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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Here's an interesting discussion about the commercial benefits of series and the love/hate relationship readers have with them.

An excerpt from a blog post by Brandon Sanderson:

"One of the challenges of writing a series is to make certain the reader is satisfied with the book they buy, even though it's part of a larger story. Readers seem to have a love/hate relationship with the series, at least in our genre. Stand alone books, as a rule of thumb, do not sell as well as series books. Mistborn outsold Elantris and Warbreaker, as an example, and the Wheel of Time books did not start reaching the top of the bestseller charts until the series was at its eighth or ninth volume.

And yet, the longer a series goes, the less pleased readers seem to be with it. If one looks at most series and compare reader reviews on something like Goodreads, the longer the series goes, the worse the reviews tend to get. It has happened for nearly every major fantasy series."

*end quote*

There's another post in the same sequence, from the same website (Borders's SFF blog). This is an earlier post from Brent Weeks on cliffhangers, which leads into the discussion of series. Weeks also gave a response to Brandon's take on series here. And Brandon fired back here. Then Weeks responded again here.

Feel free to discuss anything you find here. I'm also curious what your approach is to writing series and tying the books together. I'm starting to think about what I'd like the sequel to my novel to be like. I think I'm the type, at least at this time, to string together truly standalone epics in the same world (with some of the same characters) rather than to write a really long story arc over multiple books. I just like the satisfaction of starting and finishing one thing at a time, both as a reader and a writer. But different strokes.
 

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In fantasy, especially, it's hard to sustain a long series, because they can be loooong. In most of the series I can think of, the first book is the best. Look at the guy who gave you your quote. His best series was the two-booker (written as Wolverton), because he could write it in one chunk. In Runelords, I felt like the first book was one of the strongest, most original ideas in years, but by the fourth book, he was in a hurry to wrap it up. And the flip side is much worse, the Jordanesque series where eight hundred pages go by without advancing the plot more than a short story's worth.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
MichaelWallace said:
In fantasy, especially, it's hard to sustain a long series, because they can be loooong. In most of the series I can think of, the first book is the best. Look at the guy who gave you your quote. His best series was the two-booker (written as Wolverton), because he could write it in one chunk. In Runelords, I felt like the first book was one of the strongest, most original ideas in years, but by the fourth book, he was in a hurry to wrap it up. And the flip side is much worse, the Jordanesque series where eight hundred pages go by without advancing the plot more than a short story's worth.
And that's the funny thing, because Robert Jordan has managed to sell a few books (that's understatement for those who don't know who Robert Jordan is). Long series seem to have major commercial appeal, even though they're so hard to do well, considering all the things the writer has to balance.
 

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I read a lot of fantasy and a lot of series and to me this seems spot on.  No more than 6, please.  At 10, you're pushing me walking away altogether.

I think the thing to do with series is to have one over-arching storyline that continues till the end of a series.  So, if there's a war, it ends or is resolved by the last book.  If there's a bad guy, he doesn't die till the end.  The big problem I have with long series (like mysteries) is that they end at every book then the author has to come up with all these weird ways to keep the story alive.  Case in point: Charlaine Harris.  Man, those books have become more and more of a joke.  Of course, I wasn't a huge fan from the beginning, but even people who love the series are getting fed up.

It's never a great idea to piss off your readers. :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
I added this to the OP:

Weeks also gave a response to Brandon's take on series here. And Brandon fired back here. Then Weeks responded again here.
 

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How about the Earth's Children series? The Clan of the Cave Bear is a fantastic, nuanced book that I could read again and again. By book four, the whole thing is a train wreck, and I understand that the final book, recently released, is even worse.

I'm starting to understand the pull of writing a series, however. So far in May, my WWII thriller has sold 450 copies, which is a nice monthly royalty, if I can sustain it for a couple of years. Book #2 of The Righteous series, however, has sold almost 1,600 copies. Both of these books are $2.99. So when I sat down in February to start another book, and I tried to decide between book #3 of my series or another WWII thriller, it was like deciding between a job for eight bucks an hour and a job for 30 bucks an hour. You have to really, really love the job that pays eight bucks an hour.
 

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There's a huge difference between writing a sequel/series because of what the story demands, and writing a sequel/series because of what a publisher demands.  Also, I think outliners have the edge here.  A series where the author hasn't planned things out in advance usually gets worse as it goes, whereas a series where the author has sat down and figured things out from the start usually gets better as it goes.

My approach to writing a series is that it just seems to happen to me.  Imogen Shroud was originally intended to be just a standalone thing and was originally going to contain a lot more than it now does.  But once I realised what the actual story of the book was I started paring down and cutting things out (this in the pre-outline stage), until I'd cut more ideas than I ended up using.  It works well as a standalone book, but I have the basic outline for a longer story arc which will likely take five or six books to tell.  Figuring out story arcs is fun for me :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
What does Amazon do if you list your books as being in a series? Do they send emails to people who bought the earlier ones that help you sell the later books? Do they recommend it the sequels to you on the website?
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
Ben White said:
My approach to writing a series is that it just seems to happen to me. Imogen Shroud was originally intended to be just a standalone thing and was originally going to contain a lot more than it now does. But once I realised what the actual story of the book was I started paring down and cutting things out (this in the pre-outline stage), until I'd cut more ideas than I ended up using. It works well as a standalone book, but I have the basic outline for a longer story arc which will likely take five or six books to tell. Figuring out story arcs is fun for me :)
That's pretty awesome, because it sounds like writing a series turned out to be a perfectly organic process for you.

I really struggle to think in terms of series. I don't particularly like to read them either. Maybe I'm not cut out for a more conventional kind of series. I think mine would all need to stand alone to a degree that's uncommon with fantasy series.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
MichaelWallace said:
I'm starting to understand the pull of writing a series, however. So far in May, my WWII thriller has sold 450 copies, which is a nice monthly royalty, if I can sustain it for a couple of years. Book #2 of The Righteous series, however, has sold almost 1,600 copies. Both of these books are $2.99. So when I sat down in February to start another book, and I tried to decide between book #3 of my series or another WWII thriller, it was like deciding between a job for eight bucks an hour and a job for 30 bucks an hour. You have to really, really love the job that pays eight bucks an hour.
Do you think that's specifically because it's a series (or a sequel in this case), or because The Righteous book 1 just reached a bigger audience for whatever reasons?

Either way, I see what you mean, though. It would be really hard to write something other than book #3 in this case.
 

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When I began my series, I envisioned it as a novelized comic book of sorts. Where there would be underlining themes and plots that would carry from story to story, but the books themselves would be self contained. That way, readers of all the books would get the most out of the universe, but I wanted people to at least have the choice in starting with whatever book. I think as times goes on the universe will get more and more complicated, but I think the first 4 or 5 books will be relatively "stand-alone".

I also try to preview the next book at the end of the preceding one.
 

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MosesSiregarIII said:
And yet, the longer a series goes, the less pleased readers seem to be with it. If one looks at most series and compare reader reviews on something like Goodreads, the longer the series goes, the worse the reviews tend to get. It has happened for nearly every major fantasy series."
A large part of this boils down to statistics:

(1) Quite a few studies have shown that average people (as opposed to professional reviewers/critics) are much more likely to post a negative review than a positive review. (In other words, the negative experience is more likely to motivate them to publicly bitch about it than the positive experience is to make them publicly praise it.) Furthermore, the more familiar a positive experience becomes, the less likely people are to comment on the positive experience. So, all other things being equal, your fans are less likely to post positive reviews as the series goes on but negative reviews remain just as likely. Ergo, more negative reviews as the series continues.

(2) There is going to be a variance in quality in the different books an author writes. Books popular enough to result in long series probably were very good to begin with. When you get an exceptional result like that, it's unlikely that you'll always achieve that exceptional result. Ergo, at some point a book of lower quality will be produced and negative reviews will result.

(3) But even if we assume that the quality of the series remains constant throughout, negative reviews will tend to accumulate. Why? Because people don't always like the direction a series goes. The author kills off their favorite character; they thought A should have happened instead of B; the author starts using character X as a viewpoint and they hate character X; etc. Once that happens, they'll start having negative reactions to the books.

(4) You'd think that these accumulations of negative effect would cause people to drop out. This is probably true initially. (For example, you wouldn't expect many people who didn't enjoy Book 1 in a series to pick up Book 2. Ergo, all other things being equal, you would expect to see a decline in negative reviews from Book 1 to Book 2.) But once you've had several positive experiences with a series, a single bad book may not be enough to stop you from picking up the next volume (in the hope that it will improve). The more books you enjoyed, the more "bad" books you're willing to endure... and, once again, negative reviews accumulate.

Another part of this boils down to actual quality:

(1) Most authors seem to have a relatively short rise to a peak and then a gradual (or rapid) decline in the quality of their writing. This seems to hold true whether they're writing series or not. Very few authors write their best book at the end of their careers. This means that long series are, in fact, more likely to decline in quality at some point.

(2) I think there's also some inherent and unavoidable structural problems with the way long series get written. The inability to revise the beginning of a story when you're working on its middle and end is going to create problems no matter what length the story is.

Almost everything described in this post becomes less significant if you're dealing with a series of stand-alone novels instead of a single, tightly-knight narrative. (And, from what I've seen, this tends to be reflected in the likelihood of negative reviews accumulating for later volumes in a series.)
 

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I'll have to read these discussions when I get the time. I'm curious to see what Weeks says. I thought his Night Angel trilogy would have been better if it was a longer series and became an epic fantasy, or if it just focused on the kid and was a hero's journey.

Personally, I've always found the 4th book is when the series starts to go downhill. I have no idea why since I've never had a conversation with King, Goodkind, GRRM. I can guess though. It seems to me that the author doesn't know where he's going with it. My Passage of Hellsfire series will be six books long. I've had it all planned out so I know where it's going to go. Will that help? I hope so. At the very least, I can release a book a year.

I think people just want series to end and have a satisfying conclusion. That's why I'm glad fantasy seems to be headed in trilogies these days. Sadly, they eventually add a 4th book, which confuses me.
 

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MosesSiregarIII said:
Do you think that's specifically because it's a series (or a sequel in this case), or because The Righteous book 1 just reached a bigger audience for whatever reasons?

Either way, I see what you mean, though. It would be really hard to write something other than book #3 in this case.
I don't know, that's a good question. I do know that I also get email requests from readers for Implant and Devil's Deep to write sequels. I even got one email for The Red Rooster, and when the book ends, the war is almost over. My kids bug me constantly about writing a sequel for Kingdom of the Bears, which makes more sense, plot-wise, except that the book has only sold a total of about 50 copies at either .99 or 1.49. I can't write another book for $5/month.

I think some readers get to the end of a good book and they want more. They've come to know those characters and even when a once-strong series trails off into nonsense, there are plenty of readers who are will keep plugging along. Look at all the bad reviews of the latter Wheel of Time books, people who say the series went off the rails two thousand pages earlier, but they continue to the bitter end. If those characters had blogs and FB pages, the readers would check those out, too.

To answer your other question, no, Amazon doesn't let readers know about new books in a series. I don't know why. I'd love to have 30,000 people get an email about the release of The Wicked.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Marc Johnson said:
Personally, I've always found the 4th book is when the series starts to go downhill. I have no idea why since I've never had a conversation with King, Goodkind, GRRM. I can guess though. It seems to me that the author doesn't know where he's going with it. My Passage of Hellsfire series will be six books long. I've had it all planned out so I know where it's going to go. Will that help? I hope so. At the very least, I can release a book a year.
I think that, unless you really plan for a series to be 4+ books long, it's more natural to write something in three parts. Part 1 introduces, part 2 thickens the plot, and part 3 resolves things. The number 3 is just like that. It resolves the 1 and the 2. It's also the instinctive three act structure.

So if someone writes three books, chances are they've followed that natural dialectic and then book 4 is sort of like starting over. Then a book 4 can become like another "middle book" in a series if the series goes longer than 4.

Just another wild theory.
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Justin, those are some great points. It's interesting how many different angles there are to this. Here are some of the other points Brandon Sanderson made in that blog post, to dovetail with your list:

"Is this because the writing is getting worse? That might be the cynical response. There are a number of complaints leveled against the longer series. That the author is getting lazy, or that they're so popular now they no longer get the editing they once did. Some critics think that series degradation happens because the author starts milking them-writing more in the series simply because they sell well.

I wonder if it's something else, however. Not a failing on the author's part, but a natural evolution based on the form of the series. Readers seem to want continuing characters and plotlines, but along with those come the need to juggle various sub-plots/storylines, and keep track of them across books."
 

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This is fascinating, and I'm going to be reading through the Sanderson/Weeks discussion.

Something that hasn't been considered here is those writers such as Terry Brooks and Raymond Feist who have long running series written in sequences of trilogies. These also seem to decline in quality of the overall trilogy as years go by and yet he trilogies themselves tend to be remarkably consistent in quality despite taking three years or so to write. I think is due to a combination of all factors above. The author is on that slow downward slide from his peak at some point in the past and yet each new trilogy brings with it the chance to plot an entire sequence of stories at once and so maintain some sort of internal consistency.

Yet this doesn't always relate to higher quality. In my opinion, Terry Goodkind's "trilogy" of books that closed the Sword of Truth series was the worst part of that eleven-book series. The first three were definitely the best, and the first two almost make up a duology of sorts. Also, as Marc suggested, I too find the fourth book begins the decline. Some trilogies also seem to force themselves into quads--Tad Williams seems to have this problem persistently--and what ends up happening is the last two novels are so slow in pace as to become unreadable.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
William BK. said:
This is fascinating, and I'm going to be reading through the Sanderson/Weeks discussion.
The comments on the posts are great, too. There are usually 5-10 comments on each one, so it's not too much.
 

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As long as said authors give an indication to the series length and show that they will put out more than one book over the course of eleven years--GRRM--readers will buy into it. Authors who write with no noticeable end in sight for their series drive me crazy. I love a monster series, but it needs to end. IMO a series probably shouldn't go over 10 books. Too many years pass, and authors seem to lose interest in their characters, plot, and writing in general.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Anyone else want to weigh in on how you've handled series? I'm finding this really interesting right now.
 
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