Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The End of an Era

As many of you surely know by now, Law & Order, after 20 years, was canceled. I know many were sad to see it go. I was not a die-hard fan, but like most I've seen my share of episodes in reruns. How could you miss it? Every time you turn on the TV there is an episode of Law & Order somewhere.

Actually, though, Law & Order has very little to do with today’s post. What got me thinking about today’s post was a radio interview I was listening to where they discussed that with the end of Law & Order there is no series finale. Like many shows, Law & Order was canceled, and since there wasn’t a decision on the producer’s end to finish out the show, no series finale was filmed. It just ended.

This happens to authors all the time. I can’t begin to tell you how many authors discover, in the middle of their series, that a contract won’t be renewed, and they fret that they didn’t have time to wrap up the series the way they would have liked. Let me explain for those who have never been in such a situation. Let’s say you sign a three-book contract for a series, a series you can see writing for the rest of your life. You deliver the third book and then wait, and hope, that the publisher will want to buy three more. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, you typically won’t find out until well after you’ve completed that third book, and at that point there’s no going back. You’ve left storylines unfinished and fear that you’ve left your readers hanging. This happens all the time. It happens in TV and it happens in books. In fact, it happens in life. We can’t always wrap things up neat and tidy like we would prefer.

When I thought about Law & Order ending without a finale, it felt right to me. This is a series where you didn’t become that invested in the characters and you can easily imagine them simply continuing on as they left off, solving and prosecuting crimes. But does the same hold true for books? Can you be equally satisfied without a series ending wrapping things up neat and tight? Can you imagine the characters simply going on as they have been, or are you (and have you been) upset to discover that the reason you can’t find the next book in the series is because it doesn’t exist, and now you’ll never really know if the protagonist got what you hope she wanted?

I wonder because authors are always so upset when they don’t feel they can wrap things up, and certainly I understand that, but do they really need to?



Anonymous said...

Is there anything stopping these authors from finding another publisher for the rest of the series? Even an ePublisher? Or even self-publishing?

Never watched Law & Order. No lightsabers or photon torpedoes.

Claire Robyns said...

I hate when this happens on tv and, although I've never been left hanging halfway through a book series yet, I would absolutely hate it. Now I know not to blame the author but the publisher. I don't understand this. The publisher knows that this is a series. At the point that they decide to not continue, what harm would it do to allow the author one last book to wrap things up? That way the backlist books stand a better chance of being bought - there's a tv series that I'd love to watch but refuse because I know it ended suddenly after the 1st series. I'd feel exactly the same way about buying the backlist of a series I might otherwise have loved

Anonymous said...

Anon at 8:04 am-- that's what I intend to do if my series is canceled before I finish it.

Jane Lebak said...

I've had several friends and relatives abandon authors whom they felt deliberately tried to extend a series by leaving dangling ends. I've also heard frustration from several readers when an author inexplicably got tired of a series and either never wrote it again or else waited a dozen years before writing the next one.

In all those cases, everyone laid the blame squarely at the feet of the author rather than the publisher. It was always "She wanted to turn this book into a trilogy" or "He got offered to write books in That Popular Series and totally abandoned his SF stuff."

Only once did I hear someone speculate, "Maybe the publisher made her break up the book that way because it was too big to shelve as one book." I've never heard anyone ranting about an author speculate that maybe the publisher refused to continue the series.

I think the authors are right, then, to get worried about their brand and their reputation if they're not allowed to finish a story, not only for story reasons but also because anyone who's left unsettled afterward by the loose ends isn't going to blame the publisher.

Nonny Blackthorne said...

It didn't bother me with Law & Order because there never seemed to be an ongoing story arc. It was very episodic. A finale would've felt out of place for me because there weren't really threads to tie up. You could reasonably consider them continuing what they've done.

With books, it really depends. If book 3 ends on a cliffhanger, yeah, I'm going to be pissed that the series isn't getting renewed. If the series has been more episodic, tying up all the major plot threads within each book rather than opening more doors, then it's less of a bother to me. I might still miss it if it's something I really loved, but I'm not going to be in the same major rant mode as I will if I can't find out what happened. Grr.

Touch of Ink said...

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Hopefully your readers are as invested in the characters and the story as you are.

As a reader, I know that there were stories that the author had to leave unfinished. That doesn't stop me from haunting Amazon 20 years later, looking for the wrap up.

Joyce Tremel said...

I found out recently that one of my favorite series was dropped by the publisher (the Rosie Winters WWII mysteries by Kathryn Miller Haines). I know Kathy, and I can ask her what happens, but it's not the same. I want to read the book!

Anonymous said...

When my series ended, I got hundreds of emails from readers demanding to know why I stopped writing the series. Fans almost always think it's an author's decision.)

Most authors feel obligated to readers and hate to disappoint.

As for your question, anon 8:04, most publishers aren't interested in taking on a series that's been dropped by another publisher. And one author, J.A, Konrath did choose to e-publish his next book in a series. That will likely be more common as more people get e-readers.

Krista Heiser said...

If I've invested my time and money in a series, I expect a quality ending. If that author fails to do so, that failure will always be in the back of my mind when I'm browsing the bookstore aisles and it will determine whether or not I'll ever pick up one of their books again. New series or single titles.

Spy Scribbler said...

Oh gosh yes, if possible! I wouldn't blame an author for not ending a series, if they didn't feel they would be financially compensated for it, but... endings are beautiful things.

Kimber Li said...

"do they really need to?"

Yes! Besides readers wanting to continue, the author wants to do it for her own sanity.

Have you ever watched the documentary of J.K. Rowling which is included in the Blu-Ray DVD of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE? Near the end, she's jotting down a family tree and talks about who marries who and how many children they have, what careers they pursue and so on, and she says she needs to do it for her own peace of mind.

These stories and characters become so vivid and real to authors, and their readers, that it's an enormous emotional investment. I know it's all about the *money* to the publisher, but to authors and readers it's about passion.

Ending a series suddenly is like killing their best friends.

Understand that and you'll understand why now

J.K. Rowling has her own theme park.

Unknown said...

Somehow I avoided watching Law & Order, though I'm not sure why. I remember when this same incident happened to Lois and Clark. It was devastating, they left the last season on a huge cliffhanger, and then nothing.
I think to leave a series in that way, no matter what medium, is a bit of a disservice to fans. When an artist creates a story, we create conflict to propel toward some kind of resolution. If there is no resolution, we've cheated those who have committed to the ride. It's a shame and it inhibits trust between creator and audience.
But that's what online media is for, right? :)

Joseph L. Selby said...

I won't start a series if I know it's incomplete. Likewise, I won't start a series if it ends badly. Sure the first four books of the Dark Tower series or the Wheel of Time may be mind-blowingly amazing, but if the author crapped out on finishing the story, it will only lead to greater disappointment. So I pass.

If I've already started a series that I will enjoy, there's not much I can do if it's not finished. I have never seen a series structured in such a way that its abandonment could be rationalized as the characters going on doing the same thing. That's not a series in the sense of the Wheel of Time but more like those that just have the same recurring characters: James Bond or Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER back when she finished the books as complete stories rather than with hooks for the next novel.

Anonymous said...

In a fantasy series where you have the ultimate quest denouement in mind a number of books hence and your story is still a book or more away, then, yeah, that would be a huge letdown to your audience. As the author facing this scenario I would be very fretful.

Which raises another question you don't discuss. What happens to the writer now? Does he/she go forward on another project? Or is their career in the dumpster because of the failure of their series?

Kristan said...

As all these anons have said, I think finishing a series via e-book is a great option! E-publishing is really hard for writers who don't have an established name, but if you've got a fan base clamoring for more, then why not? In fact, that seems like the perfect logical extension, to me.

(That could be extended to self-publishing in print too.)

That also relieves some pressure from publishers who, for whatever reasons, just can't finish out the series.

(Or is there a huge downside to this that I'm not seeing...?? I fully admit that there might be.)

ryan field said...

I agree with the post. Sometimes there is no need for a grand finale.

But I also agree with anon #1, @8:04. If there's still a readership and the author still wants to wrap things up in the series, they should know there are ways they can empower themselves now which didn't exist ten years ago.

Timothy Fish said...

I’ve read some books where it was obvious that he author wrote it with the intention of the publisher publishing additional books because the story wasn’t finished. The result is that I gave the book a lower review and I didn’t buy the next book. Every book should have a complete story. But when there is a series of books, I expect to see the characters grow and develop throughout the series. However, I think there’s a lot to be said for a series that just ends. Many times, what we like about a series is that it describes a world that we would like to visit and be a part of. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Sherlock Holmes, like Watson did, as he solved each case? If we don’t wrap it up, the reader can go right on imagining that somewhere out there those characters are still going about the business of whatever it is they are doing and we may turn a corner one day and discover that there they are.

Anonymous said...

Each L&O was a self-contained episode. I could miss two weeks and not be lost in regard to the storyline. Not having a series-ender was a-okay with me.

When the series Angel was on, the producers wanted it to have more self-contained episodes since they didn't know when the series might be canceled.

I'd be okay with a self-contained series ending abruptly, such as the Stephanie Plum series (which is 9 books past its prime).

But don't anyone dare stop a series like Hunger Games at Book 2 or Harry Potter at Book 4.

So, if an author is hankering to tell everyone's story in a series (with rotating protagonists), then that's their own ego crashing and burning when they don't get that next 3-book deal. But if they haven't finished telling the story of their one-and-only protagonist, who was left dangling over a fiery pit in Hell...well, not getting picked up for at least one more book is just plain rude (to both author and reader).


Dale Bishop said...

If the author has a good fan base, and it's important enough to the author to wrap the series up, then I don't see why he or she doesn't just self-publish it at this point. And I'm sure there are a few e-publishers who would be willing to take it on as well.

Unknown said...

I've been waiting years and years for The Clan of the Cave Bear series to come to a conclusion, but can't think of any other book series that left me hanging.

TV is a different story. Quantum Leap anyone? "Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home." What kind of closure it that? Luckily, my favorite show ever was told well in advance that their fifth season would almost certainly be their last, so Friday Night Lights should have a good conclusion.

Unknown said...

it would depend on the book and how much the plots of each bled into the next. harry potter for example would have been horible if it had stopped before voldemort was defeated but james Bond books can stop wherever they like and you know that he continues to hunt down bad guys and meet beautiful girls for the rest of his life.

Anonymous said...

I used to worry that JK Rowling would die before the end of the HP series!

I agree that a publisher should give an author a chance to wrap up a series.

Anonymous said...

What happens if an author sells a three book series and when they get to book three they don't wrap it up?

Can the publisher demand an ending?

I've been burned by enough "series" that I start them carefully.

Dave K.

Amy B. said...

It really depends on the series. Personally, I prefer it when each book can stand on its own and has a real ending. This isn't to say that all series should be episodic. It's possible to have a series where all the books are tied intrinsically together but each book wraps up to a satisfying ending. Like Harry Potter. I know many will disagree, but if you look at the plot structure of the individual books, they all wrap up wonderfully. I remember my 15-year-old self finishing Goblet of Fire and thinking, "That could have been the end of the series and I would be happy." Of course I wanted more, fans always want more, but for me there is something very off-putting about a big flashing "TO BE CONTINUED!" sign at the end of a book. (Which was my biggest issue with Catching Fire.) Of course, if the author's book does end with a big flashing "TO BE CONTINUED!" and then isn't, well of course author and fans would be upset.

Christina Auret said...

It depends on the content. If The Return of the King had never been published, The Lord Of The Rings would have been a very, very disappointing series. Mostly because it is not so much a series as one story told in three volumes.

Something like the Stephanie Plum novels is on the other side of that spectrum in that they are a series of separate stories with reoccurring characters.

My need for closure depends on where the series in question sits on the spectrum between these two examples.

If I can read and fully enjoy any one book in a series without reading the others, then the series does not need an ending.

A lot of fantasy fans had gotten badly burned on the Wheel of Time series -- I actually checked how old the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series was before I started reading it.

If it is one story it needs an ending.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the situation described by Anonymous 8:04. While my first novel was a stand-alone that wrapped up the major plot lines, my editor wanted me to explore further what happened to the protagonist's troubled younger sister. However, the editor passed away suddenly and the small press publisher closed down.

The novel ended up doing very well anyway and now a lot of people are clamoring to find out what happened to the younger sister. I revised the companion to be as stand-alone as possible, knowing that I may have to sell it as a single title. I found an agent and am optimistic about the new book finding a home, as well as the paperback of the first novel, but if not, there's always the internet. The downsides of epubbling the companion are that I'll get no compensation for the work I put in, and it will exist basically as fan fiction, satisfying the curiosity of the traditionally published novel's readers but not standing on its own merits.

Kim Lionetti said...

Just wanted to chime in here...

I think most every author understands that there are outlets to publish an ending to their abandoned series. I'm also certain that most would love to wrap up their characters' journeys in a satisfying way for the sake of themselves and their readers. Unfortunately, however, it doesn't make the best business sense to spend the time and energy writing that book when your publisher or another may be ready and willing to pay you to write something new. The series will have been discontinued because of poor sales. So it makes more sense to find a way to reach more new readers and hope that your old fans will continue to follow you, even if you left them hanging with the last book.

To answer another commenter's question: "What happens to the writer now?"

It depends. Sometimes, a publisher is willing to take a chance on a new project and hope that it's different enough to overcome the poor track record. Other times, the same publisher or another is eager to work with the author, but only if they write under a different pseudonym. There's a few cases, however, when that was the only series the writer had in them. It all depends on the individual author and the individual experience.

frapoBlue said...

its really a conflict of what type of series the author is writing. Say the author started to write about series that had a fixed ending, say a trilogy. If the publishers don't want to buy the third book, then of course the author will be disappointed, because he planned it out until a third; he knew everything will fall to place at the last book. And he's going to be sad not to put that out for all the readers who expected the grand finale.

But say author was writing a book, that came to be a series because of the addition of subplots and a larger story arc. Or he planned a series of books without any end in mind, just thinking he could write new plots add characters and play it around. If the publisher suddenly doesnt want to publish the next set of books, i don't think the author would be sad or be upset, cause he knew that he was only playing the book out until he can. He didn't set for an ending. He just wanted to write the story out as long as he could.

A difference between an end expected series and an on going no dead point one.

Tara Maya said...

Cutting off the ending of a series drives me crazy. I also used to not buy books until I knew a series had been complete. Of course, that was also because I was a fast reader and didn't want to have to wait months or years in between sequels.

jjdebenedictis said...

As someone who gets irrationally angry at books that just end, without resolution, because the author couldn't tell the story in 100,000 words, I would probably feel some schadenfreude over learning a series that did that had ended unexpectedly.

Unless it was A Song of Ice and Fire. Then I would wail like a baby with no cake.

I'm such a hypocrite.

Anonymous said...

I've been waiting 16 years for a follow-up to "Law of Becoming" in the Jaran books. In this case, it seems to be that Kate Elliott wanted to work on her other series rather than a publisher dropping it, and supposedly she does intend to return to the Jaran books eventually. But I'm still waiting...

Jolene Perry said...

This post made me laugh a little. My husband is a prosecutor (any writing questions on the criminal system? I'm your girl) and he generally has between two and five HUNDRED cases at a time. They so rarely wrap up the way he'd like. So, I think it's kind of fitting that Law and Order just ended with no finale.

From a reader's perspective. It sucks. Not long ago a friend of mine was reading a series to discover that the final book hadn't been published and probably never would be. It has to kill any sales of the first books when that happens. Though, if your contract was cancelled, I guess they couldn't have been selling anyways.

Wow. I'm long winded today.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to know more info to comment on this post. Like was this series launched in digital format? If yes, and it didn't sell, than maybe it is time to put it to bed.

But if it hasn't been released digitally, the author needs to explore the possiblities.

Melissa Jagears said...

I had that happen once and hated it. I kept it on my shelf for 20 years waiting, but finally found on the internet that the author couldn't get a publisher to take it.

Now, if I know something is going to be a series that continues a story (not a series all set in the same town or something) I wait for it all to come out first before I buy it. (I can do this with some authors for they always write trilogies, etc.)

But if that author put out the last one as a self published or even a short story freebie on their website, then I would buy the books. But yeah, don't leave me hanging!

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately, however, it doesn't make the best business sense to spend the time and energy writing that book..."

The original STAR TREK was cancelled for the same reason.

Imagine the money which might have been made if only the network had been more in tune with the audience and had a little more foresight, rather than looking out for only the Almighty Dollar!

As it turned out, the fans got together and saved the series themselves, and just look at how much money the newest movie made last year! Over FORTY years after the series first aired.

Don't know what can be done about that, because business is business. However, I do know I will MAKE the time to at least self-publish a short story to give the readers what they want and deserve, and I'll give it to them for free too. Who knows? In forty years, they might just make it into a movie.

Prettypics123 said...

I don't know how this feels first hand but I would sure love the chance to learn! The Camp Host Housewife and Photographer

Anonymous said...

In that situation a writer has got to face the reality: if the pub. isn't renewing it, it's because there aren't that many wanting to read it. So why worry about where it leaves off, no one else is. better to worry about whatever it is you're going to write next instead, oh geez, I'm going to leave 6 people hanging!

_*rachel*_ said...

I've heard of at least one author (I can't remember who, at the moment) who continued anyway and either self-pubbed or released online or both. This is a case where I'd actually laud self-publishing.

Sheila Cull said...

They really do need to wrap things up if the public doesn't want to buy it.

Anonymous said...

"They really do need to wrap things up if the public doesn't want to buy it."

This was my point earlier. In order to comment properly, we need to know more facts. This is just too ambiguous. If the book wasn't released in digital format, there's no way to predict how well a wrap-up to the series would work.

I just turned down a print publisher to go with an e-publisher because there's more money on the back end...for me. This was something I never would have done five years ago. But the print publisher's flat fee couldn't compare to what I can make in royalties from an e-publisher...between four hundred and six hunred a month for a short story stand alone e-book...compared to a 250.00 flat fee from a print publisher.

If anything, this is a classic example of why writers and agents are going to have to make different decisions in the near future.

Kate Douglas said...

As a reader, I invest a certain amount of emotion in characters, and when a series is dropped mid way, I feel cheated. As an author, I'm facing this right now with the end of my Wolf Tales series, even though my publisher has given me plenty of warning and time to end the series. Still, after nine novellas and eleven novels with the same characters, writing this twelfth novel is hard--I'm still not comfortable letting go entirely. The characters have become real to me and my readers keep asking me about the children, wondering what plans I have for them.

I've got the ideas for a second generation series all drawn up, and with any luck I'll be able to write it at some point. I may have to, just to shut them up. Characters tend to take on lives of their own, and they can be a real nuisance, hanging around and demanding their stories. The really sad thing about publishers choosing to end a series without allowing the author a chance to do it right is that readers have gotten skittish about buying books in a series until it's complete. It becomes a catch-22: the first book doesn't sell well because readers are waiting for #2 and 3, but because sales are poor on the first ones, the second and third never make it to print. Personally, I want closure, whether as an author or a reader.

CFD Trade said...

That is just so sad. If I were in the author's shoes, I would be nursing a broken confidence for a longer period of time...is the biggest rationale for the publishers not taking on due to poor sales?

Anonymous said...

How do you know you want to read a series until you read the first book? Then how do you know it's even going to be a series till you buy the second? No wonder these series are getting cancelled..what about anticipation and suspense? Give the writers a chance, readers and publishers!

Lucy said...

I think I'd self-pub/e-pub. And Kim, of course you're quite right that it's not good business sense. If I did it, I'd make sure things wrapped up pretty quickly--let's say, within a book or two.

At the same time, if a career is tanking, I don't think it's all bad to take a couple of years off, tie up loose ends, and come back with a whole new project under a different name. It's possible that the time to clean up and recharge may be what the writer needed anyway.

This is why people shouldn't quit their day jobs. :-)

J.V. Altharas said...

I was a fan of Law & Order from the first season, and though I don't disagree that it might have been time to wrap it up, I'm always the one wishing the author/director could have drawn things to a close properly.

E-books and self publishing have already been mentioned. With publishers understandably leery about picking up a series in the middle, I'd say getting cut short after three books sounds like the perfect time to strike out on your own and continue.

Even if you're still seeking publication for other works, abandoning an existing fan base doesn't make sense to me with real, economical options. The biggest spectre in self publishing is the marketing, and once a publisher has done that for you on several books in a series I'd be hard pressed to find an excuse not to continue.