Series Romance: The Long Goodbye
One of the best things about writing these posts on how people are buying and reading books is that they’ve really gotten me to look at my own book buying and reading habits and how they have changed. Last week, for example, as we were discussing genre and reader expectations, several people mentioned the fact that JR Ward’s The Shadows is being marketed as a part of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, even though it diverges from the Romance genre conventions that have driven the series up to this point. And that made me realize how conditioned I am to expect the series as almost intrinsic to genre Romance today.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was one of those readers who complained about sequel bait planted in so many new Romance novels, and yet now I feel like I rarely ever expect a stand-alone book. And for the most part I seem to be okay with that. And what I can’t figure out is whether it’s simply that the genre has evolved along with the ways of publishing it, or whether I’ve simply been conditioned to see the genre in a certain way because of how it’s being written and published. Or some of both.
Series seem both a boon and a curse. For example, I adore Shelly Laurenston’s Pride series books and could read ten more of them without any concern to who any of the characters are. I just love Laurenston’s voice in that series so much I would keep on buying the books in every available format. So I’m sad that series is apparently over. Then, though, there is the In Death series, that I adored at book 10, loved at book 20, wondered about at book 30, and now, at book 40, I kind of just wish it would stop. Because even though I’m not readily enjoying the books as I once did, I still get them in audio so I can listen in the car, not nearly as engaged as I used to be, but reluctant to give the characters up entirely. I feel similarly about the Stephanie Plum books, although I’m less and less interested in those. And after too many damn books on the way to Lyon and Olivia’s book in Julie Ann Long’s Pennyroyal Green series (and too many writing and editing issues), I finally quit the series a few books back. Yeah, I get that if the books are selling, the author might as well keep writing, but I don’t have to keep buying.
And that’s the thing; I know I am responsible for not getting off the train when I think it’s going off the tracks. For some series I am able to do that without looking back (the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, for example), while others I can’t seem to separate so easily. And then there are the series I wish had extended beyond what is available, which can be a real drag if the series stops before I’m ready for it to.
When Romance was primarily being produced in print, and when small digital presses were largely seen as specialty publishers, series were a bigger publishing investment. Some authors, like Nora Roberts, could easily be expected to sell through on a series, but authors who less well-known or writing edgier books may not have that guarantee. Case in point, the Shadowchasers series by Seressia Glass I recently picked back up after having abandoned the first book several years ago. I’ve done this multiple times with different books – picked up something and put it down for months or even years, only to return at some later point when I’m ready to enjoy it. The Glass series was like that. But because I was so late in picking it back up, the publisher appears to have abandoned it after three books. Which sucks for me, because I raced through those three books, and now I want more. Glass mentioned something on he website about publishing the fourth book herself, but so far that has not happened.
In some ways I feel guilty for not picking the books back up for so long. And yet, rationally I know it’s not an issue of fault. As readers, we should be able to pick up any book at any time and start reading it. Unfortunately, the traditional model of publishing has not favored the endless existence of series books in a form that allows them to be easily acquired (unless they are in digital and the reader has both access and interest in reading them that way.). Then there is the problem of picking up a series in the middle, uncertain of its place in a series and not aware of any issues that come with picking up in the middle.
I know some readers who won’t even start a series until it’s all been published, because they don’t want to wait between books. Right now, facing a year’s wait until the next Ann Bishop Others book, I wish I were one of these readers. When I started reading the JD Robb In Death series, it was just transitioning to hardcover from paperback, which meant that I had at more than a dozen books to get through before I even had to wait for a new book. Ditto with the Stephanie Plum series. Having so much content available made it easier to wait once I was thoroughly hooked.
With so many more authors self-publishing, and doing so primarily in digital, series Romance can be much more viable, both for authors and readers. For readers, it means that if we love a book, there’s more where that came from. And for authors, a series can mean clear, strong branding and plenty of backlist for readers who pick up a book mid-series, or who start a series late. Digital books, especially don’t take up valuable shelf space that new books are claiming, and they can be ‘stored’ indefinitely with much lower overhead costs, making them perfect for readers who start reading somewhere in the middle or long after the first books are written and published.
And yet, I kind of hate the idea of being hooked on a series, too. I worry that series are making me a lazier reader, because they let me stay in an enjoyable rut, appreciating a certain consistency of experience and expectation. On the other end of the argument, I think about the readers who have stuck with the BDB series and how they must be feeling after what happened in The Shadows. I know that Karen Marie Moning fans had some serious issues with her recently released Burned, and I couldn’t help but wonder at the inadvertent pun in that book title. Feeling burned by a series can be far more infuriating than being burned by a stand-alone title. Also, as series become more and more ingrained in the genre, readers who just don’t like a certain series may turn completely away from any given author.
And there’s always the problem of when to stop and how much is too much, whether series limit our expectations for novelty, and what happens if the author decides to drastically change direction in the middle of a well-established series. Not to mention the question of how the ubiquity of the series affects the expectations readers have for stand-alone stories. I know there are readers who really hate serials, but in some ways series aren’t so different, in part because there are often secondary stories that stretch over the course of several books to maintain continuity, encouraging readers to remain invested by connecting them to several different relationships at once.
It’s an interesting conundrum, because as self-publishing and digital first publishing continue to expand, it seems like there is more room for experimentation with series books that might not otherwise have been published. Which includes any number of series that didn’t extend past that crucial third book. And yet, I wonder if we’re not becoming conditioned to viewing Romance as a series-centric genre, and if that’s the case, what it means for both genre innovation and continuity. There’s a great deal of comfort in knowing what to expect within a series, and yet, without risk and innovation, the genre can become narrow and stagnant.
So, are we becoming too dependent on the series, or is the series just a convenient way to express and experience genre constants? Do you prefer reading series over stand-alone books, or do you want a bit of everything? And what makes you quit a series?