I find blogging can be quite a reflective process. Obviously in terms of the books you review, thinking back about how you reacted to them and trying to convey that enthusiasm. But also for me around wider themes, controversy’s that still amaze me (don’t get me started on the star ratings issue) and in taking a broader look at what I’m reading. I think more and more about what my next book will be, and also about where that next great book is coming from. I’ve encountered some brilliant books as a result. I have a TBR pile that is starting to take over a corner of my living room (or as much as my partner will allow without insisting I find proper homes for the books) by my favourite big comfy chair, where I’m sat typing this now.
When I started to think about some of the books I’ve looked forward to and have enjoyed the most this year it occurred to me that a lot involved characters I am already familiar with. The Last Stand by Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer), The Outsider by Stephen King (the fourth book to feature Holly Gibney), The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox (Aiden Waits), Death of an Angel by Derek Farrell (Danny Bird, still forthcoming), London Rules by Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb), Stoned Love by Ian Patrick (Sam Batford). Then there are new series (to me) that I have come across this year, the Alex Ripley books by M. Sean Coleman, Charlie and Rose by Jo Perry, the Tranquillity Trilogy by Linden Chase. This got me to thinking, why is that? Why are the books I get most hyped for the ones that are part of a series? It’s a thought that lingered. It’s a thought I couldn’t quite shake and so I find myself here, writing about it. A technique I use in my real-world day job to organise my thoughts too. As I started to seriously consider the question, I started to wonder what other people thought too. Not just readers, but those that write a series and publish them. So I sent out some DMs on Twitter to see if anyone was interested in saying a few words…
… Turns out they were. Its been a privilege to be in touch with some fantastic people since I’ve gotten more actively involved in the indie community online, and I was really humbled by the amazing response I got. I can only apologise up front to those involved if I don’t use everything, but unedited the comments come to almost 3200 words. And so to introductions, our esteemed guests today are Mart of The Beardy Book Blog, Jo Perry author of the Charlie and Rose series (published by Fahrenheit Thirteen and avilable here), Derek Farrell author of the Danny Bird series (published by Fahrenheit Press and avilable here), M Sean Coleman author of the Alex Ripley series (published by Red Dog Press, of which Sean is also a founder, and available here) Chris McVeigh founder of Fahrenheit Press and Karen Sullivan founder of Orenda Books.
As Mart says “It’s a tricky thing to put your finger on” but for readers and writers (myself included), character seems to be a common thread running through everyone’s thoughts. Getting to know and care about characters and the world they inhabit. Starting to understand what motivates them and how they might react to a certain situation. Even getting frustrated when they make the same silly decisions over and over again (Danny, I’m looking at you here. Nick’s a lovely guy, stop sabotaging yourself!! PS, If that makes no sense to you, go buy the Danny Bird books). I certainly respond to having characters I can go back to again and again, spending time in their ever-evolving worlds. Those worlds for me don’t necessarily have to be familiar, they just have to be vivid. I adore the Tranquillity Trilogy by Linden Chase (Book 3 please….), which is a million miles from anything I know, as much as I like Joseph Knox’s Aiden Waitts books which are set in my home town and so I do get a kick out of recognising the world and the locations, if not the underworld elements, sometimes that stepping out of your own space is also a draw, as Mart comments:
“it’s the quality of writing that draws me in. I fell in love with those characters and the crimes they investigated. Both were very dark, disturbing crimes. I guess it’s the step outside of my normal, cosy, safe life that keeps me reading these grim tales..”
Jo agrees that “Character fuels a series. If the character(s) has unfinished business or is himself still a mystery to the writer, the unfolding of a series is he how he will reveal himself”
As a publisher as well as reader Karen has seen similar responses to an engaging character: “readers are eager to revisit favourite characters, see them grow across the series. It’s familiar and, for that reason, almost a comfort read. And obviously a relationship develops between reader and character, and they have a genuine vested interest in them, which brings them back over and over again”
Derek and Sean have slightly different takes on this, about the psychology that plays a role…
Derek: “How often have you sped through a book and then – about four fifths in – suddenly screeched to a halt in the realisation that this story will end soon and you will have to leave these characters you have fallen in love with behind to live the rest of their lives far away from your view forever more?”
Sean mentions a childhood link to loving a series in adult life, pointing out that we read series from a very early age, “As a kid, I loved The Magic Faraway Tree, The Famous Five, Nancy Drew, The Dark Is Rising Sequence. Why? Because they were based around returning characters who went through different adventures. But it was the characters I followed. I knew they would probably survive their ordeal, because it was a series.”
I hadn’t considered the formative link to series appeal before and looking back, it’s an interesting one. I too remember adoring The Magic Faraway Tree, they were story time favourites of my class at primary school in the late ‘80s. Brian Jacques Redwall books were also a particular influence growing up, recurring characters, a detailed world and action and adventure that kept a younger me interested.
Intertwined with character is story, and Mart makes a fascinating point about what he calls the “soap opera” elements of a series.
“The little domestic moments outside of the main story. I need to know if these characters will stay together; get married; move away; discover new family; what their favourite restaurant is, things like that. Will Danny and Nick live happily ever after? What else can Caz pull out of her Gladstone bag (or whatever make it is 😅). That sort of thing. Rachel Amphlett is good at that stuff in her Kay Hunter books. She wanted her protagonist, Kay, to have a happy home life. She was tired of all of these trouble domestic lives of many literary detectives, so in her books Kay and Adam are very happy. I like that. I read each book wondering which animal Adam will bring home next from his veterinary practice 😅 But this extra cosiness also brings extra worry in case Rachel decides to fuck them up in a later book!!”
Derek links in and expands on this point from a writer’s perspective, “this feeling – this desire to know ‘what happens next’ is an absolutely vital part of the makeup of both avid readers and of good writers. Some books need a permanent end, but when you’ve created a bunch of characters, a milieu – an entire universe – and used it only to tell one story, it’s kind of a shame, especially when there are so many other stories calling out to be told in that space.”
Good characters thrive in a good story, there are two sides to this for me in a series, there are the ongoing elements and the stand-alone elements. Some series are actually quite difficult to join part way through, a personal favourite that falls in this bracket would be (most definitely not an indie) The Dark Tower by Stephen King. It has a lot of the elements of a great series, richly detailed world, characters you get to know and love and even the soap opera elements. It is however an epic story that requires commitment from the start, you can’t wade in to book four and expect to be able to pick up the plot. I actually feel that the stand-alone series (if that’s not an oxymoron) can be more intriguing for a reader, stories that are self-contained but involve character’s and a world that you are familiar with. Somehow that feels more accessible to me. As a reader you can take a recommendation without having to go back to the beginning of a series, there is also no real need to read in order. Max Allan Collins has written eleven Quarry novels so far. I have read them all and in nothing resembling sequence. On the other hand, Collins hasn’t written them chronologically either. We bounce around Quarry’s timeline at the whim of the author and that actually makes a new Quarry book quite an exciting prospect. As Quarry served in Vietnam, if we go back to an earlier part of his timeline we almost end up with an historical crime novel, see last years Quarry in the Black for a great example.
Sean has a take on this concept, that actually triggered some of my thoughts on this:
“Sometimes you need to explore a theme—like faith—which will span many stories, and over time you can pepper the reader’s interest with a serial element of the main character’s developing life. This is great for crime and thriller genres because you can have stand-alone crimes but the reader gets to understand how the lead detective will come at them, and also understand whether they are gruesome or gentle thrillers”
Which segues us nicely into what the appeal is to a writer and publisher, coming at this from a different perspective to a reader. A writer that creates a character that we as readers connect with is, almost by definition, going to have a deep connection with their characters, the world they inhabit and the stories to be told. Jo, Sean and Derek can put this far better than I could ever hope to, so I defer to their experience and expertise.
“There are no rules to writing and I believe that is how it should be: Each writer must discover her own way forward through a book. Each book finds me deep in a black hole that I must find a new way to climb out of.
Still I intuited when I wrote Dead Is Better, that there would be two more books, Dead Is Best and Dead Is Good. Dead Is Better is very short–that could have been another reason for envisioning a series, but it wasn’t the only one. I recently finished book four and am thinking about book five or if there will be a five or something new.
Crime fiction series are hugely interesting to write because human cruelty is inexhaustible and endlessly varied and the need for something like justice never goes away. Crimes of the heart and head, the ways and reasons people fuck each other over, are forever new and fresh. The only danger of series writing is that the books become formulaic and predictable and the characters ossify.”
“I think series feels comfortable to me, because I come from a background of film and tv scriptwriting, and so (especially tv) it was locked into my brain to make a returning series: A Morse or a Midsomer Murders, a Prime Suspect or a Silent Witness. That’s the ambition… I’ve spent so long developing this character, and there is so much of their life to tell, but this (first) story is all about the victims and the killers, and so we won’t have a lot of time to learn about my wonderful character… So I need episodes.”
“When I wrote the first Danny Bird novel (Death of a Diva) I already had a dream: this pub (The Marquess of Queensbury public House, Southwark) and the pub regulars, the staff, their families Danny and Caz’s family were sketched out in incredibly detailed depth. I knew who they were, what their families were like, where they came from and where they wanted to go, and as all story, comes from character, I realised almost before I started writing about Lyra Day’s murder, that I had more than one story here, a chance to write about London, about the world as it is today and as I’d love it to be tomorrow, and to tell the stories of all these brilliant people who demanded to be in the first – and subsequent books, and so a series was born.”
As a reader, I found these insights to be fascinating. It’s interesting to me to hear that a lot of what drives my interest in a series is also what drives authors to write them, but that alongside that there is far more to it. A compulsion of sorts to get a story out into the world. Both Jo and Derek knew as they were writing their first novels that they would be the start of a something larger, that insight is almost there from the beginning for an author. Also, a sense of commitment comes through, as a reader I will invest some time reading a novel and as a blogger some time to review it and chat about it online. This pales to the love, time, care and attention that a writer has to put in to create a character, usually without much help. Writing is often talked about as a quite solitary occupation, although I’m sure Jo, Sean and Derek all have fantastic support networks for their work, the character and the story at the end of the day is all theirs.
Thinking about what draws readers and writers to the series also led me on to thinking about the business impacts for a publisher. I am passionate about supporting indie publishing, the stories they have to share, the authors who might not be considered ‘normal’ (or even ‘straight’) enough for the mainstream are given a voice and we as readers are all the richer for it. That comes at a price, a literal price, about £8.99 for a paperback. I shout about the need to support the business end of indie publishing on my twitter feed a lot, and always include links to purchase direct in my reviews, if we don’t support indie publishers then we will lose them. At the end of the day, this is a cash business, no cash = no books. Simple. So what sort of impact can a series have on an indie? To find out, I asked Karen and Chris to offer their insights as publishers.
“There are undeniable benefits for a publisher like Fahrenheit to publish books in a series, among them are;
Readers: There are a LOT of books out in the world – too many in fact for any sane person to even begin to navigate through. Reading a series of books from a single author is one way that readers can attempt to self-curate their TBR piles. Humans are essentially tribal, and when readers find an author they enjoy, they stick with them and in many cases become advocates for them. We see this over and over again and it warms our hearts when we see an author move from being entirely unknown to being someone who is recognised and praised for what they do – when authors have a series of books this entire process is easier as each new book builds on the previous books success and the number of fans/champions increase.
Promotion: As a small press, every dollar we spend needs to count and if we have an author who writes a series of books it means we definitely get more bang for our buck – any resources we direct towards one title in the series automatically get amplified across the books the author has written. With books in series our focus is to build the author brand rather than specifically market the individual titles. This can help us spread our precious resources in a much more targeted manner, building the brand through consistent messaging, advertising, covers etc…”
Karen agrees with a lot of this, but does add a note of caution around the challenge of promoting a book that could be up to the fourth or fifth instalment of a novel.
“It’s a great way to build an author because people come back for more and, over time, through word of mouth and picking up new readers with subsequent books, the readership grows organically and, through that, sales. Many writers also enjoy series because they are on firm ground … plots change, but their characters exist, and they, too, have a relationship with them that makes the writing flow. There are drawbacks, though. For example, if a series fails to take off, it can be hard to persuade booksellers to stock it. Similarly, I’ve picked up books mid-series, from authors who have been under published elsewhere, and it is a struggle to get shelf space for them … and, of course, sometimes the earlier books are no longer available, which makes it hard to build. We also find that the ‘other publishers’ benefit from our marketing and scoop up the sales because readers are keen to start at the beginning”
So clear benefits for an indie, but not without its potential challenge. An interesting point that Chris raised also, is around branching out into other modes of story telling by selling on the rights to a character or series. Such rights being far more appealing when there is a wealth of source material to build a TV series or film franchise on. As we all know in the TV and movie world these days, the franchise is king. A similar logic applies to selling translation rights to a book. All of these are time consuming and costly, a series helps to ease some of that worry, as Chris puts its:
“Selling foreign rights and tv/film rights is an increasingly important source of income for all publishers and authors. When books are written in a series they instantly become more attractive prospects for any potential buyer. A German publisher for example can take a chance on buying the translation rights for the first book in a series in the full knowledge that if it’s a success there are 3 or 4 more sitting on our shelves waiting for them. Similarly with TV rights, although notoriously difficult to negotiate, if there are a bunch of books in a series for the production company to draw from they are much more likely to invest the huge resources required to bring a book from page to screen.”
So, what have I learned from all this?
Series’ in fiction remain fascinating and ultimately engaging. Character drives us all, an interest in people and where they may go next, where life will take them and viewing experiences we may not be familiar with or seeing life through a lens other than our own is a powerful draw to readers and writers alike. From the point of view of a publisher, despite some pitfalls and difficulties, having that assured readership is important, it builds a relationship with the reader as well as the author and the support that comes with it. A series is a remarkably potent thing, which can impact on so many people in different ways and over a period of years or even decades. That should not be underestimated. I just want to leave you with a few final words from Mart that for me really sum all this up:
“For me it’s most often simply because I love that particular author… I trust those authors to deliver. I love their voices that come through their writing; their imagination to immerse me fully into their worlds.”