Writing Series Works in the Age of the Internet

I picked up the first book in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy from a remainder table when I was fourteen, part of a five-books-for-ten-bucks deal where I deployed my limited teenage resources. Over the years that remainder table introduced me to many books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, but Black Sun Rising was one of the few that I still hold onto. Tattered and torn after twenty-seven years of ownership, largely unread after the age of eighteen, but still tucked away on my bookshelf alongside Forgotten Realms novels as a reminder of where my reading tastes used to live and breathe.

I picked up the second book of the Coldfire trilogy three years later, recognizing it by the cover art and the familiar, embossed-gold font. The repeated motif’s are a distinctly nineties approach to fantasy: dark, twisted trees; a blonde warrior with a magic sword and improbably styled hair that suggests fantasy worlds have access to good conditioner; keywords on the cover blurb like Adept, Sorcerer, Devouring, and Darkness.

When True Night Falls is in better shape, its pages a little yellowed with age. Plus, I’m not actually sure I’ve read it. I remember the first book clearly, with its mix of Fantasy and SF tropes, magic derived from an alien energy running through a colonized planet, but I have no recollection about what happens in the second book or how it sets up the third. I think I was waiting to track down the third book before I engaged with the series again.

This sounds perfectly reasonable, here in 2017. Back in 1994, when the internet was still fascinated with getting Coke machines online and Amazon was in its first year of existence, waiting for the third book of a series twice-remaindered in Australia was an act of deranged optimism.

But I was young. I knew nothing about the way publishing worked, or how books found their way to bookstores. I thought my decision to wait for the third book was perfectly sane and reasonable, because the first two books of a trilogy meant the third would show up, eventually.

They were telling a story. The third book was the end of it. That was how things worked.

#

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about trilogies and serials and series at the moment, courtesy of my PhD. I went in explicitly looking to better understand the craft side of things. The initial germ of the idea came when I was kicking around a few series ideas, and friends were kicking me volumes of ongoing trilogies or series to critique, and I figured that understanding how series works would allow me to write and critique in a more useful way.

It’s taken about six weeks of reading to realise that it’s virtually impossible to divorce the writing of series from the publishing realities that surround them. I’m not exactly blind to the effects digital technologies have had on the publishing industry – a large part of my gig at the Writers Centre involved talking about the impact and advantages of ebooks – but it’s at its most interesting when we consider the impact that a shifting publishing landscape has on the decisions writers make.

At its simplest, publishing is a system of exchange between three stakeholders. A writer produces intellectual property in the form of a book. A publisher provides the financial capital to produce the book, along with the human resources to handle the the refinement and production of the book. They also leverage a network of promotion and distribution arms that the writer, by themselves, doesn’t have, in order to get the book into the hands of readers craving a particular reading experience that they’re willing to pay money for. When everything goes well, the writer, the publisher, and the reader all feel like they’ve made an even exchange, and everyone goes home with something they want.

The reality was almost never that simple. Economies of scale become part of the equation, because it costs money to store books and it costs money to ship books and it was impossible for any bookstore to carry a copy of every book ever written. Books that didn’t sell enough to justify those costs had a very short shelf-life. Books that weren’t ordered in sufficient qualities to justify keeping them in a warehouse would end up pulped or remaindered, which is how they found their way to a five-for-ten-dollar bin at my local store.

None of this is news, if you’ve got a working idea of publishing, but what’s been interesting me this week is an essay from 1999, Tracing the Adult Series, which appeared in the TechNicalities journal. The author, Maureen Nimmo, talks about the difficulties of tracking series works for adults in library catalogue. There’s one bit that leapt out at me in particular:

Catalogers aren’t the only ones at fault here. Book publishers don’t always give sufficient information within individual books to help. Series information in the books themselves, based on personal observations, is scanty and inconstant…Standard series title pages are rare in this sort of literature. Instead, catalogers are left to glean what series information is available from flyleaves (assuming it isn’t discarded before the book gets to the cataloger) or blurbs printed on the back of the book. There may be nothing on the cover or the title page of the book to alert the readers that the book is part of a series.

This intrigued me to the point where I dragged Friedman’s books off the shelves and looked for the things that overtly identified it as a trilogy. Once you discarded the trade dress, there were only two: all three grouped the books together “The Coldfire Trilogy” in the section up front devoted to the time-honored Also by C.S. Friedman, and the bears The stunning conclusion of the Coldfire trilogy” on the cover. The second book does identify itself as a sequel to the first, but doesn’t actually mention the word Trilogy anywhere else.

This lack of information makes perfect sense in a publishing environment defined by scarcity and limited space. If books have a small sales window and shelf-life, then you absolutely want to have your cake and eat it too. Slapping “Book Two” on the cover is a red flag to anyone picking it up that they’ve missed what’s come before. While you want existing readers to find it, you don’t want to be limited to existing readers when it comes to sales.

#

If you planned on writing fantasy in the eighties and nineties, you planned on writing a three-book trilogy. It’s like the structure of Lord of the Rings passed into the genre’s DNA, becoming part of the conventional wisdom shared by writers and readers alike. I didn’t need to be told Friedman’s work was a trilogy when I stumbled across it at the age of fourteen, because I simply assumed that most fantasy stories were told in three parts (It will still be another year before I encountered David Eddings, and my mind was peeled open by the fact you could tell a story in five parts).

And with that knowledge came the patience required to search out parts of the series. The assumption that if I missed the boat on first release, I’d be spending quality time searching for the missing instalments over the new few years. Friedman’s trilogy was one of the few that eluded me in that time. I couldn’t find the third book new, lurking on the bottom shelf of a bookstore I’d never visited before. Nor could I find it second hand, or tucked away in a remainder bin like the first two instalments had been. After a while, it ceased being something I looked for at all, just an unfinished trilogy sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for the day when serendipity finally finished my collection.

In the end, it wasn’t luck that brought the third book to me. It was stumbling over the first two books tucked away in my own bookshelf, then spending sixty seconds ordering a copy of book three on Amazon.

#

There’s a really useful idea in John B. Thompson’s study of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture, where he takes Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of The Field and applies it to the publishing industry. The Field is…well, lets go with Thompson’s description:

A field is a structured space of social positions which ca be occupied by agents and organisations, and in which the position of any agent or organisation depends on the type and quantity of resources or ‘capital’ they have at their disposal. Any social arena – a business sector, a sphere of education, a domain of sport – can be treated as a field in which agents and organisations are linked together in relations of cooperation, competition, and interdependency. Markets are an important part of some fields, but fields are always more than markets.

Which is really just sociologist for publishing is an enormously complicated network of stakeholders, all of which are linked together in a web of interconnected business relationships. What’s useful about Thompson’s book is the way he takes the concept of the field and breaks down the five kinds of capital at work in publishing.

More importantly, it provides a framework for understanding how the field of publishing has shifted as a result of technology, which makes the study of series considerably more nuanced than I’d first expected.

#

I keep circling back to the Coldfire Trilogy when I think about this, and in particular that decade plus period where I couldn’t find the third book. For two books I contributed very little economic capital to the publishers behind the series, picking volumes up second-hand or in remainder. By the time I did actually purchase the third book through Amazon, it was via a sales chain that would have seemed unthinkable when the first volume when to print.

On the other hand, they were a series of books I thought to finish purchasing over a decade after the first two volumes were acquired. It was on the list of things I meant to read one day, if only I could find all the books.

I’d started my thesis with a pretty clear idea that the advent of Amazon and ebooks had led to a big jump in series works, particularly among the indie publishing crowd who talk about series works a kind of default strategy. The Field has its own logic, which affects the way people consciously and subconsciously apply their capital to gain desired effects, and the capacity to have a single bookstore that stocks everything cleans up a lot of issues with series works.

But it’s not just having everything available that’s shifted the field. Trilogies and ongoing series works have always held a kind of value, but it wasn’t until the advent of Amazon and widespread ebook use that the kind of capital they accumulate with readers valuable enough to overcome the costs of keeping the book available. Series works always accumulated social and cultural capital – and publishing has often capitalised upon that capital  – it’s just that they weren’t positioned in a marketplace capable of translating that capital into financial gain in a cost-effective way. The limitations of printing, storage, and distribution worked against the form.

But once the problem of availability is solved, labelling series works as part of a series becomes infinitely more attractive. The search algorithms of Google and Amazon are considerably more nuanced than old library systems. More importantly, the internet opens up the conversation that surrounds books.

At fourteen, I talked about the fantasy novels I loved with a half-dozen friends with similar reading tastes. At forty, I share my reading with blog readers, facebook friends, GoodRead followers, Instagram followers, and a dozen other places. The social capital surrounding a trilogy or series is considerably higher today than it was back in the early nineties. My suspicion is that this shift is one of the reasons why the fast roll-out of a series became a thing in recent years, attempting to capitalise on the conversation and keep the book visible.

#

Friedman’s trilogy has been sitting on my couch for two weeks now, ever since I started thinking about all this. At some point, I need to read it. I just don’t know whether that’s going to be during the PhD or after it.

A post shared by Peter M Ball (@petermball) on

  3 comments for “Writing Series Works in the Age of the Internet

  1. 06/04/2017 at 3:15 PM

    Since you’re thinking about series for the PhD stuff, are you aware of Bookburners? It seems relevant.

    • 06/04/2017 at 3:19 PM

      Yep. My friend Kathleen does cover art for one of the other Serial Box series (which will probably be the one I focus on, since it’s an extension of a pre-existing novel series and is slightly richer as a research subject because of that).

Leave a Reply