Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sequel Syndrome and Death of the Standalone Novel

You see the publishing deals announced, new books that will flood the market next year and the year after that. So-and-so garners a two-/three-/four-book deal with a series that will change the way you look at such-and-such genre. You sit back in your chair and sigh.  Just the thought of another series in this polluted book industry makes you squirm -- or want to tear your hair out.

Personally, I think it's the Hollywood sequel syndrome that's rubbing off on the publishing atmosphere.  If something works once -- or there is enough belief that it will work once -- why can't it work again?  James Bond.  Star Wars.  Indiana Jones.  Transformers.  Pirates of the Caribbean. All of these movies have a franchise that built up with each movie.  Look at even the likes of Avatar and The Hangover: they were so monetarily successful that sequels were announced in their wakes.  Hollywood wants to milk the franchise cow for all it's worth, so of course they jump on anything that can potentially bring in even more cash the second time around.

Literature as a whole has been a carrier of the series syndrome for a while now.  Urban fantasy, crime, mystery, and romance novels oftentimes thrive on series.  It's not rare to see one novel spawn four to nine (or more) sequels if a series proves to be successful. (Just yesterday, I started reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians and was surprised to learn that a sequel is forthcoming. I felt a bit cheated since I had truly believed the novel to be standalone when I first picked it up to read.)

My focus, however, is young adult literature.  I read it.  I discuss it. I write it.  YA is tricky because it often has two slants to the series syndrome: either sequels are announced after a seeming standalone has been successful (not entirely uncommon) or a story is pitched as a series and sold as one without even knowing if the first will be successful in readers' eyes or not (the usual).  

Now, I wouldn't feel bad about series if it didn't seem so apparent that many are just churned out to make money and less because they have long, encompassing tales that are worthy of more than one book.  More and more, the standalone novel is becoming obsolete in YA unless it's a contemporary story.  Now some of us readers covet the one-book gems we can find because we are so disillusioned by the word 'series' as if it has lost all meaning to us -- and, to some extent, it has.

I remember the days when just the fact that Harry Potter was going to be seven books was astounding -- and very welcome -- in my reading life.  However, not all books can be epic as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or any other series that has legions of fans for good reason.  If a story has trouble finding purchase and good storytelling in one book, then why are authors and publishers kidding themselves that it is worth the effort of more than the standalone?

I understand the thought behind sequels, I really do.  Publishers believe that readers, if fully engaged and invested, will follow a series to its triumphant/bitter end (and pay for each book along the way).  But publishers forget that readers can become bored and irritated, can shake themselves of the series syndrome, and may even look at the series in question and think, "Why do I like this again?" or "This is getting a bit ridiculous, isn't it?"

It's one thing for series to be planned and pitched in multi-book format -- but do I really want to read book after book where the sequels seem to be tacked-on fluff?  (Many of you are familiar with the 'second book slump,' I'm sure, where the second novel in a trilogy often seems more like filler than anything else.)  I don't believe authors should prolong their stories if there isn't a story worth stretching into a series.  Honestly, I think some YA series would have profited from staying standalone.

But I guess here's the heart of the problem:  many publishers are in it for the money and not for the meaning, and the authors follow suit, wanting to please and release their novels out into the world.  Book after book clouds the market, and then everything's lost to dust and decay.  It doesn't help anyone that we, the readers, are becoming pessimistic and looking at everything with wariness and distrust.

Now, what I want is to follow an author to the triumphant/bitter end of a story because I have faith in him/her and his/her storytelling skills.  Take, for instance, Melina Marchetta:  even if it were announced tomorrow that her next novel were about a traveling band of circus performers who masqueraded as superheroes at night, I would still read it.  Why?  Because I have faith in her ability to tell a riveting story no matter the setting, the characters, the topics, or the messages. That kind of faith isn't built with cheap tricks, flimsy fancies, or large publishing deals; it's built painstakingly over the course of each novel, each page read, each bond formed.  That kind of trust doesn't build up over night.  It's earned with time.

I want to be that kind of author, who builds relationships with her readers through each word, each character, each painstaking novel -- and I really wish more authors and publishers would see that that's what really matters.  It's not the money or the hype since all of that fades eventually.  What will endure are the stories that can stand the tests of time,  and it won't matter if the books were series or standalones:  what will matter is that they were great and that we will remember them for their greatness.

26 comments:

  1. I get what you're saying. There is nothing worse for me than a series that starts off strong but then fizzles. In fact, in one case (coughTwilightcough), the problems I had with the second, third and fourth installments were so great that it ruined what had originally been one of my favorite reads, the first book. What it felt like as I read it was that maybe - maybe - the author had a three-book story but in the interest of increasing revenue, they squeezed out an extra book.

    But confession, I myself am in the midst of writing a four-book story. I need four books to tell the entire story, otherwise the first book would be 2,000 pages long. It's not as though I wrote the entire story in Book 1, loved the characters so much I thought, hey, I can get more mileage out of these guys. Rather, I had a complete arc in my head and it takes that long to tell it fully.

    I think that's the difference for me - some books are volumes in a total saga while others come off as sequels, as in more books because so many people liked the first book. For example, the Harry Potter books are volumes in a total saga. All of these vampire/wearwolf school/academy books just go on and on...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Am I the only one who feels like a story about a traveling band of circus performers who masquerade as superheroes at night sounds AWESOME?

    Thank you for this great post. I agree that authors and publishers need to be objective about a book's series potential and not just see dollar signs. It also reminds those of us who ARE writing series (me: 4 books), to make sure each book builds and escalates to a final, satisfying conclusion.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This article was awesome. Could only have been better if you had added some book examples :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Just to play Devil's advocate: There are

    ReplyDelete
  5. My opinion on the matter is, if you have a story, tell it. Harry Potter needed 7 books. And there was a logical reason for the number 7. Then, we have books like VA and the Study Series.

    Why did Vampire Academy have 6 books? Why does it have a spin-off again? Why did the Study Series need 3 books? Why did it need a spin-off?

    I was going over the question of writing sequels for my book a few days ago. A favorite book of mine is Love, Stargirl. I like it more than I like Stargirl. Did Stargirl need a sequel? Technically, Leo's journey was finished but Stargirl's wasn't. I don't think a series should stop until both love interests have completed their character arc.

    Another favorite book of mine is Fanboy and Goth Girl. Fanboy completed his journey, but Goth Girl was still messed up at the end of the book which is why we needed Goth Girl Rising.

    I think you're in the clear if your characters actually have goals and aren't doing a hard reset at the beginning of each new book--I'm looking at you Glee.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I added a few examples in my reply to Lynn M above.

    ReplyDelete
  7. You aren't alone. I think Marchetta could write about anything and it would be awesome. Some writers just have a gift. And others are one-trick ponies.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I thought it was just me, but I've personally grown very tired of almost every book I read lately being the first in a series. I personally LIKE stand alone books. I'm disappointed to see series are so in vogue right now. I'm really ready to see the tides turn. I agree with all you've said especially your aspirations as a writer. I would rather read a book from the type of author you describe.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Amen! Seriously, amen.

    It is so hard to find a nice, stand alone book anymore. Or... if it's something I WANT a sequel to, the author's dropped off the face of the earth. Sometimes I just want the story to be wrapped up in one package, not have to wait months or years for resolutions.

    Also, the libraries in Chicago suck and they rarely, if ever, have all the books in a series.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm totally with you on that, I usually like stand-alones more too for some reason, even if I'm left wanting more I find authors usually do a good job wrapping stuff up and leaving stuff just open-ended enough. But an example is If I Stay, which I am in love with and when they announced a sequel, I was actually pretty stoked. I looved Where She Went as well, so I think this is an example of an exception :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm one of those who looks at series with a VERY wary eye. My friends know that when they recommend a set of novels to me, that it darn well better be absolutely amazing and totally worth every minute spent reading. My trouble is time. It's daunting to me when I see 3 books in a series and it takes me a bajillion years just to get through a paltry 300-odd pages of a book. There's not a lot of time for me to read, so the few hours I get each week better be filled with AWESOME reading. That being said, I've got the Chaos Walking trilogy that I'm literally waiting until I go ON VACATION to read because I've been guaranteed I will love it.

    I wholeheartedly agree in regards to how important it is to have that story and those characters grab ahold of your heart, making it reason enough for a series. For the writing to be so solid that you render that author insta-buy-worthy. I would read that circus performers/superhero novel by Marchetta! There are a few books that I've read where the book has ended and I sit and think..."Oh goodness is this all? I want to know if anything else happens! I'm not ready to let go of these characters! Dearest author please give me more!" Those are the standalones that are unbearably frustrating and wonderful at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Me, too. If I know going into it that it's a series, I don't mind quite so much. A lot of YA these days are trying to trick, you though. Suddenly, you reach the end and you're pulling out your hair. STOP with the series already! As much as I love something to look forward to, I hate hanging.

    With my own work, I have one idea in mind to someday write that will be two books. The story can't be told in one. Everything else is stand-alone. What I'm working on now, in a way, could be considered a series, but each book is a stand-alone novel that just takes place in the same world. I wish more authors did it this way! Less waiting and you come back and get glimpses of characters you love!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I love a series, though. If I like the characters, I'll want to read thousands of pages worth about them.
    And, those multi-book deals are very good for authors -- they lend a bit of stability in what is a very low-paying and cutthroat field, right?

    ReplyDelete
  14. As a writer, the biggest concern I have in writing a multi-book story arc is what happens if all of the books don't get published? I can't think of anything worse than starting a story and not getting the opportunity to finish it, either as a reader or as a writer. Obviously each book must be self-contained enough to be able to act as a standalone, both because otherwise I think it's unsatisfying to the reader and also, you can get some bit of closure just in case things don't happen for books 2, 3, 4 etc. But when you have a character who you mentally see going through a fantastic story arc with lots of experiences and changes, it is really scary to think you might not get the time and spece (read: number of books necessary) to tell that character's entire story.

    ReplyDelete
  15. That concerns me too. I know I'd hate not being able to publish another character's story, especially if they're as fascinating as the protagonist. All of my stories take place in the same universe--and practically the same town, so in a way, they're all connected.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I have no problems with book series, although there is always the risk of the sophomore slump and such, but I do have a problem with books that start off as single-titles then morph into a series. Twilight's the most obvious example since SMeyer didn't originally write it as a series, but there's also examples like Becca Ftizpatrick's Hush Hush where she wrote one book and the agent sold it as a two part series and now it's a trilogy. Neither series needed to be so large and they both feel very tacked on. Something like Harry Potter needs to be a series because it's such a vast, creative universe with a multitude of characters and situations that change and grow, and also grew with the audience, but I'm not seeing that a lot in many YA series these days. There are great exceptions but it's all to do with supply and demand and publicity. Check out how many of this year's most hyped YA releases are the first in a trilogy.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I know exactly what you mean. I miss finding stand-alone novels; all the popular books now seem to be series. I don't have the money right now to keep buying book after book in a series, so I get left with all these unresolved things in my head. I like resolution and that's why I love stand-alones: You don't have to wait six months or a year or six years for resolution. If the book is well-written, then all the resolution the reader needs is in that one book.

    I can think of quite a few series that shouldn't have been series or should have been shorter series. Like the Immortals series? If it just *had* to be more than one book, then it could have been just two or three books, not six.

    I don't care how successful it got or how much the publisher offered to pay me for it; if I manged to get my book published and it somehow managed to get popular, I would never write a sequel for it. I tried that. Didn't work too well because I couldn't come up with a plot line that made sense.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I agree with you partially. I definitely think there is an excess of series' out there when just having a single book would do. But, I also think that a lot of series' have the potential to be great! It's like what thebloodfeind said: "if you have a story, tell it." I believe so long as each sequel can stand as a quality book by itself then there is no reason not to tell your story. I wrote a post about a similar topic a few days ago: http://bit.ly/hVhGpv As long as the story is good and whole, write it!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I hear ya, but there's a pretty simple reason for the emphasis on sequels: they start selling more and more, apparently, according to this article, http://tinyurl.com/5rfmwtq

    ReplyDelete
  20. That's one of reasons, I don't start up a serial book until some of the sequels are already out. Plus shorter wait time. Waiting one plus years really loses the momentum and my interest.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Your idea reminds me of Sherwood Smith's work. She has a complete universe with 15 or so stories set across space and time in her world. The characters make great reappearances. Each book is part of a larger whole but the majority of them are standalone. Highly recommended!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Well, there's an advantage there with modern times. If you write and sell a Book 1, you can almost certainly come up with some way to get Book 2 etc to the readers who are interested.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I'm all for a good series, so long as it's a *good* series with interesting characters who have stories that need telling.
    It's when the series starts to drag on and on... The Bloody Jack books are wonderful, but seriously, let it end. There's only so much Jacky can do.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm totally with you on that, I usually like stand-alones more too for some reason, even if I'm left wanting more I find authors usually do a good job wrapping stuff up and leaving stuff just open-ended enough. But an example is If I Stay, which I am in love with and when they announced a sequel, I was actually pretty stoked. I looved Where She Went as well, so I think this is an example of an exception :)

    ReplyDelete
  25. I'm overjoyed that *someone* has written this article. Everything you pointed out needed to be said; I can only hope Cassandra Clare manages to stumble here and read this for herself. Because she needs to be taken down a notch or two. She's become a slave to her own gigantic ego. It beggars belief that she ever thought she could have this trash published and avoid the backlash -- how stupid does she think we are?

    And you're totally right: CoFA had NO plot. None whatsoever. It was totally confusing, jumped from scene to scene, made no sense, and the villain she whipped out of her arse for the killer finale was so pathetic it actually made me LOL. I don't know if anyone else notices, but Clare is constantly stealing (yep, she still does it) from other sources to fuel her increasingly flat universe: Lilith? Don't even TRY to tell me she didn't nick that one from Supernatural. The scene where Simon tells his mother he's a vampire? She totally copped that from Holly Black! And we all know she Googles real mythology and shamelessly inserts it into her own work -- thus completely stripping it of any cultural value and significance -- simply for another cheap hook.

    This author needs to be stopped. Come on, everyone, stop buying her crappy books!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Another great post! There are way too many series in the YA Lit world that probably should have stopped at 2. Like you said, not all series can be like Harry Potter (one of the best series EVER! in my opinion). I try to read all the popular series of YA lit and review them (as a Librarian this is important to know the current audience so to speak) but I also promote the "stand alone" novels, and not just in the paranormal genre but in every genre (GLBT, Social Issues, Verse, Contemporary).

    I LOVE your point that a readers' trust is "earned" over time. This could not be less true. Best example I have is a new author, who has published only book ("Nevermore" by Kelly Creagh) - it was published in 2010 and it is a planned trilogy but the second book is not coming out until 2012. Already with one book, Kelly Creagh has "earned" my trust. I am telling you, it is a must read!!

    <3 Happy Reading!
    Patricia @ Patricia's Particularity

    ReplyDelete