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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
publishing, series, fantasy, an announcement of a personal nature, and a big helping of wtf 
3rd-Apr-2009 10:58 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
So here is the thing about which I am thinking--and I should note that I am genuinely puzzled. This isn't sarcasm or rhetoric.

One of the things that the unimpressed Publishers Weekly review of Corambis mentioned was that it probably wouldn't make sense if you hadn't read the first three books in the series. Which, you know, is absolutely true, and I don't deny it. What puzzles me is (a.) why anyone needs to be warned about it, and (b.) why the reviewer seemed to feel it was a defect.

This seems to me to be related to one of Ace's marketing decisions that still puzzles me, namely the absolute, vehement refusal to indicate anywhere on any of the books that they are part of a series. I actually asked about it, back when Mélusine was in production, because the series has a name and was never conceived of as anything but a series, and my editor told me that we couldn't put Book One of the Doctrine of Labyrinths on the cover or in the front matter. Marketing wouldn't let us.

She explained their reasoning to me: if a person buys a book and then discovers it's part of a series, they are more likely to buy the other books, whereas if a person picks up a book in a bookstore and sees it's Book Two, they won't buy it. (I think there's a self-defeating flaw in this reasoning, since it assumes that Book One will not be near Book Two on the bookstore shelves, but that's neither here nor there.) Never mind the fact that a person who buys a book only to discover it's Book Two is likely to be an unhappy person, and never mind that, since the damn thing ISN'T LABELED as Book Two, the person has no immediately obvious and easy way of figuring out either which series it's a part of, nor which books in the series come BEFORE it . . . Marketing said, Thou Shalt Not Label The Books Of Thy Series, and lo, the books were not labeled.

And reviewers and readers bitched up one side and down the other about how Mélusine ended and how they should have been told it was Book One of a series and so on and so forth.

But that's not actually my point either, although it's obvious I'm still more than a little bitter about it. My point is that both Ace's marketing department and the PW reviewer seem to think that fantasy series are a bad thing, that it's bad for a writer to build a story from one book to the next. And to that I honestly have nothing more intelligent or articulate to say than, What the fuck?

Two different reasons that this baffles me:

1. It's the fourth book in the series. Why should anyone want to read it without reading the first three? I'm sure this idea got ported over from mystery "series," in which every book is intended to stand alone, but IT DOESN'T APPLY HERE. Fantasy writers do not and have never pretended to write that kind of series. We write stories that are too big for one volume. Completely different.

2. Never mind fandom and what fandom thinks. I understand that "fandom" is not the audience PW is writing for and not the audience that Ace's marketing department is trying to reach. But the evidence is that people who read fantasy want series. They revel in series. Case in point--and I don't think we need to go any farther for examples, although George R. R. Martin can also stand up and testify here--Robert Jordan's overwhelmingly popular and infinitely expanding1 Wheel of Time series, which have, from the publication of the very first doorstop of a volume, been labeled as part of the Wheel of Time. And publishers want series. They buy series. My four books were bought in two two-book deals, always on the understanding that the books went together. You see it every time you look at Locus. Readers want series. Publishers want series. But apparently, bookstores don't want series--because that, of course, is who Marketing has to sell to: buyers for chain bookstores and their computers.

Other authors, including most recently to my knowledge, Tobias Buckell, have blogged about this and the ugly Catch-22 in which chain bookstore computers can kill an author's career, and I don't want to rehash it now. What I want to say is that it's doing more than that, and worse than that: it's putting a No Man's Land, full of barbed wire and landmines, between the readers on one side and the writers and editors2 on the other. In other words, much of the business of publishing is being driven by factors that have nothing to do with what people want to read.

And I wonder--I can't help but wonder--if the attempts to pander to the computers and their apparatchiks actually produce the phenomenon they're allegedly trying to avoid. That is, I wonder if my numbers would be better if my books had been labeled as a series, if people could look at one and TELL it belonged to something larger than itself.

And, yes, this is a very pointedly personal question for me. I haven't been blogging about it, but in fact Ace chose several months ago not to offer me another contract. My numbers aren't "good enough." This feels, in case you were wondering, like the moment in "Hansel and Gretel" when they turn around and realize that, not only have their parents ditched them, but also the birds have eaten their bread crumbs.

I'm hoping that the witch who shows up in my story is Glinda the Good Witch of the South.

1And it's spread to the next generation, too. (I'm a fantasy author. We have trouble with the concept of brevity. Brandon Sanderson, I adore you.) I move that this phenomenon now officially be known as Jordan's Curse.

2I have never met an editor who was not also a passionate reader. I have never met an editor who did not sincerely love the books he or she edited. It's all too possible for the relationship between an author and an editor to feel adversarial, but it shouldn't.
5th-Apr-2009 03:26 am (UTC)
There are fairly regular statistical surveys of readers' buying habits, done by AAP and by individual publishers. The analysis of that data is a pretty closely held corporate secret.

But the thing you have to understand is that a publisher's customer is not the individual book buyer/reader. A publisher's customer is a book wholesaler, or a large chain buyer, or a library buying service, or an independent bookstore. Publishers don't sell books to readers. Bookstores do that. So we have to listen to what our customers tell us about what they want. They're the ones who are buying.
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