We’re getting close to the end of our long read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, and I have to be honest. This next story has me almost (well… no… not really…) regretting this whole thing. Is it wrong that I don’t want to read the second half of a novel having not read the first half? I don’t think I’m wrong or alone in that.
But there has to be something we can learn from part two of the two-part serial “The Valley of the Teeheemen” by Arthur Thatcher.
And maybe this is it: No one wants to read only the second half of your novel!
Well, sure, that’s sounds kinda “duh” when you say it like that. But it got me thinking about another piece of advice I often give to authors, and that’s to make sure your debut novel can accurately be described as a stand-alone with series potential.
The publishing business has recovered well from the disaster of the depression of a decade past, but hard lessons were learned when retail dried up, credit dried up, and people with jobs and disposable income dried up all at the same time. A lot of other stuff was drying up at the time.
One of the lessons the publishing business learned circa 2007-2011 was that investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in new, fresh talent was not a safe bet. That doesn’t mean they don’t still do it from time to time, but when they do they do it oh so very carefully, which means they do it oh so very rarely. So if you’ve written Book 1 of a planned (and I’ve actually seen authors promise as many as) twenty-book series… the first impulse of the people who have to put that money entirely at risk is to walk if not run away. And they run almost all of the time.
On the same token, every publisher (and every agent, and every book store) is looking for the next franchise author. They would love to find the next Terry Brooks, who reliably gets out the next series fantasy that then sells reliably. Everyone wants to settle into a series franchise that keeps them working, keeps the sales and royalties and commissions flowing, for years and years. Who wouldn’t? Trust me, I have some friends who have done quite well doing exactly that.
I have more friends who were not able to sustain it for more than a relatively few books.
I have even more friends who are still waiting for an offer to publish a sequel to a Book 1 they published years ago.
But what does this have to do with Weird Tales from 1925 and “The Valley of the Teeheemen”?
Well, look at where we are now. I bet I can find the previous issue of Weird Tales and read the first installment, but what if I can’t? Part two now sits there like a lump on a log, waiting for an interested reader to put forth some concerted effort to find part one.
Weird Tales sold some portion of their print run through subscriptions, so there was a reasonable expectation that people were getting and reading every issue. I bet some readers saw “Part one of a two-part serial” and set that issue aside until the next one came in and they could read it without having to wait for the next issue.
Now this question:
How many times have you stood in a bookstore and found something that looks interesting, but it’s Book >1 of a series and Book 1 is nowhere to be found? Now you have to do some work to get Book 1 before you buy Book 2… and if you’re like me, and I daresay most people, you decide not to do that work, or you put that work off and buy something else instead, vowing to get Book 1 from Amazon later—and maybe you do, but probably you don’t.
Now that bookstore is sitting with dead inventory—until someone who has read the previous books and needs exactly that one comes in, and what are the chances of that happening? Better if that store has The Two Towers but not The Fellowship of the Ring in stock, but for a mid-list series? That book has a much better chance of being returned by the retailer than being bought by a reader.
And this is why everyone is nervous about series. Agents have to work harder to sell a series because editors are afraid to publish Book 1 to less than stellar sales then either have to publish Book 2, which they know will sell even less, or kill the thing, leaving whoever did buy Book 1 hanging… And retailers worry about having some books in a series in stock, but not all of the books in the series, especially now that if you’re in a bookstore and it’s not there you’re much more likely to go to Amazon than wait for them to get a copy in stock for you. Now that retailer has to manage not one book that a few readers might be looking for, but a series of books in various combinations…
It’s either a huge win or a huge loss, and the odds are in favor of the huge loss, for everyone.
But if Book 1 sells like crazy and you’re ready, willing, and able to provide a Book 2, or you’ve already written Book 2, you’ll be your publisher’s hero author. Retailers will stock it, and Book 3, then want to see an omnibus edition so they can sell the trilogy only managing one SKU.
It is possible to sell a series—fantasy readers in particular still love them—and eBooks, online retailers, and print-on-demand has made series books more accessible, so I’m not in any way calling for or reporting on the death of the series. Not at all.
But the three-book deal for a previously unpublished author… that body’s been cold for a while.
Even in 1925, the editor of Weird Tales might have been better off keeping the whole “The Valley of Teeheemen” together in one issue, at least for the sake of readers of online scans in 2019. It’s as if Farnsworth Wright doesn’t even know we exist!
Science fiction and fantasy is one of the most challenging—and rewarding!—genres in the bookstore. But with best selling author and editor Philip Athans at your side, you’ll create worlds that draw your readers in—and keep them reading—with