Many people might like (or even prefer) to read a series in order. But there are plenty of good reasons one might not do that. For example, the first novel(s) in a series might be out of print. Or, might not be translated into a language a reader speaks. Or, a reader might have been gifted a book that falls later in a series. Or, a reader might try a later book because it’s conveniently available in a library, and the reader wants to sample the author before buying a book. There’s also the issue of geography and publishers’ decisions about where to make books available.
There are lots of other reasons, too, for which readers don’t follow a series in strict order. So, if an author wants to win (and keep) fans, it’s wise to be aware of this, and try to welcome readers wherever in a series they start.
One way to do that is not to include information later in a series that spoils an earlier novel. Much as I am a fan of Agatha Christie (and anyone who knows me, knows that’s true!), I must admit she’s done that a couple of times. I try to warn people, for instance, not to start their explorations of Christie with Dumb Witness or Cards on the Table. Both contain spoilers to other novels. Now, to be fair, Christie doesn’t specifically, say, refer to someone as a killer (e.g. ‘X, who killed Y.’). But at the same time, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to join the dots, especially if you happen to remember those two books later when you read the earlier ones. Avoiding spoilers can be a challenge if one writes story arcs. But it is worth the effort.
It’s also worth the effort to remind readers of the major characters’ backstories. For instance, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee know that his boat, The Busted Flush got its name because he won the boat in a card game. Those who’ve followed the series don’t need the full-length version of that game. But new readers who start later in the series might not know anything about The Busted Flush’s history. MacDonald addresses this by mentioning the card game in later novels. But it’s said more or less in passing, without going into all of the details. In this way, new readers are told about it, but those who’ve followed the series aren’t told the same story again and again.
We see that in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series, too. She is an academician and political scientist (in later novels, she has retired from her university work). She’s also the mother of four children. The youngest, Taylor, is adopted, and Bowen tells the story of her adoption in Murder at the Mendel. The story is referred to in later novels, so that new readers can ‘meet’ Taylor properly and can understand some of the things that happen in those later novels. But Bowen doesn’t go into full details in each book. That series provides a balance between welcoming new readers, wherever they start a series, and keeping existing fans interested.
If I may say it, I’ve done a similar thing. In my first novel, Publish or Perish, my sleuth, Joel Williams, works with the police to solve the murder of a promising graduate student. At the end of the novel, Williams inherits the victim’s dog, Oscar. And Oscar makes appearances in my other Joel Williams novels, too. From time to time I mention that Williams adopted Oscar after the dog’s prior owner was killed. But I don’t go into the details about who the person was, how he was murdered, and so on.
Sometimes, it only takes a few words to welcome new readers. For instance, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and of his Mickey Haller novels will know that those two men are half-brothers. Their father was a prominent attorney, and they had different mothers. Later in life they meet, and occasionally work together. The Black Ice tells the story of how Bosch discovered his father’s identity, and about his meeting with his father, and a few other details. Later novels refer to the fact that Bosch and Haller are half-brothers, but Connelly doesn’t go into long descriptions in each novel about how the two men met, what their father was like, and so on. Fans already know that information, and new readers get enough background to engage themselves in the story and, perhaps, go back to an earlier novel if they wish.
All of this thinking about the structure of a series came about because of something that happened to me quite recently. If you’re kind enough to follow my ‘In The Spotlight’ series, you’ll know that I had planned to spotlight Paul Thomas’ Inside Dope tomorrow (Monday, 13 August). It’s the second of Thomas’ Tito Ikaha series, and it’s one that I didn’t have myself, so I ordered it (it’s not as easy to get as you’d think!). Without going into the details of it, it was hard to find the title, and it proved far more complicated to get than I thought it would. I didn’t receive it until far, far too late to go over it properly and spotlight it. But….I still wanted to share Paul Thomas’ work with you. So… I decided to spotlight Thomas’ Death on Demand, which I already had, instead. It’s the fourth in the series. My apologies in advance for any annoyance and/or inconvenience. Fortunately, Thomas welcomes new readers to his series wherever they start, so I suppose all’s well that ends well. But it just goes to show that there might be any number of reasons that a reader might start a series with a later novel. And readers appreciate it when the author welcomes them wherever they start.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium.