Is this a thing?
This isn’t my normal sort of post about writing or a book review, but I’m really curious for other’s opinions on the topic. I’ve been binge watching my way through booktube videos this week and across several channels I’ve heard different reviewers call out book in one series or another as a set up book.
As far as I understood them, they were talking about series or trilogies in which one of the “middle” books were unnecessary to the story arc as a whole, and/or of inferior story quality to the first/last volumes. In all the instances where booktubers described a book in this way they said that the first book was amazing, the second book wasn’t very good but that was okay because it’s setting up the next book and therefore the third book better be/will be as awesome or of greater awesomeness than the first book.
I just want to pause and think about that concept because what the actual fuck?
Logically, I know that I myself have said this about books in a series before, but today was the first time I consciously began to think about what it means for us as writers, in general, (though I suspect specifically YA) and as readers.
Looking specifically at the YA readership regardless of genre there has been a huge influx of both readers and writers in recent years. This is an awesome thing. More books + more stories = more to love and experience. But let’s be real. This is an industry. People make money off our buying habits and in a market with lots of options and a backlog of works that will never go out style(or availability thanks in part to e-readers), series are a smart business decision, for the publisher and the author. More books in a series means more money and as a consequence it’s not uncommon to see trilogies everywhere. I’ve honestly been very pleased lately with the number of amazing stand alone volumes that have been released, but the majority of books that grace the YA corner in our bookshops are series or trilogies.
And now I’m beginning to wonder whether or not we’ve sabotaged ourselves with this.
The first book in a series is always exciting because the characters are brand new and their problems are strange and their world has to be explained and dissected so that we can appreciate it. We dive into it in a rush and eat it up without really tasting what’s going on because it’s a very heart racing, intense experience to find that level of emotion (whether it’s romantic entanglement or dangerous adventures) which we’re seeing in their perspective for the first time.
But then the second book comes along. And suddenly we know what to expect from those characters because they aren’t new to us. Hopefully we’re old friends, but a lot of times, they feel more like nagging co-workers. I don’t mind spending time with you, it will probably be interesting, but I’m also pretty sure I know what you’re going to do because now I know who you are, sort of. As I’m thinking about this several series are standing out in my mind, that I would count as personal favorite series specifically because the character continued to develop and change and surprise me into their second and then subsequently third volumes. ( I suppose we can all take a nod at irony since my first thoughts went to trilogies.) For clarity sake, I’m thinking of Lena Haloway from the Delirium Trilogy by Lauren Oliver, and Tally Youngblood from The Uglies Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. Both of these characters swept me up into their worlds and their problems in the first book in their series, then did a complete turn around of character in a totally new setting for their second books, and then blew my mind a third time in the final installments. These were stories that had to be told and the urgency and craft was at the author’s finger tips.
To quote another character of Scott Westerfeld’s in a book that I thought was pretty lame but if you’ve read it you’ll understand, “They’ve got the juice.”
So I suppose the question I’m posing here is, why we don’t demand those kinds of stories as readers? Why do we read a wonderful first volume, and then accept a mediocre second one? Obviously there’s no way to know before reading the book, and I don’t want to shame or take away that sense of pride of having written a book from another writer, but when we finish reading something shouldn’t we be honest in our opinions of it?! If the first volume could have been a stand alone and been awesome why tease out two more books just for the chance of extra cash as a writer. To me this is a joint problem, one for readers and writers. I happen to fall on both sides of that line so perhaps my perspective is a little different but I’m deeply curious to hear others thoughts so please share this if you know anyone who might be interested in the discussion on either side.
As a reader, I would rather have volumes which truly speak to me, and provoke a real emotion or connection. I want to be surprised. I want to experience people and places that I know nothing about. I want to fall victim to things I’d never considered and then climb back out again with a fresh perspective. I don’t want to be bored, I don’t want to be able to guess what’s coming and I certainly don’t want to waste my money on a collection of pretty covers that look great on my shelf but really could have been boiled down to one beating heart instead of three fluttering bumps.
As a writer, I want to tell stories that demand to be told. The things that keep you up at night wondering, biting your nails, gasping into your covers and shaking with excitement. I want to inspire people to live their lives as best they can and find courage and a sense of self that might make my characters jump from a cliff to save a loved one, but might make my reader take the plunge to stand up for themselves or follow their dreams. I want to promote creativity and a sense of curiosity about people and the world and most of all, I want people to have fun. I want them to be happy and to share a piece of myself with them at the end of my books. I want them to put it down and feel like they’ve gained something outside of a good story. It’s a tall order I know.
But on either side of the reader/writer border, why are we so accepting of these mediocre/set up books? Shouldn’t we take responsibility to write stories that have some meaning, and at the very least are entertaining? And shouldn’t we demand quality work instead of being duped out of our money?
As I said before, it can be hard to tell if a series or trilogy is going to turn out to be “worth it” or not prior to experiencing it, and again, I don’t want to discredited or discount books or series with saggy middles because books are always good (even the bad ones teach us things). But I think we need to stop accepting a crappy midway point in our series.
I’m sure this is harder than it sounds, but I’m specifically thinking in reference to authors who continually produce trilogy after trilogy, and even more specifically to publishing houses. Now more than ever publishers are taking notice of reviewers. Booktubers commonly get books sent to them and unhaul them on their channels, do give aways, and generally share in our love of new releases. There are reader programs, and places like Netgalley designed to help us voice our opinions, and unlike a lot of other areas in media, someone is actually paying attention.
Which ultimately means that when we post a review or a vlog saying that the first book was amazing, but the second one was a let down, but wait for it, I’m still going to read the third because I accept that the second book is allowed to be crappy… well, we’ve basically given them permission to keep doing exactly that.
We aren’t doing ourselves any favors. We are wasting our precious time and money on less than worthwhile books, and authors aren’t being forced to be more creative and inspiring with their story telling because they know that if the first book is good enough it will carry them through (financially at least) to the end. The only ones winning are the publishers.
I decided not to talk about any series or trilogies that I personally found to have “set up” books in this post because I believe that not every book is meant for every person. We all have different tastes and expectations when we come to a story and it’s our varied opinions that inspire a more diverse world library. In the spirit of positivity I think it does more damage to make a list or publicly call out the books which I found to fall into this category since my list is certainly going to be different than your list. But my point is that it would be great if we didn’t have to have a list.
If you read a series that had an amazing first book, and the second book falls flat, you can stop reading that series or you can continue. Personal choice. I would just encourage you to consider how we can express ourselves through social media, reviews and word of mouth to inspire more responsible story telling.
If we accept crappy books, and say in our reviews that we will keep buying crappy books, then guess what? They’ll keep selling us crappy books.
Just as an aside for anyone who agrees but also has a dying need to know what the big conclusion to a series is when disappointed in the middle volumes, I resort to wikipedia. If I love the first book and am disappointed in the second, I will not buy the third. I will look up the synopsis for the third. Yes, I will be spoiled. But if it’s predictable then, at least I know and I didn’t spend the time or money following a conclusion that I could see 10 miles away. If it’s absolutely shocking/surprising/phenomenal, then I will actually go back and give the book a shot because the author did something that I didn’t expect or anticipate and I was wrong to not trust their series. I will be completely honest though. Of series for which I have resorted to the wikipedia for my information as to whether I would continue, I have only gone back and felt the need to actually experience two books out of nearly three dozen. Which is kind of telling.
Anyway, I hope that this long winded, unplanned post inspires some discussion. I’d love to hear from anyone about the topic, though if you don’t agree with me I’d really love to hear from you to hear the counterpoint to my argument. In fact if someone wants to write a blog post about why we should have saggy middles, or set up books in series it would probably be really interesting and at the very least entertaining, so I hope some more book reviewers see this so we can have a chat, whether it’s in the comments here, on your blogs or out in the fathoms of the internet.