Genre publishers know a thing or two about voracious fans. “When Jim Butcher releases a book, two days later it’s like, When’s the next one coming out?” says Anne Sowards, executive editor at Ace. “Even though readers know intellectually that it takes a while to write a book, they don’t necessarily want to wait.”
These stepped-up expectations may be thanks, in part, to the pace of other media, such as podcasts and streaming services that drop complete seasons of episodes in a single day.
Emil Steiner, an assistant professor at Rowan University, studies binge consumption and the emotional relationships that audiences build with the media they consume. He sees an opportunity for book publishing to thrive where television was caught flat-footed.
“The broadcast companies really slept” on the idea that audiences might want something other than their favorite shows delivered on a weekly schedule, Steiner says. Enter Netflix, the subject of much of his research. Many networks initially saw it as a sort of video store, then a kind of internet cable channel, and missed the threat as Netflix collected massive amounts of user data, listened to the signals that audiences gave, and grew into an entertainment powerhouse.
“Binge watching changes the industry—not just the money side but the kinds of shows that are being produced, and the role of the viewers,” Steiner says. He sees the streaming phenomenon as more than just consumers adopting new delivery methods and platforms. Audiences, he says, have been trained to expect vivid, thoroughly imagined worlds that are constantly available and expanding at the speed of their appetites.
It isn’t hard to see the implications for publishing, particularly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, where readers have always been eager to immerse themselves in new stories, mythologies, and worlds. Authors and publishers are experimenting with new ways of telling and delivering stories, and with using digital tools to bring new readers into the fold and keep longtime fans coming back.
Hungry for More
Binge delivery is one force affecting audience expectations. Another could be called the George R.R. Martin effect, and its influence is being felt keenly in publishing circles.
“I’ve observed this desire to wait for the end of a series before you start it,” says Adrienne Procaccini, senior editor at Amazon’s 47North and Skyscape imprints. “It’s comforting to pick up a book and know you can have a complete story all at once.”
Steiner’s research echoes the observation: viewers’ sense of satisfaction increased dramatically when they were able to binge on a complete, high-quality series.
At the other end of the spectrum is the frustration familiar to fans of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series or Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—the worry that an author won’t finish what he’s started.
“This is a growing concern,” says Angela James, editorial director at Carina Press, a digital-first Harlequin imprint that publishes SFF among other genres. “I think this is a result of digital publishing broadly, and self-publishing on a micro level. With the sheer influx of authors, books, and availability, readers are feeling more wary of investing time” and are protecting themselves from getting attached to story arcs that may never be completed.
James, a “huge Robert Jordan fan,” says she has refused to start Martin’s series until it’s completed, and she knows she’s not an anomaly, nor is the phenomenon unique to A Song of Ice and Fire. “A lot of readers are saying it’s harder to wait in between installments, and they want to be able to get through the content. We’re hearing more readers say they’re waiting—they might be collecting the books, buying and storing them, but they’re not reading them until it’s complete.”
One example: after the 2016 publication of Phase Shift, the final book in Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen’s Chaos Station series, James says, the authors heard from excited readers who’d waited to pull the trigger until they could buy all five books and binge.
Kensington executive editor Tara Gavin considers series one of the most powerful author development tools. “Having a fabulous standalone book will always be an option,” she says, but “an author’s name has to be built strategically.” She adds, “Series are a very effective way to do that quickly.”
Rebel Base, Kensington’s digital-first SFF imprint, released Shattered Roads, the first of Alice Henderson’s Skyfire Saga, in April and set an aggressive, 18-month publishing schedule for the trilogy. The final novel, Shattered Skies, will pub in October 2019.
At Tor.com, shorter fiction lends itself to a quicker pace. Martha Wells’s the Murderbot Diaries, associate editor Carl Engle-Laird says, is a “perfect illustration of the pleasures of reading binges.” The series, about a misanthropic robot who’d rather binge watch TV than deal with people, launched in May 2017 with All Systems Red, which was a Hugo finalist and Nebula winner for best novella. A year later, three follow-up novellas were scheduled in rapid succession, with Exit Strategy due out in October. Fans will need to wait longer for the first Murderbot novel, tentatively scheduled for early 2020.
“You have to prioritize a bottom line, but you want to prioritize the health of a series,” says Miriam Weinberg, senior editor at sister imprint Tor. “Most authors spend a year to five writing their first novel, and get six to nine months to write their next one. So I’ve started talking to people about if they can turn in two books at once. It’s one of those entirely insane things to say to someone, but then you don’t get a gap on the publishing side.”
Curtis C. Chen’s first SF novel, Waypoint Kangaroo (St. Martin’s/Dunn), pubbed in 2016; the sequel, Kangaroo Too, followed a year later, and a third book is underway. Readers who won’t start incomplete story arcs “certainly influenced my decision to write the Kangaroo series as mostly standalone adventures with some background continuity,” he says. “I’ve heard from quite a few readers who don’t want to start a series until all the books are out, which is at odds with publishers wanting to see how the first books do before committing to more in the series. And, of course, authors get caught in the middle.”
Middle grade author Robin LaFevers learned a hard lesson about reader expectations when one of her series lacked sufficient sales to extend past the first four books; it remains unfinished. “I still get angry letters from parents who want it to be completed,” she says. “I feel really bad about that, too.”
The experience stayed with LaFevers when she moved into the YA category. His Fair Assassin, a fantasy trilogy that HMH published between 2012 and 2014, follows a convent of deadly nuns in 14th-century France. When she finished Mortal Heart, the third installment, “It was over as far as I was concerned. But my next book is set in that world because my readers kept asking what happened to them. I don’t think 20 years ago an author would have that much input from readers, but it affects what you write.”
Courting Darkness (HMH, Feb. 2019) expands the His Fair Assassin universe with a duology that will let her complete a narrative arc, build more of the world, and leave room for expansion.
Backlist to the Future
Editors aren’t entirely sure what to do with wait-and-see readers, who present an obvious challenge. “It’s a little sad from our perspective,” Ace’s Sowards says. “Because all we have are the numbers—if people aren’t buying the book, it seems as though readers don’t like it. We don’t have a way of knowing—there could be 5 million people waiting until a series is complete.”
One solution? Acquiring authors with an existing catalog of titles. Such was the case with Genevieve Cogdon’s Invisible Library series, about time-traveling librarian spies, which already had three books in print and strong reviews in the United Kingdom when Ace acquired it in 2015. The fifth book in the series, The Mortal Word, will be released in the U.S. and the U.K. in November.
“We wanted to catch up to the British publication date and were able to release one every couple of months” before the fourth book came out in January 2018, Sowards says. “That helped to establish the series. It’s one of our most popular convention sellers.” (See “The Art of the Con.”)
Editors with an eye on completist readers are also capitalizing on the marketing possibilities for finished series. “Publishing is so often concerned with the new and next, but a finished series offers a whole new opportunity for true bingeing,” Weinberg says. She cites Daniel Abraham’s fantasy epic The Long Price Quartet as an example: Tor published one installment a year from 2006–2009, and will release a single-volume omnibus edition in November.
Procaccini says that she’s been filling her list with writers who have developed an audience with consistent self-publishing. “Independent authors tend to be savvy about their readers and about binge consumption, and a lot of them can write faster than a publisher can publish.”
For those writers, completist readers are more of an opportunity than a problem, particularly for publishing houses that are prepared to move at a rapid clip. Shannon Mayer (Oracle’s Haunt, Hijinks Ink, Nov.) had built a readership around five series of urban fantasies in seven years when 47North acquired her Venom trilogy, which it pubbed from November 2016 to March 2017. “We saw that some readers were waiting to pick up the books in that trilogy until they were all released,” Procaccini says, “maybe because they were confident that they would come out quickly.”
Steiner, in his binge consumption research, talks about two kinds of completeness. There’s the idea of finishing the arc of a story and resolving all of the tension that good narrative builds, but there’s another kind of completeness, too—the idea of a world so vividly imagined and expansive that fans can stay in it and will demand more ways to do so.
Building an all-encompassing universe may take the work of several creators, formal and informal. Baen Books has been honing that strategy for years—“Science fiction and fantasy are such genres of ideas, they naturally encourage collaboration,” says publisher Toni Weisskopf—with several long-running series anchored by a founding author. Eric Flint (1637: The Polish Maelstrom, Baen, Mar. 2019) began his Ring of Fire series in 2000 as a standalone alternate history called 1632, but, Weisskopf says, Flint’s research introduced him to specialists who wanted to add their own landscapes to his world. Flint now coauthors many of the novels in the series with various contributors and coordinates short story anthologies and role-playing game guides that others have written.
There’s a thin line between constantly thinking about an immersive world and beginning to imagine new stories for it. Crossing that line is part of the immersive experience for fans, like the ones on the Ring of Fire universe’s active message boards—and, sometimes, for writers.
“Shared worlds is a spectrum, if we think of some fantasies as Tolkien fan-fic, or if you think about licensed novels around properties, or you think about the theory that Homer was actually a bunch of people who told stories,” says Malka Older, a Campbell Award finalist for 2016’s Infomocracy. That book launched her Centenal Cycle trilogy, which finished with the recently released State Tectonics (Tor.com); now, she’s leading a team of four writers, including Chen, in writing a future-state police procedural, Ninth Step Station (SerialBox, Jan. 2019).
SerialBox’s team model rests somewhere between licensed novels and anthologies, and seems to owe something to TV, where the pace of production has always demanded writing teams. As cocreators working at a fast pace for digital-only releases, Older says, they are all coming up with details, characters, and arcs that none of them would have built alone.
New Launch Pads
Some writers and houses are experimenting with other ways to connect to readers who have always lived in a world of on-demand media. It echoes the attention that binge-strategy TV shows have adopted, crossing platforms and shifting into new devices and media—basically, trying to keep and capture an audience’s imagination.
For television, “It’s not so much getting someone to watch the show itself,” Steiner says, “but getting them into the ecosystem of the story and wanting to be immersed in that. Whether that’s through online groups or various games built around it, or fan fiction or whatever it is, that makes them want to be part of this world.”
Harper Voyager is experimenting with a time-tested form of immersion: serving content in a steady drip of serial stories. In this case, that means working with mobile app Radish “to connect to a YA demographic we hadn’t been able to reach before—readers who seem to want quick, digestible content sent directly to their phones,” says executive editor David Pomerico. This lets publishers push the content with notifications and reminders rather than waiting for readers to pull it from a shelf, virtual or otherwise.
The first two books of Amy S. Foster’s Rift Uprising trilogy pubbed in hardcover in 2016 and 2017, and were serialized in the app over the course of summer 2018. App users will get a head start on the final book, The Rift Coda, with early sections serialized in the app before the hardcover release in October.
Authors are also using podcasts as a springboard to novels. Jason Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s first novel, Welcome to Night Vale (Harper Perennial, 2015), for instance, grew out of their podcast of the same name and has sold 112,000 copies in hardcover.
Andrew Klavan approached the medium from a different angle. He began his career in crime fiction and built a solid list of sales in that genre. When he imagined Another Kingdom (Turner, Mar. 2019), the story of a screenwriter shifting back and forth between a noir Los Angeles and a medieval kingdom, he knew it was a novel—but he also knew that he would need to find a new, and perhaps nerdier, audience. So he started a serial fiction podcast to see whether he could capitalize on the immersive power of audio storytelling. And it worked.
“I’m getting a huge contingent of younger readers or listeners coming in who react to the world electronically and expect the world to talk to them a little more and go after it more than a reader does,” Klavan says. “It’s exciting when people who have not experienced fiction are taking it in.”
To support the book, and to help podcast audiences cross the bridge between earbuds and page, Turner has developed a companion site with games, art, a prequel, and other material to help readers build out the world. “It’s a really interesting new take on what fiction is,” Klavan says. “It’s unspooling in front of us.”
But, as he and others note, the goal isn’t new platforms, devices, or ways of working. Readers want more from the writers and worlds they love, but ultimately, that’s not a by-product of technology. It’s what happens when there’s a great story to tell.
Betsy O’Donovan is an assistant professor at Western Washington University.
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