Call me a cynical old sausage…

(CRIES FROM OFF-STAGE: “You’re a cynical old sausage!”)

… but I can’t help feeling that the Indie publishing world has gone a bit mad recently – “series” mad, that is – and is in danger of making itself look just a little bit silly.

Amazon is suddenly awash with new titles all labelled as the first thrilling instalment in a must-read chain of adventures (yet to be written) which will plunge the author’s hero into a lifetime of peril and danger. All promise a never-ending stream of tension, surprises and roller-coaster spills stretching far into the distant future.

And Twitter is brimming over with adverts for titles like:

DIE, DEMON, DIE: first of the Zorg the Slayer diaries.

TO LAY A GHOST: frisky ghoul friend series. Book One.

EARTH IN DANGER: the soil erosion sagas begin.

SPECIAL AGENT MATT FINISH: A brush with disaster (The Decorator Dilemma Chronicles number 1)

You can’t get away from them. No genre seems to be immune. Even romance novels are being sold as “first flings”. It’s as if everyone has simply abandoned the idea of writing a self-contained, stand-alone novel and decided instead to churn out budding box sets.

The reason for this runaway bandwagon is, of course, easy to understand. The word on the streets is that streets of words are the way to go. Be a fiction factory, experts declare. Build your brand. Feed the insatiable demand of readers who hunger for more of the same. Keep dipping your bucket in the well until it runs dry. There’s money in them thare collections.

And up to a point, it’s true. Whodunit writers have understood for a century that it is much more effective to create an intriguing detective and give him or her a string of cases to solve rather than dream up a new sleuth for each crime novel you write.

But none of them, to my knowledge, began their careers by announcing their debut book was naught but the first in a bulging casebook of ingenious investigations to come.

And when you look at oft-quoted examples of successful series writers such as Lee Child, who has 21 Jack Reacher thrillers to his credit, no one mentions that he penned the first one back in 1997 and has taken 18 years to get to the pinnacle of fame and riches he now enjoys.

So am I just being a spoilsport? What’s the harm in a little marketing hype?

My concerns are three-fold. Firstly, for the writers themselves – most new to the game – who may not fully understand about the workload they are giving their word to undertake. I’d hesitate to commit to reading a trilogy, never mind writing one! Promise your readers a series featuring the same hero in a succession of “variations-on-a-theme” exploits and you are risking boredom; chaining yourself to a character that you may very quickly grow to loath. You are sentencing yourself to a never-ending life of samey sentences – plus the tyranny of trying to dream up plot after plot while keeping the formula fresh.

My second worry is that writers aren’t giving themselves time to see how their first book performs. It may bomb. It may not be liked by your public. Even if it is a minor success, it probably won’t justify a follow-up. The world of writing is full of one-hit-wonders and one-shit-blunders.

What can you do if you’ve declared from the rooftops that this is a series but the second or third book is destined never to see the light of day. Don’t you have just the teeniest bit of egg on your face?

But my biggest concern is for the poor readers – who are being enticed with pledges that few authors will be able to keep. Some writers won’t deliver because they don’t have the stamina and grit to knuckle down and produce the goods, others will stumble because they have drastically underestimated how long it takes to create a well-crafted novel – even the shorter length novels now acceptable as e-books.

A few scribblers (chasing fast bucks) will try to cheat – breaking a full plot into mini instalments like the old Saturday morning cinema matinee shows – and will leave readers feeling let down and used. No-one wants to have to buy several books just to get to the end of one storyline, no matter how cleverly each episode is ended on a cliff-hanger.

Other, more noble, souls will press on and produce great work – but take a year on each novel. They’ll find that by the time book two is out everyone will have forgotten about book one. Yes, the gurus will declare that readers definitely want a second dose of thrills – but they don’t tell you that readers want it INSTANTLY. Your fans want to end one adventure and go straight on to the next. They won’t wait patiently for 12 months – they’ll go off and discover another writer’s work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the series as a concept. I just worry about us devaluing the term. I worry that we’re going to turn all readers into cynics as we act more like politicians seeking votes than writers creating wonderful dreams and fantasies.

Your novel might be amazing – it might be the next new classic, something that will make you a household name. But what if it’s a Catcher in the Rye and you’ve described it as the first of the Holden Caulfield Chronicles?

Think about it…




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Author: IainPattison

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more Iain. The e-book has spoilt the writing art. Now if you want a series read Wilbur Smith. I have heard that if you send to a publisher and they like you they will ask you if you have a second book in the offing before they publish the first. Some writers think that writing is putting words on a page. The words have to convey emotion and entertainment to the reader not anticipation and acceptance that there will be the next novel next week!

    • Hi Doug. I know what you mean. I’m concerned that not only will indie writers lose credibility as a breed, but we’ll be forced to churn out any old tat just as long as it’s out there quickly.

  2. Brilliant article, Iain. I groan when I see the words ‘first of a series’ and move on to something else. Life’s too short to read the same thing over again.

    • I groan too, Shirley. It’s the downside of Indie publishing – for some ‘writers’ it offers all the power and ego-stroking but none of the responsibilities towards readers.

  3. Some very good points. I find myself creating series that might happen, but know that they will probably be stand alone in reality. And I hate reading a book with a supposed sequel that never appears./ Perhaps it is best to write the books and then point out the link – “starring Mavis Murgotroyd from the ‘Snail Stilettos’ returns…”

    • Hi Roland. I hate that too. It’s disrespectful. I think Amazon – when it does its periodic purges – should ban people describing their book as the first in a series until the second and probably third installment actually exists in print.

  4. I feel that this trend is part of the “the more you write the more you sell” notion. Take it from me, it doesn’t work. I have fourteen (yes, fourteen) Sanford 3rd Age Club Mysteries on sale, and right now they’re about as popular as a bag of chips at a slimmer’s convention. The first five were good, but beyond that, I began to repeat and repeat and repeat until they became almost formulaic. I changed tack with title #14, but by now they’re dying anyway.

    The solution?

    A new series, but crafted with the lessons learned from the first so that there will be major differences between the titles.

    And even then I’m not sure.

    Good post, Iain.

    • Appreciate the feedback, David. I feel I should send some of these bragging yeah-yeah-knock-it-out-and-on-to-the-next merchants round to you, so that you can tell them just how tough it is to write a series while making sure it’s consistently intriguing and up to standard. They just haven’t a clue.

  5. I like to be different, and I began with a story, and another, and another, and now I’ve published my Redington collection on Amazon, and about to go for a real book on Create space. It’s the village that’s the place, and different characters come and go, and if I want new ones, then I pop a few in. Also, I go for say, a murder story, a ghost one, a family type, or a romantic one, etc. Same with M.C. Beaton and Agatha Raisin, and Hamish McBeth. I love series if they’re good. That’s the trick, they need to be great.

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