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Fiction Focus Series: Tell me more … Print Email
Written by Christine D. Johnson   
Wednesday, 12 September 2012 10:50 AM America/New_York

AbingdonPress-BeyondTheStormCatering to readers who can’t get enough means higher fiction sales

From tales of the Amish to romantic suspense, publishers of Christian fiction have found that once readers get hooked on a series, sales take off, reaping rewards for author, publisher and retailer.

Such different series as Beverly Lewis’ “Home to Hickory Hollow” Amish series (Bethany House/Baker Publishing Group), “East Salem” supernatural mystery trilogy by Lis Wiehl with Pete Nelson (Thomas Nelson) and Terri Blackstock’s “Intervention” suspense series (Zondervan) are some of the top sellers.

The recently published “Mr. Right” series by Lisa Raftery with Barbara Precourt (Harrison House Publishers) is sure to draw many a teen girl, while Angela Breidenbach (“Quilts of Love,” Abingdon Press) and Stephanie Grace Whitson (“The Quilt Chronicles,” Barbour Publishing) take different approaches to a homespun hobby. Written by various authors and set in different locations, the “Love Finds You” series has been a hit for Summerside Press.

Penelope Wilcock’s 20-year-old classic series “The Hawk and the Dove” (Crossway) now has three new volumes. Set in medieval times, it is one of the more unusual series on the market with its tales of monastic life and brotherly love.

BethanyHouse-TheBridesmaidEXTEND THE EXPERIENCE

Readers who enjoy dipping into a good novel often want to revisit its characters in future titles.

“A series engages the reader with characters that they don’t want to forget,” said Sue Brower, executive editor at Zondervan. “They want to know what happens next and to extend the experience of the first book.”

Research by Thomas Nelson bears this out, showing “an average of 43% of readers prefer series over stand-alones, but these numbers vary by genre preferences,” said Daisy Hutton, vice president and publisher.

“Series allow an author and his readership to spend more time developing a community or cast of characters, creating loyalty to a brand that can be sustained over the course of months, years or even longer,” she added. “Authors frequently hear from readers who want to learn more about secondary characters in their favorite novels, and series can provide that opportunity.” 

However, series authors who make readers wait for an extended period may suffer the loss of fans.

“A lot of readers don’t like a cliffhanger ending, often forcing them to wait many months to see how a romance or adventure or medical emergency turns out,” said Kim Moore, senior editor at Harvest House Publishers. “We prefer books that can stand alone in a series—boy wins girl, good triumphs over bad, a miracle happens and a life is saved—while being part of a larger story or group of stories that encompass more than one book.”

When series are successful, readers become absorbed as if watching a good TV show week to week.

“A series is like a great television series that you can’t wait to see the next episode of, and a stand-alone is more like a movie without a sequel,” said author Lorna Seilstad (“Lake Manawa Summers,” Revell/Baker Publishing Group). “For many readers, it’s hard to become attached to characters or a time and place and then have to let it go.”

An epic cast of characters or certain types of writing simply require more than the limited page count of one novel.

“With particularly high-concept writing like Stephen Lawhead’s ‘Bright Empires’ books [Thomas Nelson], the series format allows for the build-up of an expansive, powerful storyline that couldn’t possibly be contained or developed in a single volume,” Hutton said.

Moore agrees.

“Books in a series can tell more complex and detailed stories. Taken all together, they feel more complete. The reader can continue following the lives of characters they have come to know and love in Book 1, while meeting new friends and watching familiar figures overcome adversity and triumph over a broad story arc.”

HarrisonHouse-MeetingMrRightEXPAND THE BRAND

Authors seem to agree that series can work for just about any type of fiction, with mystery and romantic suspense among the strongest subgenres that lend themselves to ongoing installments.

“I don’t know that a certain type of fiction could not be written serially,” Moore said. “Some epic fiction might set itself apart from being contained in one book.”

“A strong series is built on developing an experience that leaves readers desiring more and more of a particular setting or community of characters,” Hutton said. “Writing in this format can also allow for brand expansion for an author.”

However, the number of titles that is best for a series can “depend somewhat on content,” Moore said. “Certain genres, especially mysteries, seem to be able to support many books. But it also seems that the number has gone down in recent years.”

Brower has seen series as short as three books and as long as 20. 

“I like to read series between four and six novels,” she said. “Beyond that, it’s hard to keep track of characters and plots, particularly if the books are a year apart.”

When a series goes on too long, it risks tiring the reader. In that light, “reader demand” is what Colleen Coble and her publisher, Thomas Nelson, have let drive the number of books in her series. For instance, her “Rock Harbor” series was slated for three titles, but became five plus a Christmas novella.

“Sometimes a very popular series might be stretched beyond its potential just to keep the brand up,” Brower cautioned. “The latter books in the series are not nearly as compelling as the first.”

As a reader, author Deborah Raney doesn’t want to invest the time in extended series.

“There are just too many other great authors out there to devote myself to only one author for a long period of time,” she said.

ThomasNelson-DarknessRisingEXCITE THE READER

Building fans of a particular series is basic to its success.

“The beauty of a series is that readers know they’re going to become very involved with beloved characters and follow their stories for more than one book,” said Barb Sherrill, vice president of marketing at Harvest House. “There is something exciting and satisfying about that reading experience.”

To do that, stores must make an effort to keep fiction fans coming back, perhaps with signage and promotional items that announce news series, author appearances or whole-set discounts.

While some stores may only keep the first and latest titles in a series, David Lewis, vice president of marketing and sales for Baker Publishing Group, thinks it’s important for retailers to keep all series’ titles in their inventory.

“To sell series they need to keep every book in the series in stock,” he said. “Many stores have had success selling the first book in a series at a sale price to get readers to try a new series or author. This often brings readers back for the other books in the series.”

Since fiction fans are often avid readers of e-books, the digital option can be used to the publisher’s and retailer’s advantage by offering the initial book of a series or first chapter of a subsequent title as a free e-book. Tamera Alexander and her publisher, Bethany House, did this with From a Distance, a “Timber Ridge Reflections” novel, to entice readers into the series.

Stores might try a “first in series” sale “in which they offer the first book in several series for a reduced price, therefore engaging readers to new authors and series,” Brower said.

Overall, with new releases, “the promotion plan must be two-fold, serving the established readership to notify fans of the next installment, and seeing with new eyes the potential for growing the fan base with new readers,” said Andrea Lyons, senior marketing director at Thomas Nelson. “In order to maximize the full potential of a series, marketing teams and retailers benefit from lifting up the first book as an entry point for joining the satisfied readership.” 

David Long, senior acquisitions editor of Bethany House, sees readers’ involvement and loyalty rewarded by a series.

“They fall in love with a setting and characters, and a series allows them the opportunity to dive back in,” she said. “With all the choices out there, the promise of an author taking a story deeper and wider than just a single novel can be quite tempting.”