I don’t remember the last time I read a stand alone Romance – one not populated with friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, colleagues, and random townspeople just waiting for their own story. In fact, I hadn’t even realized this until I read a recent interview with Julie Anne Long, in which she commented on the ETA of Lyon and Olivia’s book in her Pennyroyal Green series:
So this theme, and Olivia and Lyon’s story winds through the series – and to tell their story would be to essentially end the series, because we’ll need to explore what happens between the Everseas and Redmonds. I’ll keep readers posted as to when they can expect stories for either of them, and readers can expect more developments for both characters in ensuing stories.
My initial reaction to this answer was extreme frustration (to put it politely). Not only am I uncertain why Olivia And Lyon’s book would have to spell the end of the series, but at eight books and counting, I’m wondering how many more stand between me and that proverbial carrot. Elyssa Patrick pointed out that Long said elsewhere that she was going for the English village vibe, and I have to admit that one of my favorite series – Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerley books – has that same sensibility. Of course, Wyckerley was a mere trilogy. Still, Long’s comment made me realize how conditioned I have become to expecting a series, and her candor made me wonder if the series has become a central genre convention and what that might mean for readers, authors, and the books themselves.
To Series or Not To Series
From an author’s perspective, a series can establish and imprint a brand, engaging reader loyalty and establishing easy recognition.
For the reader, there does seem to be something inherently logical about the series concept in Romance. Although love is an individual experience, its effects are social and its importance communal. So drawing out from one couple to another, through a variety of characters and circumstances, creates a nice sense of community and closure, both inside and outside the story.
And tastes differ. Who hasn’t read that book where the secondary characters seem more compelling than the protagonists? It can be rewarding to know those characters will have their own chance at love, too. Not to mention the pleasure that can come from revisiting those from previous books, whose own lives continue past the confines of their own story. At their best, series can satisfy the dual craving for novelty and comfort.
How Many Books Does A Series Make
So how many series manage to hit that sweet spot between leaving the reader unsatisfied and making them feel taken advantage of? For example, I think three is the perfect number for Molly O’Keefe’s excellent Crooked Creek series, but I have been increasingly disappointed by each new book in the Mackenzie series by Jennifer Ashley, which was initially represented to readers as a four-pack, even though book five will release next month. Yet I’m thrilled that Elizabeth Peters is writing a new Amelia Peabody book, even though I have not loved every one in that very long series.
I realize that those series where I tend to hang on for a long time feature the same main couple or characters (e.g. Sookie Stackhouse, In Death, Amelia Peabody), while those that move through the stories of different couples within the same world tend to wear on me after a while. I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I do know that when a series is pitched toward an ultimate story – Hart Mackenzie’s in the Ashley series, Nix’s in Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark, Lyon and Olivia in Long’s Pennyroyal Green series – I often check out way before the final book. I understand that my expectations are likely artificially inflated over the course of books leading up to that promised book, but it also seems like there’s a weakening in the books leading up to that highly anticipated story. JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood completely crashed for me before I made it to Phury’s book, which I had been looking forward to from the first book in the series. I’ve been more and more frustrated with the editing issues in Long’s books, to the point where their strengths no longer outweigh the problems, and as much as I adore Sookie Stackhouse, the rush to end it has had some funky effects on the most recent books.
Not to mention the series that shift from paperback to hardcover, which is always a bitterly ironic twist for the loyal reader whose paperback purchases helped build the popularity of the series.
And what about those series that don’t get finished, either because an author loses a publishing contract or something else happens? Lisa Valdez, anyone? Self-publishing has made it easier for authors to control their own characters beyond the vagaries of publishing contracts, but the flip-side of series fatigue is the unfinished series and the disappointment of readers who experienced books with an expectation of a larger, unfinished storyline.
One of the things that stood out starkly to me in that Julie Anne Long explanation was the implication that Olivia and Lyon’s book needs to be the last in the series. If, indeed, there is supposed to be a whole world beyond but still connected to these families and that couple, why does that one book have to spell the end of the series? Is the perception that readers will not want to continue beyond that book, because that clearly problematizes the number of books written leading up to that last book (e.g. how much of that becomes a business decision, more than a creative one). But if there’s a strategic path leading up to a book that will definitely end it all, why is there not more clarity around when readers can expect that book?
The Double Bind of Reader Expectations
I think we’ve arrived at the crux of my issue with the ubiquity of the series: it feeds on and feeds reader expectations to the point where they can conflict with the author’s creative intention and autonomy.
Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie series is a perfect example of this dilemma. Readers fell in love with Ian Mackenzie in the first book, but we all knew that Hart was the real firecracker in the family, and every book from Ian’s forward whet the reader’s appetite for Hart’s story. By the time that book arrived, readers had been told to expect a guy who had a dark sexual side and secrets that would shock our sensibilities. I’m not sure such enthusiastic anticipation could ever be fully realized, but what was delivered in Hart’s story was very much different than what we had all been conditioned to expect.
So here’s the question: is that our fault or the author’s?
While readers react to a book and to the conditioning of our expectations through the lengthy construction and revision of a fictional world, the author should ultimately and fully retain creative control over her work and her vision. Without this creative control, the book becomes nothing more than a base commercial good produced for profit or a byproduct of reader response.
Ideally, innovation should be driven both by reader desire and authorial creativity: the author produces content and the reader chooses. We already know that innovation is compromised by a somewhat closed system of perceptions about what readers want and arbitrary rules that guide what is directed into the mainstream and used to condition reader expectations. To what degree do series, especially long series, continue to narrow rather than expand creative possibilities? To what extent does riding the tide of reader expectations result in shaping those expectations, as well, such that they ultimately direct the current?
When a series hits a sweet spot for readers, it’s a win-win. I find Jo Goodman’s books often hit this spot for me, because sometimes she will pick up characters from previous books, but it may not be right away. Books may loosely relate without being part of a formal series. This feels more natural to me, and I like not knowing what, exactly, to expect until I get it. I know Goodman’s style and the main issues she likes to visit, but I never feel like every single secondary character is sequel bait, and sometimes I’ll get a surprise by revisiting an earlier book in an indirect way. Judith Ivory did this, too, when she brought Submit casually and very secondarily into The Proposition. It was a nice Easter egg-ish surprise, but not one that compromised the independence of the later book. Also, despite the disappointment some readers felt for Hart Mackenzie’s story, the extension of the series beyond that much-anticipated book might give it new life (and even re-set reader expectations).
But I still wonder if we’ve gone too far, and if the stand-alone book is becoming an endangered species. Series are appealing for many readers, but the single story also has value, not only as an expression of a unique, un-reproduceable vision, but also as a way of managing reader expectations while allowing them the ability to invest in a story without feeling pressure to know whether it’s part of a series and to wonder whether it can be read out of order. Is there a fear that readers will not develop loyalty to an author brand if series are not the norm? And what happens with a reader who picks up a book in the middle of a series and feels completely disoriented because she’s not familiar with the world-building? Is there a meaningful difference between books that take place in the same fictional world and outright series? Genre readers are loyal, and authors often cognizant of creating a recognizable brand, but is this mutual dependence limiting innovation in the genre