I am always rearranging my to-be-read pile, or list. Sometimes it’s just because what I planned to read next is less appealing than something new. Frequently, it’s because books I must, or feel I should, read need to be completed by a deadline. With two reading groups a month at the shop and my own commitment to read authors’ work before they visit here, there seems to be a constant time pressure. I often think of a comment by a customer who said, “I’d love to have a bookshop; when it’s not busy, it would be wonderful to sit with a cup of tea and read.” I do that, because I have a contingent of elves who come in at night and do the bookkeeping, pay the bills, get the payroll out and ensure that the shelf displays are freshened up and well-stocked with the latest new releases and perennial favorites. On off nights, they order supplies and peruse catalogs and reviews for future ordering. They also keep up with the shop’s e-mail newsletter, Facebook page, and local publicity for book signings. Thus my slow days in the shop can be filled with pleasurable reading.
Our reading groups take the summer off, and I didn’t have any author events scheduled after early July. I decided that this summer, despite its being the busiest time of the year, I was going to read only what struck my fancy, “shoulds” be damned. I’ve had several weeks of following my own whims. This week, a conversation with a customer seeking advice on her next reading selections focused my attention on the pattern of my own choices. It’s all about the characters.
The customer had stumbled across a couple of cozy series, unaware that this was a “category.” She said she enjoyed the solving of the “puzzles,” but her real pleasure was in following the characters and their lives. She had finished all of the books in each series, and was ecstatic when I suggested several other authors she would enjoy. She didn’t want to be limited to the “cozy” subgenre, and was happy with other suggestions of series where she could enjoy a good mystery AND follow the lives of the protagonists and their family and friends. In other words, there could be violence or not, professional or amateur detectives, police inspectors or lawyers, as long as there was a backstory continued from book to book.
As I joyfully shared my pleasure in various series, I realized that my own “free choice” reading was based on the same desire. We discussed how picking up the next book was like visiting old friends. We wanted to know how it turned out: not the solution to the murder, but the next step in the detective’s life. The plots are quickly forgotten. The turmoil in a romantic relationship, or the difficulties with family or friends, or incidents from the past disrupting current life, are the suspenseful elements that keep the reader coming back. If the reader cares about the protagonist, she wants more glimpses of his or her life. She feels part of it. Even when I have been away from a series for several years (usually because there are just too many, with too little time), I find that reading the next book is like seeing old friends who’ve been away. You pick up where you left off. Except I can never remember who committed the last murder; I want to know what was decided about that career change.
Right now I am reading The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling). I find that although I am curious about which of the multiple suspects is the murderer, I am much more caught up in the relationship between Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin, wondering when he will truly appreciate her detecting skills. And whether there will be a romance. I am also working my way through Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series. Again, the plots are great, and move quickly, but Jesse’s struggle with alcohol and his tortured relationship with his ex-wife are what cause me to pick up the next in the series. I have learned that when reading a series like this, which has been around for a while and has many entries, it is best to space out the books with others in between. Even the best writers have a pattern to their novels, which becomes evident and a little boring when several are read without a break.
Why did I choose the Jesse Stone series? Because I really want to read Reed Farrell Coleman’s continuation of Parker’s character, but like most series readers, I want to start from the beginning. After all, if you are going to invest in these fictional lives as if they were friends, you want to know the whole story from the beginning. Any good novel stands on its own, and most writers are quite clever at subtly supplying any backstory information that is necessary to the current plot, but to really incorporate the characters into the reader’s life, the complete picture must be seen.
And so now, here, a bookseller’s complaint: it seems that publishers don’t understand the series reader’s mindset. I understand the constraints of the bottom line, and the expense of keeping books in print. But when I see that the third in a series is out print, while the first two are not, I am convinced that the computer is making decisions without human assistance. If volume 3 has low sales, it’s gone. All those who bought books 1 and 2 are out of luck, unless booksellers happen to have used or unsold new copies. To me, this is counterintuitive – but algorithms are not recognized for their intuition. The most frequent buyer of the latest release in a series is the reader who has read the others and is anxiously awaiting (suspense!) new developments in the character’s life. If you want new readers for the series, the early entries ought to be available. And many readers HATE electronic books. It’s not the answer. In some cases, the early series entries are Print-on-Demand at an exorbitant price. When selling a reader on a series, I find it ridiculous to tell them that they should buy a $21.99 paperback which is often of poor quality. So they choose something else – there’s plenty out there.
I have deliberately stopped reading some series. If the main character doesn’t grow and change, there is no interest in what will happen next. I hear this complaint from readers in my shop; it’s become boring because the character never learns anything, and keeps doing the same things. It was funny for a while --- but. There is also a problem when the reader dislikes the protagonist. All interesting characters have flaws, and readers identify with that. Dealing with and overcoming those flaws is what keeps the book-to-book suspense going. Sometimes, though, the reader just can’t develop any interest in or empathy with the series lead. I have read five entries in a popular series and realized I was only reading it because everyone I knew liked it. I dislike the character, and have given up. This situation is personal to each reader, and not a reflection on the author; we all have things we just can’t stand, even when it bothers no one else. And I hear from readers all the time that characters I love are not to their taste. Hey, it would be a boring world if we all liked the same thing, and there’s more than enough to read.
My summer of indulging my reading whims has shown me that when it comes to pure pleasure, I prefer to be with old friends. I start new series in the hope of finding people with whom I will become old friends. Settings, dialogue, plot, style and all the other characteristics of good writing influence which series a reader is drawn to, but if the characters aren’t developing, growing and changing with life’s experiences, she is unlikely to continue reading. It’s what gives the series life.