Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Up, up in the air

We're editing the book review section of the July/August issue this week, and I'm astounded and consternated (a word I learned in said editing) by the number of reviews that end with some variation of "readers will look forward to/have to wait for/be left hanging until the third/fourth/fifth book of this series." Here are my questions for publishers: how risky is publishing the first book in what will necessarily be a series? What do you do if volume one gets an underwhelming response, or if volume three, say, bites? Are series ever quietly dropped and left dangling?

My questions are perhaps only in part prompted by the review haul--the truth is I am worried about just how they are going to tie up the many, many loose ends on what used to be my favorite show, Alias, tomorrow night. But I'll be missing it!--I'm at BEA tomorrow and Friday. I hope to see some of you there and to bring back some good dirt for the rest.

7 comments:

Stella said...

Is fan mail allowed here?

I discovered The Horn Book a few weeks ago through an essay for one of my college English courses, and I have to say, I'm delighted by the insights and the perceptions of the staff. This blog is an added treat.

Fern said...

One of the things I admire about J.K. Rowling (besides the fact that she seems to have remained well-balanced in spite of her success) is the discipline she must have exercised in writing "Book I" of a 7(!) book series rather than a single volume that might have been easier to sell to a publisher. Also, since the Harry Potter books function like mysteries--the earlier volumes chock full of subtle clues and red herrings that are sorted out in later books--she had to believe firmly that all seven volumes would be written and published so the whole story could be read and fully appreciated. That puts a lot of pressure on Book I to sell the series. Writing a series of this sort would seem to require even more faith than writing a single volume.

sacajawea said...

Can we get off the J.K. Rowling adulation once and for all? I don't see any discipline required in writing Book 1 of a 7 book series. The first Harry Potter was contained enough that if it had never progressed to Book 2, no one would have really cared. It wasn't until she got to the 4th book that the loose threads caused any suspense. Also, she is clearly incapable of writing a single-volume story, so it probably wasn't a choice on her part or any sign of her brilliance as a writer/businesswoman/Renaissance person/etc.

As for selling a 7-book series, there was very little risk to the publisher. Either a) Rowling would write all 7-books and they would do phenomenally well; or b) the first book would do phenomenally well but Rowling would be unable to deliver the rest; or c) the whole thing would stink, in which case they would stop after the first volume.
They didn't make a big fuss about it being a 7-volume set until it was already clear that the first book was a hit. So it's not as if they ran themselves out on a marketing limb.

Sorry, but if I read or hear one more comment about what a genius J.K. Rowling is, I think I'll scream. The woman is a good story-teller. But she's no more a literary genius (even in the very loose world of fantasy) than is Tony Hillerman.

Anonymous said...

Roger,
Completely off-topic with the above posts, but as I'm a fellow "Alias" fan, I thought you'd like to know the following information. The official finale will air on Monday, May 22nd, from 9-11PM according to tvguide.com. Also, if you're worried about missing episodes, my fiance told me that ABC allows people to view recently aired episode of Alias online for free. Go here: http://abc.go.com/primetime/alias/index.html for the link. The episodes are usually posted on Thursdays. I'm not sure whether they'll put the finale on-line, though. Just thought you'd like to know! :-)

rindawriter said...

Consternated?!! What a LOVELY new word...I'll enjoy using that one now. Thanks!

The thing about series and sequels and prequels and things like that that is SO disheartening to me is that SO many of them sort of flubber out by the final chapters...if they do indeed ever get published. But then, I'm a tidy sewer...always got to get my thread ends tied up well...never know what kind of washer the project will encounter...

Roger Sutton said...

Stella--

I'm glad to welcome you to the Horn Book readership, a small but select bunch. ;-)

Fern and Sacajawea--

well, S., we weren't really on the J.K. adulation, but since you asked. ;-). I don't count myself among Harry's fans, but the success of that first book was achieved by children--or perhaps by readers generally. The first HP created the desire for a sequel. I don't know if Rowling's publishers agreed to publish the whole series from the start, or what.But to the relief of all concerned, HP has never prompted the questions I ask in the post.

Anon--

Thank you. I can never keep track of when Alias airs. Last night I was pondering whether they had re-drawn the portrait on page 47, as it looks more like Sydney than it used to. Is that old guy Rambaldi?

Rinda--

Now you've got me thinking about book publishing as the laundry cycle! It's a very useful comparison.

slwhitman said...

Roger, you might remember me as an intern from fall 2004, who now works as an editor in children's fantasy. We publish series fiction, and we're moving into the realm of limited series and stand-alone books (soon you might even get a hardcover book from us to review!). In the long-running middle grade series I edit, we found that breaking it up into trilogies and themed sub-series has helped make the series more easily accessible. I think, though, that it will also make it more easily ended when/if the time comes.

One thing about series, though, is that they usually gain steam as more books are published. So even if the first book doesn't do phenomenally well, I would think most publishers would just suck that up and go on to more books, because series should be evaluated on more than one book's merit. If it's still not doing well over the course of several books, that's when to decide whether to keep going or cut your losses.

It makes me wonder about a particular fantasy series by Hilari Bell that I saw in the bookstores several years ago that was repackaged and published under a different title. Was it a series that flopped, perhaps, that they're trying to breathe new life into? I don't know, but I wonder.