Just like some things are a fact of life—death and taxes—some things are a fact of publishing. One is that books can't stay in print forever. Another is that, if a book is popular, there's a good chance it will become a series. In fact, it's quite possible that a book was planned to be part of a series before even the first word was written.
With so many series populating bookstore shelves, it stands to reason that it's because they sell. So, everyone wins, right? Well, it's not as cut and dried as that. There are good and bad things about series, and what those things are depend on whether you are a reader, a writer or a publisher.
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Let's take a look at the pros and cons of book series, keeping in mind that some of the pros and cons will apply to series of all genres besides science fiction and fantasy, while others will lean toward components of fantastic fiction.
THE READER'S PERSPECTIVE
What makes readers pick up the next book in the series? Most likely it's because they loved a previous installment and want to repeat the experience. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, for example, thrives because readers want to keep reading about the adventures of its hero, Miles Vorkosigan. It's simply a case of liking something and wanting more.
But there's a potential downside for readers, too. It's possible that readers can grow weary of a series. Either the stories no longer interest them in the same way (either because their tastes have changed, or the series has moved into directions that no longer ignite the spark), or they simply grow tired of the same setting. There's nothing much to do about the former, but the latter has a simple solution—read other books!
THE AUTHOR'S PERSPECTIVE
A lot of work goes into writing and, in the case of science fiction and fantasy, building the world in which a story takes place. That worldbuilding often involves research that, in the case of standalone novels, gets thrown away, perhaps never to be used again.
Not so with a book series. Here an author can leverage the same research and the previous exposition of worldbuilding to hit the ground running in the sequels. (That said, authors will often expand on the worldbuilding even more, giving their creations more depth, and the readers a reason to keep returning.)
The potential downside for the author is the flipside of the reader coin—they may grow weary of the word. I heard an editor at a convention once lament the case of a writer who would have loved to have stopped writing books in a series but couldn't because readers clamored for more and that was all the publisher would take from them. Creatively speaking, that can become stifling.
THE PUBLISHER'S PERSPECTIVE
I have no insider knowledge of how publishing houses work, so anything I say here is pure conjecture, but it seems to me that publishers can rely on a certain level of sales with a given bestselling series. That's good news for them as the publication of a book can be costly, and this makes it less of a gamble. A book that comes with a built-in audience is a publishing win.
One possible downside is that a publisher may be obligated to publish a book in a series whose sales have declined. (Again, I haven't a clue how publishing contracts are arranged, but it seems to me this could happen.) This would be the literary equivalent of selling rotten fruit at the market. If nobody's going to buy it (or at least not enough people to make it profitable), why sell it (or publish it) it in the first place?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Stepping back a bit from the specifics...it appears that the pros must outweigh the cons because books series are as popular as ever. I'll reiterate my opening comment: browse any bookstore shelf, real or virtual, and you will find several examples that this is true. (Look! There's another Twilight novel!) And it's not just a truism today...it's been that way for a long time.
Next week I'll take a look at a small handful of long-running SF/F book series that are still going strong.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo-nominated group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.