A warning: this is one of those stumbly thinking out loud posts.

I just read a dead interesting essay by Jim Huang reflecting on twenty years of selling books. Most of his comments have to do with mystery books but a lot of it applies to other genres. I’ve been thinking about this comment:

When I think about the center of gravity of the mystery genre, I still believe that it lies in series. Seventy percent of the titles on the bestsellers lists of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association in 2007 year to date are part of a series. Seventy percent of these series titles belong to long-running series of five or more books. Sales in IMBA member stores are not necessarily representative of the marketplace in general, but they are the best indication we have of what the most devoted mystery lovers are looking for. Yet you can in fact generalize from these numbers. When you look at the BookScan mystery bestseller list for the week of 8/12/07, representing sales throughout the industry, you see that over 70%—closer to 80%, actually—of these bestselling titles also belong to series.

While not to that extent, Young Adult, is also dominated by series books: from Nancy Drew to Harry Potter through to the Gossip Girls. There’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from following the adventures of the same characters over multiple books and huge sales prove that I’m not alone in thinking so.

I know I have whinged about the trickiness of writing a trilogy, which is just a shorter series, but as a devourer of story I am all about the arc plot. In fact, lately I’ve kind of lost interest in movies and am much more into television precisely because it’s all arc. Right now we’re working our way through Homicide: Life on the Streets (which Scott had never seen!) and the first season of Heroes (anyone spoils me I kill them) having already screamed through American Gothic and the first three series of The Wire, there being no more Rome or Deadwood to be had.

I’m also gobbling manga by the truckload—my current obsession being Hikaru no go and Hellsing. I love them! But it’s also frustrating. Like right now I’m missing volume 6 of Hikaru. I have 7-10 waiting for me but no 6. And when I have all of the available volumes, I’m waiting on the next ones. Where is Nana 7? Emma 5? ES (Eternal Sabbath) 6? Hellsing 9? Her Majesty’s Dog 7? Monster 11? Mushishi 3? Waaaah!!!

But that’s nothing compared to the kinds of problems readers of mysteries have. Huang writes:

Series matter, and what publishers do with them tells you a lot about their inclinations and abilities. I write a lot about series and the bad job that the most publishers do with them: not keeping books in print (especially the first book which is where readers want to start), not clearly indicating the order of books in series, not identifying books as part of a series, not packaging series titles with a common look to make it easier to find them on new releases tables, not timing publication of new hardcovers and paperbacks to maximize sales, not indicating for the benefit of buyers for stores a new title’s place in the series, not soliciting orders for series backlist and frontlist together, not waiting months (if not years) between UK and US publication, etc.

I’ve definitely seen this happening a lot in sf and fantasy publishing but less so in YA. I wonder if that’s because YA books tend to stay on the shelves longer? Or maybe my anecdotal evidence is dodgy and it happens in YA too. Whatever. I will never understand how publishers allow book 1 of a series to go out of print while books 2, 3, 4 etc are still in print.

The first volume is always the biggest seller of a series because every time a new volume comes out it kickstarts fresh sales for the first volume. I’ve had several people write me to say that they bought Magic or Madness when Magic Lessons or Magic’s Child came out because the appearance of the later books reminded them about the series and also meant they could by the first book in paperback. My sales figures show the sales of Magic or Madness going up on the publication of the other two books.

On a much bigger scale that’s what happened with each book in Scott’s Uglies series. So much so that books two and three made it on to the New York Times bestseller list more than a year after first publcation. It will be interesting to see what happens when the fourth book comes out next month.

Obviously, the first volume of a bestselling series like Scott’s won’t be allowed to go out of print, but why publish the third book in a lesser selling series if the first one is no longer available? It minimises sales of all volumes in the series.

I have no idea where I’m going with any of this. Read Jim Huang’s essay!


  1. Arthur Slade on #

    I’m just starting writing a new series. Each book is self-contained but there is a part of the story that continues. In my plans it’s a 7 book series. But in my contract it’s 4 books right now. I’m already obsessing about what to do if the series isn’t popular enough to go all the way to 7. Do I somehow cram it all into the 4th.

    Oh wait, maybe I better finish writing the 1st one.

    Thanks for passing along the article.

  2. Chris McLaren on #

    I’ve always been of the cynical (and completely uninformed by any actual knowledge) opinion that publishers often purposefully obscure series information–especially in mysteries.

    The thought process would be that the fans of the series are capable of finding the next volume, but that casual browsers might be turned off by series packaging–either because they don’t want to start a series, or because the book isn’t the first one, or whatever. In other words, you trade gained sales from “fooled” casual browsers for lost sales from non-diehard fans.

    In some cases this could be excused–when the books are actually a series of books that can stand alone rather than a serial spread over several volumes.

    Me, I’m just glad that the Internets mean that I can easily find the publication order of any series, and can order the first book of any series with just a click. I’m old enough to remember when the “store only has a later volume, I’m not sure which one, and I can never find volume 1” thing was a real problem… you know, back in the day.

  3. Justine on #

    Arthur: It’s scary, isn’t it? It makes me nervous about writing a series even though I really want to. Good luck!

    Chris: That was the argument given for not labelling the hardcover of Magic or Madness as the first of a trilogy. I still don’t buy it. Fortunately, all the other editions—soft and hard—are labelled as being part of a trilogy.

    I think that for a lot of readers seeing that a book is part of a series gives them much joy. I get to read many of these? Yay!

  4. Chris McLaren on #

    Seeing Dianne Day’s comment in the linked article makes me sad. Not because she’s wrong–she isn’t–but because I really liked her stuff and have wondered if she got onto the midlist death spiral.


  5. Patrick on #

    I love this comment – “Actually, let’s leave Dan Brown out of this for the moment; the jury’s still out on where his career is going.”

    I always think of Dan Brown’s career as similar to Harper Lee’s.

    >>So, what do you do for work?
    –I wrote a book.
    >>one book?
    –it was a pretty popular book…

  6. Justine on #

    Chris: Yeah, there were some very depressing comments in that thread . . .

    Patrick: Except that Brown had a bunch of books before Da Vinci Code.

    Harper and Margaret Mitchell are the quintessential one-book wonders.

  7. Patrick on #

    I know. 3 books that were all better than da vinci code, but that is beside point.

    More along the lines of his ‘career’, well it doesn’t need to go anywhere at this point. DVC is his career.

    Anything he, or Rowling for that matter, does is pretty much guaranteed to be less popular than the previous book(s). That won’t change their career though.

  8. hillary! on #

    I’m a horrible book buyer, I tend to only go for the books that are series because they have the arc plot, but then I have my favorite really fawesome authors like MJ and John Green who may not have series but really good publishers because they get better publicity. I surf the internet alot and then ask my local librarians to order those books for me. I think that it’s really sad that those authors like Brown and Rowling peak so early and that know matter how wonderful their following series or novel they just can’t get enough publicity because although it is a wonderful book, it’s not what their readers wanted.
    Justine: If love fantasy I think you’ll love Heroes because it leaves you hanging like a really fool fantasy series, like Skin Hunger. And if you haven’t you should totally watch Pan’s Labyrinth!

  9. Patrick on #

    Yes, poor rowling. I say that all the time.

  10. hillary! on #

    Why? she’s made over a billion. She need not ever lift a finger in her life again. More like poor Brown.

  11. janet on #

    With mysteries, there’s a pretty good argument for not worrying too much about series order: any given book in the series focuses on one mystery which is solved at the end of the book. You may get minor spoilers having to do with changes in the main characters’ life (e.g. VI Warshawski has a new boyfriend or is on the outs with her friend Lottie because of something that happened in a previous book), but these are usually not a big deal. There are exceptions: you really have to read Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night in order — but if you don’t, it won’t interfere with your enjoyment of the mystery aspect of the book. And it doesn’t matter one whit whether you read Gaudy Night or The Nine Taylors first. (In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, these are all Dorothy Sayers mysteries.)

    The thing is, most non-mystery series fiction doesn’t follow this model; instead, they’re either one long story told in installments (e.g. Justine’s trilogy or the Midnighters books), or they’re more of a serial format, with multiple ongoing storylines that come in and out of focus (most recent series television, and a lot of 19th century fiction that was originally published in serial form in the newspapers, e.g. Trollope).

    These are all completely different types of fiction, and fans relate to them in rather different ways — among other things, whether they want/need to read the books in order. But publishers may not be clear on the nuances of marketing these different types of series fiction, though you’d think they would understand the difference, that being, you know, their job.

    I hope I got all my tags right. Justine, you should have a “preview comment” function.

  12. janet on #

    Whew, got all the tags right!

    I wrote one long story told in installments (e.g. Justine’s trilogy or the Midnighters books), and it occurs to me belatedly that a good analogy for this would be a three-act play. It just doesn’t work to see the last act first. Unless it’s that Pinter play that goes backward in time.

  13. lyda morehouse on #

    My SF series suffered from what Huang talks about. When my third book was coming out, the second book (which made the Nebula preliminary ballot a week later) went into publishing limbo — O/S Indefinately (“out of stock”). Months later it was remaindered.

    The series didn’t do well after that. Go figure.

    It wasn’t the only SF series to suffer a second book out-of-print while the author was still writing fate, either. Wen Spenser’s second book in her Ukiah series was remaindered in the middle of her series.

    All I have to say is: WTF?

  14. Meeks on #

    Vis a vis labeling: I think in YA the labels actually work in a series’ favor; teens on the whole are generally less snobby about reading “genre” and much more into the collectibility aspect of making their way through all of the books in a series.
    (She says with her ex-editor’s cap on)…

  15. hillary! on #

    I disagree about the whole less snobby about genres thing. At least when I apply it to myself. Certain series, yes, I totally want to collect, but romance series that focus solely on the romance aspect irk me. And even though I know it’s snobby of me, I always think less of people who love those dimestore paperback novels, even if I know the author is actually a pretty good writer. I am a horrible person. But if it’s got zombies and vampires I’m totally there, so I definitely shouldn’t judge.

  16. Rebecca on #

    ahahahaha, i used to have an obsession with making everything i wrote into a trilogy or series. it wasn’t enough that i am utterly incapable of writing a short story (every time i try, without fail, at least one person says that it sounds like part of a longer piece. agh!). nope, i had to make things into multi-book behemoths. but then i got serious about revising and the whole series thing went flying out the window.

    when reading, i tend to be wary of series. not sure why. i love love love trilogies, but anything longer and i start to get a bit skeptical. with the exception of rachel caine. i think this might be some stupid subconscious idea that series books are for kids, b/c the only series books i know anything about are things like boxcar children, animorphs, and the babysitters club. especially with boxcar, the books got incredibly weird and way different from the original books, plus the kids never aged, which was weird. i found out later that starting with #20 (and there are about 100 in the series, i think. for all i know, they might still be churning out new ones), all the boxcar books were ghostwritten, and they got “updated” for the current generation. so in book one, people were still driving horse-drawn carts, and in book #8483949, it’s all cars and computers and cell phones. 😮 which made even my ten-year-old brain go “wtf?”

    TV Series with the Best Arcs: Firefly, Farscape, and Alias. Just so you know, but you probably do already. Sadly, every last one of these is cancelled. Ugh.

    TV Series with the Most Frustrating and Confusing Story Arcs: Lost, hands down. Sheez. I still don’t know why I keep watching it. Must be addictive. Or they’re sending subliminal messages. Yes, that must be it.

  17. hillary! on #

    Personally, I think that the producers or writers sell their souls to get such good ratings or fans or whatever. Why else would something as random as *Lost* be so popular?

  18. Rebecca on #

    seriously. like, where are the disappearing polar bears? and what the hell is that intelligent murderous black smoke? and what’s with the ghost dude? nobody knows. i suspect the show’s writers don’t know either. i didn’t even watch the first season, so i really have no idea what’s going on, yet i’ve watched it for two years. my friends and i have a running joke about the title. it doesn’t describe the show, it describes the show’s viewers.

  19. Oyce on #

    I have it on Mely’s word that Emma 5 is out in NY! I am jealous, as that usually means that it will take another month to get into brick stores here. Amazon it is for me!

    I should probably add something intelligent about series, except all I can think of is “me too!”

    Except fat adult fantasy series. I hate them on principle. But I want to love them, really!

  20. Justine on #

    Yeah, I’m about to go on a little Emma 5 hunting expedition . . .

    There are some really good big fat adult fantasy series. I loved the first Robin Hobb one. Also the Living Ships one.

  21. Chris S. on #

    On a personal level, I’m utterly unmoved by the never-ending series; as a bookseller I say bring ’em on! They’re the definitely the meat and potatoes of the genre bookselling trade (plus the soup, salad, and occasionally the dessert course).

    For example, there are 48 books on our new release shelf (mass market section) at the moment. 36 of them are from a series. That’s 75%. Some are interconnected books which can be read individually (like Terry Pratchett), but most are installations in an ongoing adventure (think Robert Jordan).

    Neither of those two examples actually have a new book at the moment, and neither will be going out of print any time soon. But if you’re a Jordan-type writer and the first in your series goes out of print, the rest of your series is dead in the water. If you’re a Pratchett-type writer, you may survive.

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