How Many Is Enough?

Recently two authors on the mystery listserv Dorothy L announced their publisher was dropping their series. Dozens of mystery readers/fans expressed dismay and disappointment. They wanted to know what they could do to help keep the series alive. They wanted to start a campaign! The outpouring of support for the first author inspired a small publisher on the list to step in and pick up the series.

The other author is simply starting a new series with a new cast of characters. Although getting dropped must be depressing as hell, starting a new series is exciting. Most writers are creative people who like to try out new characters, ideas, and settings. Readers (me included) are the ones who love series, and that’s why novelists write the and publishers print them.

Sometimes writers keep cranking out a series they’ve lost interest in—because readers (and the publishers making money from the sure thing) won’t let them quit. I’m not talking about the two writers mentioned earlier. They each only had a few books in their series—young by series standards. But other, more well-known novelists who are writing their 12th or 15th or 20th story based on the same characters must be bored. With some series, it’s clear the author is phoning it in because the stories become formulaic and/or the characters become unlikable.

I hope to avoid falling into this scenario too soon by writing standalone thrillers in addition to my series.

But still, when do you let a series go? No matter how many you write, some fans will always be disappointed if you quit the characters. For them it’s like losing a friend.  But readers only spend 4 or 5 hours at a time with the characters (once a year)—not every day, all day, year round like the author does.  But for the reader, losing that character while she is still in her prime may be better than watching her become stale or crazy or bitter. (Yes, I’m talking about Kay Scarpetta.)

Is there a magic number at which a series should be retired? Are their any long-running series that have not lost some of their appeal or originality?

Readers: How long do you usually stay with a series? Writers: How many series books can you write before you get bored?

7 Comments
  1. As a series reader, I can read a series FOREVER. 🙂 As a writer, it’s easy to get a little tired of things. My answer….write 2 different series at once.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I never get tired of reading a series either although I do wish that Stephanie Plum would marry Joe and leave Ranger for the rest of us to fantasize about. But there are series that ended because the writer died and I miss them terribly: Tony Hillerman’s Chee and Leaphorn; Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn–to name just two. I loved those characters! I look forward every two years or so to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone although I do get the feeling that Grafton struggles with her plots. Hopefully, I’m wrong.

  3. I am a series reader. How many are enough??? If you mean how many different series are enough, there is a theoretical number I suppose. It has to be more than the ones I enjoy reading right now. My favorites are: Joan Hess – both the Maggody series and the Claire Malloy series, Nancy J. Cohen – the Bad Hair Day series, Lawrence Block – the Burglar series, Alexander McCall Smith – the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series (still have some of those to catch up on), and the latest series is the most unusual series I have read. It’s the Mobile Library series by Ian Sansom. Just happened to start with the 1st one, then read the 2nd and 3rd back to back. Now I have to wait for hiim to write another book, darn it the luck!

    Over the years I have read many series’ of books as well as stand alone pieces, and find it a little disappointing that most series end before I get sick of reading them. So, if the question of how many refers to how many books can I read before I get sick of a series, then I have no answer. The only circumstance I can imagine making me abandon a series would be if the quality of the writing or the lack of anything new to say or any character to develop further were so apparent that I couldn’t finish the latest installment.

    I can’t wait to see Ruby Bee and Estelle’s latest adventures in Maggody (translate Mayberry), and nothing makes me feel like doing my hair and nails more than the Bad Hair Days books (pllus I am familiar with the area, which adds to my interest), and nothing makes me feel like commiting a felony more than reading a “Burglar” book by Lawrence Block (just kidding-clean police record here).

    Series reading is like visiting old friends from time to time. There is a relationship that develops between the readers and the characters. Just as choosing friends is a personal thing, so is choosing a series to read. To happen upon a book in a series that provides a person the same cameraderie they seek in friends is a delight. Friends share series books with friends, so they can discourse about their series friends. It’s a great thing.

  4. I have always been a fan of mystery series. I’ve read Sue Grafton’s entire alphabet and the Kay Scarpetta books before they became dull and formulaic. With any series, I think readership becomes a final indicator of when it’s time to quit. As a writer, I know when I am ‘done’ with a character. Now, I’ve never been in the position where someone is paying me to keep a character alive, but I would hope that my integrity, my creativity and talent as a writer would clue me into when enough is enough. Everything has a natural life cycle, no? At one point a writer must get the sense that their character has had his/her day.

  5. As a reader I don’t have a set number for a series…if it’s good I’ll keep reading. If not, I won’t. I gave up on Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, Cornwell’s Scarpetta and Patterson’s Cross some years ago. All for the same reason – they became boring, too formulaic or plain nuts. This year I’ve read my last Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and, probably, Elizabeth George for the same reason. If the author appears not to care any more about their characters then I don’t see why I should.

    The good news for me is that there are always more new books and authors to try – I’ve discovered some great new (to me) authors and have even started some new series.

  6. I’m another who will read a series ‘to death’. Some series I will continue to read even when they lose their freshness, just because I’m a bit obsessive. And I doubt I will ever recover from losing Anne George. I return to her Southern Sisters books repeatedly.

    As a writer, well, I’m not there yet. However, I work on multiple projects for just this reason. I’m always in the ‘mood’ to write on one of them, and switching around keeps me from getting stale. When the time comes, I hope I will recognize when to quit, but I plan on building on the fact that life keeps moving and changing, and so should my characters.

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