tl;dr: My rant comes down to this: there are some very good reasons why most series books should at least marginally be able to stand on their own. There are also some very good reasons why prospective readers might need that piece of information out of a review. If you want the specifics, keep reading. If you want to debate the point with me, please do, but read the full piece first so I don’t have to repeat myself!
I’ve had to put some version of this in so many reviews that I thought it would be easier to write it out once and then link to it when needed.
There’s a problem with the zillions of books in series these days, and it’s a hydra with many heads.
- Thanks to the realities of the publishing world, very few series have a definitive arc and end now. They simply keep going as long as the publisher is getting good sales figures out of them. I applaud those writers who do have a story arc to their series besides just whatever they can cobble together to keep it going. There are many worlds out there that start out fascinating and different, only to become cluttered and all-too-similar to other worlds as the author struggles to find material for more and more books.
- Somewhere along the way, publishers stopped putting that all-too-useful “Book Three of the Argwharble Series” note on the front. With that simple line, it becomes easy for readers to pick up a book, say to themselves, “oh! I should go read book one first,” and then read them in order. For a while books would at least say what series they were a part of on the cover. Now, however, it seems that many of them lack even that. So some unsuspecting reader can come along, pick up a book, and then find that they’re completely lost. This is aggravated by…
- Many authors are not very good at writing books within a series that stand well alone. To be fair, that’s a tough proposition. It’s also one that wouldn’t be as necessary if series didn’t go on forever and if books had that “Book Foo of the Mad Hatter Series” note on them. The authors who do the best job of this either include a foreword to the book that brings the reader up to speed, or slip in enough details to allow the reader to hang on by her fingernails. The need for this is aggravated by the fact that, thanks to short print runs, sometimes the first books in the series are out of print by the time later books come around. (Thank goodness the advent of e-books is starting to alleviate this situation.) Also, I believe that the need for books to stand alone is not nearly so great when there’s a specific, limited number of books in a series (like, say, most trilogies), because it’s much easier for a reader to catch up and stay caught up.
- To make matters worse, I’ve now found that it’s even getting harder to crack open the front of the book, look for a list of the books in the series, and start picking them up. Recently I opened one book that had no note that it was a series book on the cover. It had no listing of other series books inside. Yet it swiftly became evident as I read that it WAS a series book, and not the first one in the series. Argh! It’s almost as though publishers were trying to keep us from tracking down back catalog. (Of course since I’ve heard that most books live or die on their first week’s sales, that might not be entirely far from the truth.)
- There’s no telling how long it might be between the publication of separate books in a series. By the time book three comes out, it might have been a full year (or more) since the reader read the previous book(s). Anyone can forget details in that time, so books that stand well on their own can also be a boon to long-time readers.
For all these reasons and more, it’s highly advisable for each book to be able to stand on its own at least marginally. The less able a book is to stand on its own, the more obvious it has to be to the reader that this is a later book in an ongoing series. Now, there’s also a very good reason from the author’s or publisher’s perspective to produce books that can stand alone. Let’s say I go into a store (or peruse Amazon’s virtual shelves), spot a nifty-sounding book, fail to realize (due to all of the above) that it’s a series book, and pick it up. Or I realize it’s a series book, but can’t easily find any earlier books in the series.
If the book can stand on its own, I might read it, realize partway through that it’s part of a series, and decide that I enjoy the series enough to hunt down more books from it, or to at least keep reading from that point. The latter is particularly an issue for really long ongoing series, like Lora Leigh’s Breed novels or J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts’s In Death novels. Without the chance to jump in part-way through, new readers are much less likely to join in. Just looking at the tremendous back catalog of books in the series can be enough to put someone off if they feel they have to go back to the beginning.
Not quite as useful, but still very nice, is for one book out of every several to make a good jumping-in point (I’ve seen some authors even specify that a book is useful as such in their forewords). This at least allows people who are familiar with a series to say to a friend, “hey, I know the series seems daunting, but this is a good book to start with, and then you can decide whether it’s worth reading more.” (Also useful for reviewers so they too can tell their readers to go ahead and jump on in.)
This is why I go out of my way with series books to try to indicate whether they stand well alone. If I can tell myself, that is—if I’m super-familiar with a series I might not be able to tell. This is one of the reasons why I’m okay with it when publishers send me a review book from the middle of a series I haven’t read yet—it means I can provide that viewpoint for readers who want to pick up the series and don’t know whether they should just pick up the current book or not. I assume publishers also find this useful since they keep sending me such books.
Of course, this then means that some series fans become very angry, declaring that OF COURSE it doesn’t stand alone, and it shouldn’t, and only an idiot would jump in at the middle of a series.
I’ve gotten tired of tying up a quarter of a review trying to explain, over and over again, why this is a useful thing to talk about. So instead I’m writing this up, so that I can simply link to it. Hopefully if you’ve followed one of those links here, you now have some understanding of the issue. Don’t mistake this for an I-hate-series-books rant. Some of my very favorite books are series books (Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy, anyone? Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books?). It’s a rant about the manner in which they’re being published these days, and the ways in which they make it difficult for new readers to connect to them.