Is There a Sweet Spot (or Time) for You to Begin a New Book Series?

Today I was talking to a publisher friend about game expansions, and he mentioned something I hadn’t thought of: When someone learns about a game for the first time, if they also hear that there are a bunch of expansion for the game, they may be too daunted to buy the core game at all due to the time and monetary commitment.

The comparison that instantly came to mind is that’s the exact reason I haven’t read the Wheel of Time series, as it spans a whopping 14 volumes (plus a few companion books). For some people, that might be part of the appeal. For me, it’s too many.

So I thought I’d look at the following questions to see how they impact my willingness to dive into a new fictional series. I’m curious to hear your answers too:

  • What’s the most books in a series I’m willing to start? Usually I would say 3 at most, though there are a few series I’ve gotten into that have multiple trilogies separated by big gaps in time (like Red Rising and Age of Myth). That’s more palatable to me for some reason. There’s also the Stormlight Archive, which is two 5-book series. That’s a lot, but I’ll read pretty much anything Brandon Sanderson writes.
  • Am I willing to start a new series that the author hasn’t finished? Yes. I do that all the time. I just finished Jade City even though no other books in the series have been released. And I’m currently reading the second book in the Rosewater series, even though the last book won’t be available for a while.
  • Am I willing to start a new series if it’s ongoing with no end in sight? My instinct is no, yet I seem to make an exception for authors who explore the same world from different angles. The primary examples I can think of are Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, The Expanse, and Old Man’s War. At the same time, I’m not sure I would have started The Expanse in the first place if I had known it would eventually include 8+ books (I just noticed the 8th book is being released next week!).

What are your answers to these questions? If there are exceptions to your preferences, can you think of a reason for them?


13 Responses to “Is There a Sweet Spot (or Time) for You to Begin a New Book Series?”

  1. Adrian Brown says:

    I do a lot of preliminary research before buying a game or book, so I usually know that it’s something I will enjoy, making my inclination for series’ with a lot of content. In fact, I’d almost rather have an author write one book too many or a designer build one expansion too far. Sure, there’s a disappointment there, but I far prefer that to the feeling that there is one more book in a beloved series that just never arrived. (I stopped reading swords and sorcery novels, so I never had to experience the pain R.R’s fans must have suffered for the past decade.)
    That said, I generally don’t jump into a book series that goes beyond 8 volumes. I have rarely read a 10+ series that has been satisfactory past the 8th mark, but I feel compelled to finish out the series. Which means slogging my way through several books I really don’t WANT to read, I simply feel I MUST.
    Or at least I used to. At some point in my mid-30’s I finally decided it was okay to put a series down that wasn’t holding my interest. It was an amazingly liberating feeling, particularly since I had over 1100 book on my kindle, and I was clearly never going to make any headway.
    I would love to propose an additional question to the people reading Jamey’s blog:
    Are there any series you loved that fizzled out and you had to walk away?

    For me, it was the Wheel of Time (sorry Jamey), The Recluse Saga, The Rho Agenda, Hard-Luck Hank and The Otherland by Tad Williams.

    Hard-Luck Hank was a very different book and story in the second volume and it was such a departure that I wasn’t interested in continuing.
    Same with the Rho Agenda, but to be fair, that is actually a series of Trilogies, and I enjoyed the first, the second just wasn’t for me.
    Recluse committed the cardinal sin of jumping around in time with each book. This is a pet peeve of mine. Even worse, it often wasn’t clear until nearly the end of the book where in the timeline you were. Still read 11 of them though. They’re up to 21 volumes, and I can’t even imagine.
    Otherland fell victim to Tad’s writing style, which I never enjoyed. Long, drawn out sequences describing everything EXCEPT what was happening, then, just as you become invested in the character you’re following, it jumps to another storyline. Which was too bad, as the Otherland series had a ton of ideas WAY ahead of its time that have been riffed on and outright stolen in the decades since (a post-war Oz with the scarecrow and tin-man bitter rivals? Awesome!!).
    The Wheel was likewise a victim of its own top-heavy prose. There would be six paragraphs describing the shape and color of the fluffy clouds suspended in an azure sky…but try to get a straight answer about anything happening in the world at all, and that conversation is a single sentence. What made it even worse was that every book (that I read…I only made it to the 8th- Path of Daggers) had an incredible, heart-pounding, riotous action sequence in the last 30 pages (these beasts top out at around 800per book, on average) that proved beyond doubt that Jordan could write fast, engaging stories. But instead he forced you to read through 400 pages of observational drivel. Seriously man, I do NOT care what random nouns particular color and formation of igneous rock on the side of the road looks like. You wrote a book about Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia and Mon Mothma all as medieval teenagers, and I just need you to GET. TO. THE. AWESOME.

    I am curious to know, at what point to creators begin to tire of their creations? I know Butcher got sick of Dresden and went into high fantasy for a bit, and I definitely get that spending 15 years writing a specific series could wear a person down. But is that because of boredom? Or trying to appease fans in a way that compromises your vision or creativity? What about you, Jamey? Scythe wearing thin? Or are there worlds left to conquer in that reality?

    I will leave you with a handful of very short series that I love (4 books max):

    If anyone wants a succinct, fun sci-fi distraction, I highly recommend the ‘Bobiverse’ series by Dennis E Taylor. It is about a sentient AI that is tasked with finding habitable planets to save humans from a dying planet. Funny, smart and hi-tech.

    The Paper Magician series by Charlie N Holmberg is an offbeat victorian series about schools of magic that utilize different mediums (glass, paper, etc) but from a young woman’s perspective. Very intriguing.

    The Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard K Morgan is what the Netflix show ‘Altered Carbon’ is based on, but believe you me, the books are a brainmelt that wouldn’t fly with current audiences in an uncut form. You gotta step on those drugs before they hit the street, yo.

    Hope this helped!
    AB

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      I love the Bobiverse series! I can think of two series that answer your question (“Are there any series you loved that fizzled out and you had to walk away?”) One is the Terry Goodkind “Sword of Truth” series. It’s one of the first fantasy series I read as a kid, and as much as I loved the first book, no book after that intrigued me. I think I stopped reading after book 3.

      The other is the “Off to Be the Wizard” series. Someone recommended it here in the comments, and I loved the first few books. Then there’s a book that undoes everything the previous books did, and I couldn’t finish it. Perhaps someday I’ll just skip to the next book to see if it goes back to what worked.

  2. esotericfulcrum says:

    I’ve got a feeling this is more talking about ongoing series, which need to be read in a specific order. I discovered the Jack Reacher series after the movie of that name was released starring Tom Cruise. People bag the movie all the time, in that Mr Cruise is nothing like the main character, but the truth is I wouldn’t know of the books without the movie. There were nearly 20 of them when I discovered them, but there was no real need to read them in a specific order, and I felt no discouragement in reading them.

    TV series also suffer from this. There is is so much content out there, that getting into an old series is a bit of a commitment. I have not seen Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, because I just don’t see me being able to finish them. I was also gifted most of the seasons of The Wire on DVD, and I haven’t started those either. I understand that all these are great television, but there is only so much time in the day.

  3. I prefer to read completed series, but since I read on the train everyday I go through books fast. I start a new series about once a month.

  4. Let’s be honest. The Stormlight Archive is a 10 book series, split into two 5 book sub-series, where each book contains 3 sub-books and several novellas. And to really grasp the implications of the series, you should probably read Arcanum unbounded, and also definitely Warbreaker, and probably also Mistborn, and to a lesser extent Elantris. And White Sand. And then descend into the rabbit hole on the online forums and wikis. But yeah, definitely worth the investment.

    Starting a series for me is usually either a case of friends reading it, or getting to the end of my current batch of one-off books. Then I read a series while collecting more “one-offs” to read when I’m done with it. Some series are bigger time investments than others. I did Wheel of Time as audiobooks at 1.5 speed because I wanted something to listen to while painting Scythe minis. I recently started reading the Witcher novels because I’ve been playing through the video games and wanted more background.

    I don’t always finish a series. Sometimes it feels like the series comes to an end, and then continues for several more books, because profit! That’s how I felt about the Expanse, so I stopped after Abbadon’s Gate. Or the Dune novels, I read through the main story arc, but didn’t read all the other novels created later.

  5. Derrick Hodge says:

    What’s the most books in a series I’m willing to start? Doesn’t really matter to me. Like Jess, I also have public transit time which is great for reading. My bigger concern would be, are all the books still in print or easily available through the secondary market?

    Am I willing to start a new series that the author hasn’t finished? It depends, but generally not with “epic” fantasy series. See The Wheel of Time (which I ultimately waited until it was finished and then I read it straight over 4-5 months; worth it in the end but a long journey), Song of Ice and Fire, and Kingkiller Chronicles as examples of why.

    Am I willing to start a new series if it’s ongoing with no end in sight? Again, it depends. I have been reading The Expanse (Love it! FYI – The TV show is great! Oh and I believe the series is supposed to end with Book 9). I think some of the answer for this question and the prior is being able to ascertain if each book has a self-contained story, even if there is a larger series spanning story line as well.

    I think esotericfulcrum’s take on TV series is highly relevant. Although for my wife and I it generally stops us from starting to watch something that is still on the air but has several seasons under it’s belt (Supernatural, I’m looking at you.) It almost seems easier to wait until it is over and then start the marathon binge.

    As far as games go, if there are a lot of expansions I usually see that as an opportunity to prolong my enjoyment of a game in the future if I grow tired of the base content. The only time I might see it as a barrier to entry is when the consensus is that an expansion is “essential” if you are going to own it (an example might be Champions of Midgard and Valhalla).

  6. Candy Mercer says:

    Coming from the indie author perspective, my ex is one, and I did a lot of his editing and we did a lot of research into this topic from a business perspective and we had some deep disagreements. So the point of this essay is to just shed an insiders perspective on some of the forces affecting authors.

    Series vs standalone books. Authors love series as they have done the world building and it makes for an easier product to market in some ways, as once you hook a reader they will come back. But often this is done in a very commercial manner, using cliffhangers etc., stringing out the story, and IMO a lack of overall creativity. Plus the issues Jamey raises.

    The current thinking right now, and I argued hard against this, is that to make the most money, is you have to have written several books before even launching the series. So what if people hate it? you have wasted a ton of time. And you an begin to resent the series, and have to be careful to not write into a corner, and you want to work on something else but you have to do book 4….. even though you are bored and dont want to do it.

    My thoughts were, and I lost, was write a bunch of books that could stand alone but could also have series potential. See what resonates. Yes marketing is a bit more challenging, but still if your work as an author speaks to someone they will read other books by you, so you will get repeat business w/o the problem of series fatigue etc. I find an author I like I will read almost anything they do. then if a particular book hits, you can do another one from the world, either continuing the story or approaching from a different angle.

    Since the pressure on indie authors is so hard, you cant waste time, time is money. So there is a pressure to rush out products that are minimum viable. Not edited well. Maybe only with one revision, or to do as little work as possible to get a book done, small books, repurposing content, padding, blather, just cash grabs, and I understand needing to make money, but man, it just means there is so much subpar material out there. I dont even bother with indie authors cause I have to wade through so much poor to the point of laughable material to get to gems which I have yet to discover.

    So that brought up a related problem, if you are a GOOD indie author what do you do? How do you stand out from the dreck. It is really not easy and I think you need a PR based strategy from building alliances and a ton of legwork, almost like being a touring band, you have to be relentless getting your books in front of an audience. You cant do advertising to get there, you cant shortcut that.

    But that is what the series attempts to do, is to leverage the Amazon system to get your book on the top ten, drop the next one, and hopefully seize the top search results for a period of time in a strategy called rapid release, a book a month. It is really an impossible and inhuman model, just churning words w/o little care for quality or art.

    BUT you know what, the model does work for some, a very few, and I am shocked. Cause the work is just horrible, yet readers are happy and praise it to the gills, unless they are all manipulated reviews. so that is disheartening, that maybe people do not even want quality work. I mean, look at 50 Shades of Gray – I could not read it, it was barely literate. so my view is pretty cynical on this issue, and also I am not a big fiction reader. I have read over 2700 books in the past 20 years but only about 5% fiction. so i am a heavy reader. But series….just have never been really impressed. I know there are good ones out there, but also I would have to be really really invested to go there.

    To take it back to games, I think there are some similarities in the opportunity cost of committing to a game or a system, but the market really is harsh in terms that it would never let subpar work stand or gain popularity, and since game production is so hard with so many moving parts, there is really an effective gatekeeping mechanism for quality. A game with lots of expansions to me says it must have met a certain quality level, whereas a book, meh, from what I know, it means the author is milking it, and it is just not going to be good. so i would look favorably on a popular game, and I will admit excitement on the last Dominion release, yes, there was one! And I bought it, the only game I got with Christmas money, cause Donald X has kept it interesting, and it is familiar and comfortable, and I did not have to have any rules overhead, which I am getting some fatigue over.

    BTW, my ex, when we broke up, he had over 30 books out on Amazon, and was starting to make a 4 figure income on good months, but I am not sure he built the foundation well enough for a career. Many of these books are just things he did pull together to publish but are not solid books that build authority. His effort was herculean, and all consuming, but the final products I do not think will take him to the next level because they were not invested in properly….and he would pad them out, and people see that and respond in the reviews, and it only takes a couple scathing reviews to tank a product. But the reviews were fair, when a book is basically a long magazine article with 30 pages of ads at the end, well, people feel cheated.

    He also paid a lot of money and time to basically game the system to get what are called letters – there is a scheme where all these authors submit a story, they spam all their combined mailing lists, and get enough preorders to make the USA today bestseller lists, and then boom, 30- authors are now able to add USA Today Bestselling Author to their resume. And the books are just HORRIBLE….most authors will put in a cliffhanging tease only to get you hooked to go buy their dreadful 23 unicorn cowboy detective series (a real thing). Readers are infuriated! They basically got 500 pages of ads. yeah it might only be 99 cents, but it is unreadble, and no fun. the book that got him on the list has subsequently been pulled from Amazon, which was the plan, as all the reviews are just telling the truth…this is a cash grab….so the get rich quick schemes backfire…but we have all these “proofs of success”…..man, I could go on. Its really demoralizing as an artist that this is the current state of affairs.

  7. Candy Mercer says:

    Thank you guys. I was worried I was sounding too bitter. I am a bit, not due to it being an ex situ, but being a business partner situ, in that I own some of the percentages, so while I do not have an official say, I am impacted.

    He gave up pitching to trad pubs and agents cause he couldnt face rejection. We got no more than 15 rejections before he gave up on a project we spent two+ years on. You just dont take them personally, your project was not a fit. You keep going until someone falls in love with your project.

    I thoroughly believe it is a career launching project, an interesting take on vampires that has NEVER been done before, great relatable teen characters who act in surprising way, it avoids all the current tropes, and is polished and ready. So it sits while he tries to achieve momentum elsewhere.

    Like he did Twitter for 6 months. That is all he did, cause he thought you had to have 10K followers to get a deal, a platform. It was horrible, all the Twitter talk I had to hear, UGH. And he sold no books.

    I have a couple other things/scams I will share if I have energy.

    BTW Jamey, I used you as a model of successful PR and engagement. He does not have your verve for it, but can act/perform to a level, but he does not have the guts. He just does not want to interact with people naturally, and I fear, to do an indie author career successfully you have to be able to do what you are doing there, maybe on a smaller scale, but get your face out there….think John Green as a model as well.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Thanks Candy! I hope he finds a method he’s comfortable with. I’m an introvert, so conventions are exhausting, but I’ve found various types of online interactions that have a similar impact and don’t wear on me. 🙂

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