Thursday, September 04, 2014

Fishbowls All the Way Down: The Series Is Doing Just Fine

Yesterday, Justin Landon wrote about how "The Series is Dying, and the Internet is Killing It", and if that's not a title designed to catch the attention of speculative fiction fans, I don't know what is.  His argument, abbreviated as I can make it, is that in today's world of social media and "online buzz" the word of mouth conversations that used to occur in bookstores are now happening online, but the spaces in which those conversations are being held are driven by clicks and getting people to keep coming back - which means much more focus on the new shiny thing than on subsequent volumes of a series. As such, series are likely to be less successful now than they were in the past.  Landon is a bit more cogent, so you should really just read his article first. 

Landon admits in his final paragraph that

This editorial presents a lot of hypotheses without any supporting data. There’s a reason for that… the data is hard to find. I have no idea if series are more or less successful today than they were ten years ago, or twenty years ago, or fifty years ago. Anecdotally, it feels true, but that’s hardly the same thing. 

But that's the problem, isn't it?  It isn't quite irresponsible to say that the series is dying and the internet is killing it, but it's clearly ill informed.

The fact is, we just don't know.  I would like to believe that publishers know, and unless they feel like being part of this conversation, really don't have much incentive to crunch the numbers and figure out if there is a greater or lesser hit percentage for a series today as there was at any other time in the past, or if the percentage is down because the volume of new series are up.  Or if any of that is true. 

The trouble is that Landon is relying on his perception of "buzz" and also on his perception of sales.  He writes about how reviewers tend to not review the later volumes of a given series because "what's to say that hasn't already been said?" - and to that point, I would only agree from a personal perspective. I do find it difficult to say something new about later volumes in a series, especially when the level of quality, such as it is, is consistent.  If I feel a later volume is exceptionally poor, that's worth remarking on.  But those middle volumes?  What to say? 

I don't feel that this is representative of anything, though.  I don't know or have any way of knowing if this is even different than what happened twenty or fifty years ago.  The venues for reviews and conversations are different, but isn't it still the same thing?  Haven't we always been excited about something new and that's what we like to talk about?  Isn't buzz really about the new shiny thing?

Does this really have anything to do with sales?  We're playing around and talking make-believe without data.  There are no numbers to crunch and every time you point to a series that started out strong, had plenty of "buzz" and then faded after X number of volumes, I point to one that is still going strong and seems to be growing.  But then, do we even know how these books are selling?

What if "nobody" talks about a series but it continues to sell a consistent number, year after year, and remains in print and with each new book, more people discover the first volume and it keeps on going?  How do you measure that, except anecdotally?  

I don't have answers.  Only questions. 

I think the premise is a touch myopic because as broadly as we think we read and as broadly as we think we explore the internet and are plugged into various circles and conversations, we are only seeing a fraction of what is being discussed online.  So, where we see that "nobody" is talking about the fourth volume of a series, someone else may be engaging it on any number of sites.  Or, where "nobody" is talking about the fourth volume, it continues to sell well beyond the "buzz" that we don't see.  Yes, this year has seen plenty of buzz for Ancillary Justice, The Goblin Emperor, and The Mirror Empire and yes, it is certainly possible that there will be much less visible "buzz" for books two and three (or volume 15 of CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series, for that matter), but they may still sell in sufficient volume for the series to be viable. 

I do think that is important to remember that we who engage in online discussion and analysis are more likely to be such a small fragment of the book buying public, and those tweets and blog posts and podcasts and tumbles - as awesome as they are and as many people as they reach - still don't represent the real reach of the long tail of book publishing.

The "Series" is likely doing just fine with or without us.  When all we see is the fishbowl, we think the fishbowl is the whole world.  It's just a fishbowl inside a larger fishbowl inside a larger fishbowl. It's fishbowls all the way down.


Space Station Mir said...

The idea that the series is dying is really quite odd to me, as i feel like i see series everywhere. If anything, I'd say the internet has perpetuated series (especially in the wake of Harry Potter) because people are eager to discuss and rehash over what characters have been doing in a number of books. This may be affected by the fact that I read a lot of SFF/YA blogs, but I feel like everyone is always going on about the next book in a series! It seems like you can't get a book deal without a planned trilogy at least...

Joe said...

Yeah, I'm very skeptical about that assumption, but I think Justin was really trying to get people talking to work out his ideas out loud - which worked.