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.