Why keep sequel status secret?
August 31, 2007 1:00 PM   Subscribe

Why don't sci-fi and fantasy novels indicate they're sequels or parts of series?

I recently bought a couple of different novels that turned out to be sequels or parts of series, that didn't give any indication of it on the front or back cover, or in the front matter. Many novels do: "Book 3 of Death's-Bane" or "The Second Intergalactic Embassy Novel." But many many don't. Why would publishers make it hard to figure out something like that?
posted by not that girl to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
Because then you might have decided not to buy these?
posted by gum at 1:13 PM on August 31, 2007

I've been put off buying an SF novel that was recommended to me because it was on the shelf with the next 7 books in the series (labelled Volume x). But then again I read the first in a (different) trilogy, really enjoyed it, and then accidentally bought and started reading the 3rd book in the series, getting 1/2 way through before I realised I'd missed a book out because it wasn't labelled anywhere what order they were supposed to be in. So I guess it cuts both ways - you can get confused when they aren't labelled, or put off when they are.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:18 PM on August 31, 2007

I think it makes sense for certain series.

With the series like the Discworld or Garrett P.I. books, , while they certainly have a continuing storyline in the background, each is also a self-contained story that requires little or no background knowledge of its universe, history, or characters.

Other times it may have something to do with trying to sell Book 23 of a series when books 1-10 are either out of print or hard to find.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 1:33 PM on August 31, 2007

It's probably also a marketing thing to convey quality. SF/fantasy books that are part of a zillion book series are a byword for terrible writing. So I imagine publishers are trying to distinguish their more upmarket series from those.
posted by MsMolly at 1:40 PM on August 31, 2007

this is not just among sci-fi and fantasy novels. there is no indication anywhere on or inside of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses that the latter follows the former. Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet were rather difficult for me to figure out the order of because the books only mention that they're part of a series as a part of the plot description on the back cover (as in, "Character X and Character Y, while exploring the countryside of Egypt in this third installment of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet..."), so it wasn't easy to notice if you were looking for it. In both of these cases the books were meant to be considered books one could read independent of one another. In Durrell's case he wanted the stories of the books to be less of a sequential plot continuation as each would be an temporally overlapping enlargement of the original story, from a different perspective.

Often outlier circumstances like this are true of sci-fi and fantasy novels as well, or at least it's true that the novels do not strictly have to be read sequentially to be enjoyed and understood. Other times, the marketing concerns already mentioned are at fault. I'm inclined to believe, though I have no proof of this, that sometimes the book's cover designer simply felt that it would spoil the design of the book, as well. I might be totally wrong about that, though.
posted by shmegegge at 1:58 PM on August 31, 2007

For some books I think they just didn't have a contract for the full set, so the first book was published as a stand alone. Had it done poorly, the publisher would've pretended that was it and killed the series in the bud. For later books in the series, they tend to keep the same cover layout, meaning if the first book didn't have a number they probably won't add it. I notice later editions, especially after a cover art change, are more likely to add numbering or other notes about series order, etc. Anyway, just my guess based on observing which books I have to search for series information on.
posted by anaelith at 2:03 PM on August 31, 2007

I think it's the perceived quality thing, plus the extra difficulty of getting potential readers to invest (moneywise and timewise) in a series, not just a book. Especially since people know that with some series, the books aren't really self-contained: you have to read the whole series to get a complete story. Sometimes it's like they took one big book and chopped it up at arbitrary points. So putting "Book n of the Foo series" can make it look more like one of those.

I recently bought a couple of different novels that turned out to be sequels or parts of series, that didn't give any indication of it on the front or back cover, or in the front matter.

If you look on the page right before the title page, it'll usually list "books by this author"--sometimes separated by series. (I think they only list books by the same author that they publish, though.) Sometimes they will be in (story) order, sometimes not.
posted by Many bubbles at 2:07 PM on August 31, 2007

Sometimes it's better not to start at the beginning.

With Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" books, I nearly gave up after the first one, which seemed like a clumsy but mildly entertaining Raymond Chandler fantasy knock-off. The later books got vastly better though, turning me into an addict.

With Terry Pratchett's Discworld, the nature of the books has changed a lot. The first two were nearly plotless knockabout heroic fantasy spoofs, the later books are intricately-plotted character-based comedy-dramas. Those early ones aren't really a good guide to the rest.

With Peter F. Hamiltons SF series', he spends most of the first volumes doing tedious exposition, setting up a host of barely-distinguisable characters. It's not till he starts blowing shit up later on that they get good.

But mostly I think it's the to-get-the-money and because-the-plots-are-self-contained things that people have mentioned.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:15 PM on August 31, 2007

Sometimes it's better not to start at the beginning.

Yes, but I want that to be MY choice -- not a mistake I make based on confusion, because the publisher doesn't give me information.

I agree with everyone here that it's probably a money thing. But I also think that there aren't THAT many people who care. This is because I care deeply. If there's a continuing-story TV series, I refuse to watch it if I missed the first episode (I'll wait until it comes out on DVD). But almost no one I know -- even people who somewhat share my feelings -- feels as extreme about it.

I realize that, as TheophileEscargot said, sometimes the early eiposdes/novels are best skipped. But there's no way to know that beforehand, and in my experience, most GOOD stories are good from the beginning.

But it ultimately comes down to what's important to you in a story. I'm a plot GEEK. I'm all about what-happens-next. I have friends who LIKE to have the ending spoiled for them. I don't understand them and they don't understand me.

For those of you who feel the way I do, the answer is The Web. If the series is popular enough to BE a series, there's surely a website devoted to it, and that site will list the books in order. I never just go into a bookstore and impulse-buy. I research online first. Takes two minutes. Just google the author (and/or check wikipedia). His fan site will tell you all you need to know.
posted by grumblebee at 5:17 PM on August 31, 2007

There's also the matter of available stock at your bookstore. Here's a book that Volume 2 of 3. Volume 3 is also here, but Volume 1 is not. Since I prefer to begin a story at the beginning, I would elect to not buy any of the books, so the publisher loses sales not only on 1, but on 2 and 3 as well.
posted by SPrintF at 5:38 PM on August 31, 2007

I read Sci-Fi and Fantasy fair extensively and have to admit that I haven't found it to be too much of a problem. Are they explicit sequels to previous books? Or merely standalone books that might be set in the same universe (The Bas-Lag novels of China Mieville for example).

But understating sequels might be a result of the 'literacy' of sci-fi fans. I rarely buy sci-fi books on a whim, I research on the web what I want to read next, so I guess I avoid being in the sort of situations you describe.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 6:01 PM on August 31, 2007

I don't have an answer, but it's the same for mystery series. It's rare to find an ordered list of books in the series, so I end up looking at publication dates on 10 books to figure out which one to start with.

I think they're hoping to sell the latest novel as much as possible, and putting "#5 in the series" on the cover would make people think (a) they should track down #1 before buying it, and (b) you'd have to read lots of books to really get into this stuff.

With mysteries there are also some series where the publisher would rather you didn't start with the first - things like Robert Parker or Lilian Jackson Browne who have been writing since the 60s, and the period details of early books might turn off young readers.

I prefer to read series in order, so I end up doing web research before starting with a new author.

Notable exceptions:

1. Sue Grafton's "A is for Alibi... S is for Silence" series. Nicely alphabetized.

2. Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan novels. She includes an appendix in the back of them listing all of the novels in order with summaries. (They're in order of the character's life, not necessarily the order written, but if the author prefers that I read them in a certain order that's fine...)
posted by mmoncur at 11:06 PM on August 31, 2007

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