absolutely true that even to this day, first-week sales numbers on a book can dramatically affect how that book is received, and how much investment the publisher makes in the subsequent releases in the series.
But long tail numbers matter, too! If all your readers come and go on launch day, your work quickly fades into obscurity. To have a sustainable series, new readers need to continue to start the journey, and sometimes that takes time as word of mouth builds interest.
First books in a fantasy series are usually self contained stories. You can read just one and feel satisfied that you know what that author is all about. If you like to sample new worlds and then move on to something new, reading a lot of book ones, that’s great.
If you are the type of person who jumps in with their whole heart, and enjoys the exquisite agony of longing for more of a thing you love—a pain I know well—then dive into a new book one! Give a debut author a chance to shine in their moment. Support authors whose voices you would like to amplify.
But if you are the type of person who just wants to binge, that’s cool, too. And you shouldn’t have to feel obliged to buy books you don’t intend to read in the near future. They’re not going anywhere. Buy what you want to read NOW.
Great, GREAT authors publish the final books in their series all the time. Many of them have languished for lack of readership, and could absolutely use the boost of a binge reader going to the bookstore and walking out with a stack of books to plow through. I do this with my daughter all the time.
Supporting art is important. I believe people should absolutely give something back for the content they consume. But no one should be asked to support art they are not consuming, or to consume it in a way that is not convenient to them out of a feeling of obligation. It’s ok to be the kind of consumer you are!”
Taking in the very informative statements made by these authors, a few facts are made quite clear. Most authors need early sales of their books to have the best chance of building their careers. But they also want the readers to buy the books they want, without feeling pressure to offset the invisible sale targets put in place by publishers. They encourage readers to show their support for authors they want to read more of, while realizing that not everyone shops for their next reads the same way and are very understanding of that fact.
So how to we find a solution that works for everyone? I doesn’t seem like there is much to be done from the authors themselves, who can only keep creating their art, and hoping that the public take a chance on their books. There isn’t much else to be done from the reader side either, other than bring awareness of this issue to more people, so they might make more conscious decisions to support authors whose work they like. Maybe something needs to change from the publisher’s side? Could there be more leeway when negotiating contracts with authors? I believe there can, and there should be.
Finally, it has been suggested by different people in the book blogging community that if authors included small recap chapters at the beginning of their books, it would solve the issue for some readers, and it would encourage more of them to purchase and read books as they come out, without fearing of forgetting important plot points, character moments and more. I asked a couple of the authors who contributed to this text to share their thoughts on this particular suggestion. Here is what they had to say.
Nicholas Eames: “I actually think the reader in me has more thoughts on this than the writer. As a writer, it doesn’t matter to me at all if the publisher wants to put a recap at the beginning of each book.
As a reader…I don’t think it’s necessary. Any author worth reading is going to make sure the relevant plot points are explained in a way that doesn’t leave the reader feeling lost, and as someone who almost never reads a series in one go (there’s too many great authors out there!) it can be several years before I get to the next book, and within a chapter or three I’m right back into it. If someone really needs to read a synopsis, they can almost certainly find one online.”
Peter V. Brett: “I do think an author of a long fantasy series that sometimes has years between installments has an obligation to fill readers back in if they have forgotten important plot points. Some authors do this as a recap chapter, but I prefer to just work reminders into the narration of the story, so you are given the relevant information when you need it, rather than in a big chunk at the beginning. Preferences vary, so it’s fine to seek out and support the writers who do it in a way you like over ones that don’t.”
We can conclude that while recap chapters are something authors are open to exploring if the situation calls for it, the preferred method to help readers catch up and remember important plot details is to incorporate them in the opening chapters of the next book of that series.
Doing the research and writing this blog post has been eye opening for me. For a while now I have been the type of reader who would, in most cases, gravitate towards finished series (or ones missing only the final book). I am part of that specific group, most of the time. Or at least I was. Diving deep into this issue by reading opinion pieces online, talking with authors and other readers like me, it made me want to do things differently. To step out of my comfort zone. I have recently started buying books that have been on my TBR list for a while now. The only thing stopping me before was this need to binge read the whole series at once. I want to try and take a chance on books I think I am going to enjoy, while hopefully supporting authors for their writing. A lot of my most anticipated books of 2021 are first books of new series and I will definitely not be waiting years before indulging, this time.
At the end of the day, I think it’s important to highlight this: you should buy the books you want to buy, when you want to buy them. Authors will get your support either way. Having said that, should you find yourself in a book store some day, holding a shinny new copy of a book you are drawn to because the cover is wickedly awesome and the synopsis is getting you all excited and intrigued, maybe give it a shot regardless of how many books of that series are currently available. You might unknowingly be changing your, and someone else’s life, for the better.