The Series Death Spiral, and other unfortunate realities of publishing

So why is Book 2 so important?

When a new trilogy or series is launched, publisher and author put a great deal of emphasis on attracting their audience, getting the books out the gate with as much bang as possible.  Then, for the grand finale, the final book in a series, publisher and author will do another big push, getting readers to pick up the whole thing.

But what about poor Book 2? The second novel in a series or trilogy may well be the most important factor in determining the success (or failure) of the series.

Right now, I have two “second books” out in the space of a few months.  UNNATURAL ACTS, the second “Dan Shamble, Zombie PI” adventure, was just published by Kensington in January, following DEATH WARMED OVER, which appeared in bookstores last September.  HELLHOLE AWAKENING, Book 2 in my Hellhole Trilogy with Brian Herbert, will be released by Tor Books next month; the first volume, HELLHOLE, came out in early 2011.

I’ve been promoting the entire “Dan Shamble” series extensively since its debut, posting sample chapters, writing standalone short stories, doing readings at numerous conventions.  When HELLHOLE was released two years ago, Brian Herbert and I did a national book-signing tour, and we’ll be doing another one for HELLHOLE AWAKENING.

Why is the second novel so important?  Because bookstore sales-tracking computers are not the author’s friend. They cause a phenomenon called the “death spiral” of a series, thanks to the business practice of “ordering to the net.”

Here’s an example:  When Book 1 comes out, a publisher might convince a bookstore to carry 20 copies, a nice inventory that will result in a good display and attention paid by the store staff.  If the novel does very well, it might sell 14 of those twenty copies.  (And most books don’t perform that well.)

So, when Book 2 comes out, the bookstore will look up in their sales computer, see that 14 copies (of the 20) sold, and then order 14 copies of Book 2. This is called ordering to the net, carrying only the net number of copies they sold of the last installment (ignoring the fact that they needed 20 copies to sell 14).  Thus, with only 14 copies on hand instead of 20, Book 2 will get a smaller display, less attention, and in all likelihood will sell far less . . . say, eight copies.

When Book 3 is released, the bookstore will order to the net again, this time carrying only eight copies of which they might sell four.  If the author goes on to write a Book 4, the bookstore computers will show that the series only sold four copies of the previous volume, and may not order any copies of Book 4 at all.

IF, however, Book 2 sells as many copies as Book 1—or more, because the author has been promoting the series in the interim and built up the readership—then the trend will go in the opposite direction.  Even if the bookstore only orders 14 copies, the demand could be strong enough that they have to reorder, then they also reorder copies of Book 1, and the trend line turns in the opposite direction.  For Book 3, they’ll be prepared and order extra copies from the outset.

So, for the many of you who loved HELLHOLE or Dan Shamble, please be sure to pick up the second books in those series!

I’ve talked with fans at many conventions and appearances, and I can tell you that nothing dismays an author more than to hear a reader say, “I always wait until a whole series is out before I pick it up.  I don’t like to have to wait for the next volume.”

Now, granted there are Certain Authors who make readers wait and wait long past the scheduled appearance of the next book in a series, but I’m certainly not one of them.  My books always come out on time—every volume of the Saga of Seven Suns came out annually, without fail.  Same with the three books in my Terra Incognita trilogy, or all of my Dune novels with Brian Herbert.  I have three novels in the Dan Shamble series out in the space of nine months.

I can’t tell you how to read, but be aware that if everybody waited to pick up a series until it is finished, then that series is doomed.  The publisher would track the numbers of Book 1, then Book 2, then maybe decide not even to publish Book 3.  Early in my career, my Gamearth trilogy suffered from that. Even though the three novels were published only nine months apart, Book 2 went out of print within weeks after Book 3 was released—fans had only a very short time period when all three novels were on bookstore shelves.

Even if you wait to read the whole series until it’s all released, you really, really help the author if you pick up a novel as close to its release as possible, because that determines the title’s whole sales and promotional landscape from that point on.

I’m sure I can’t alter your book-buying habits, but I can make you a promise.  If you do pick up HELLHOLE AWAKENING when it is released on March 26, or at one of my booksigning appearances over the following weeks, I promise you that the third book will be out on time.  If you do pick up UNNATURAL ACTS, I promise you that the third Dan Shamble novel, HAIR RAISING, will be out on time (in May 2013).