The Allure of a Mystery Series by James M. Jackson
One of my great pleasures of mystery fan conferences such as Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime is the opportunity to talk with a wide variety of readers. When I get to chatting with a reader I usually ask about favorite authors to compare notes. After a while I’ll ask about how they approach series.
Writers and publishers like series because of the long-tail effect: if someone reads one book in the series and enjoys it, chances are good they’ll read another in the series, and another and another. Each new addition to the series not only has the potential to sell to fans, but bring in new readers who will ultimately want to read the entire series.
A couple of years ago my better half, Jan, and I were attending Malice Domestic. We wanted to read all of the books nominated for Best Contemporary Novel. Jan discovered that Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Through the Evil Days was part of a series. Rather than just read that book, Jan wanted to read the entire eight books in order. So she blitz read her way through the series in about two months’ time (while reading the other new-to-her books as well).
It turns out Jan is not alone. A significant percentage of people I’ve talked are like her. (I wish I had kept an accurate account so I could tell you the exact percentage.) They strongly prefer to read series novels in order—some so much so that they will not read a series out-of-order! Can you imagine how long it would take a reader new to Sue Grafton to catch up on Kinsey Milhone and the now twenty-four alphabet books starting with A is for Alibi and ending currently ending with X? Not going to happen, right?
Well consider these Kindle Book rankings for Grafton’s series (early morning 9/4/15):
X — #19
W is for Wasted — #1,603
V is for Vengeance — #4,603
U is for Undertow — #8,886
T is for Trespass — #9,164
C is for Corpse – #7,685
B is for Burglar — #6,760
A is for Alibi — #3,137
Not only does Grafton have a top twenty hit two and a half weeks after its release, she has seven other books in the top 10,000 Kindle sellers: the previous three and the first three. People are catching up if they’ve missed a few books, and people are starting at the beginning. This long tail is why publishers like successful series.
To allow that piling on effect, publishing contracts were (and often still are) for three books.
And the three-book contracts are, I suspect, why I have found another phenomena amongst many mystery readers. They won’t start reading a series unless there are a sufficient number of books published. The oft-stated reason goes something like “I don’t want to fall in love with an author and then have to wait a year for the next book.”
When presented with the Catch 22 situation that if no one buys the first books in a series, there won’t be more books, the next response is something like, “I want to make sure the series will be there.” Particularly with small presses and self-publishing they don’t want to invest in a character for only one or two books. From my sampling of folks I’ve met, those with this attitude often require a minimum of three books, and preferably four or five in a series, before they will become interested.
So, two questions for you, dear readers:
(1) Do you prefer reading series in order? If so, must you start at the beginning, or do you read the most recent and then if you enjoyed it go back and start from the beginning?
(2) Do you have a required minimum number of published books before you’ll start reading a series, and if so how many?
For those of you who want at least three, my Seamus McCree novels are now eligible for your consideration. You can read them in order: Ant Farm, Bad Policy, and Cabin Fever. (Notice I subtly stole the alphabet idea from Sue Grafton?) For those who want at least four, I promise Doubtful Relations will be published in 2016.
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. ANT FARM (2015), a prequel to BAD POLICY (2013) and CABIN FEVER (2014), recently won a Kindle Scout nomination. BAD POLICY won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Jim has also published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, as well as numerous short stories and essays. For more information: http://jamesmjackson.com