There seem to be fewer and fewer standalone novels like Warbreaker and Elantris. Many readers love standalone novels by the way, and are hoping that format makes a return to popularity.
Any comments on this from your perspective? Thanks!
It’s a good question. One I’ve been considering, actually, for a long time. Certainly, there’s an economic piece to it.
When a stand-alone comes out, it tends to gather praise from both readers and reviewers. Then proceeds to sell far fewer copies than a series book does. The Wheel of Time didn’t hit #1 on the NYT list until book eight or nine, I believe, and I don’t think Sword of Truth hit #1 until book ten. Series tend to sell better, even as readers complain about them, and so I think publishers do push for them.
But why do they sell better? Well, I think this is partially the learning curve factor. We like fantasy for the same reason that fantasy is hard to read: the learning curve. Starting a fantasy book can be tough because of how many new names, concepts, societies, religions, and laws of physics you have to learn and get used to. Epics, with their dozens upon dozens of characters, are even tougher in this regard. And so, after investing so much energy into becoming an expert in the world, we want to get a good payoff and be able to USE that expertise.
Beyond that, I think that fantasy is character driven–and when we fall in love with characters, we want to read more about them. Fantasy, particularly the epic series, allows us to follow characters across sweeping, life changing events. Fantasy (like historicals) give us lots of pages and time to know these characters so we want more from them.
But the very thing that we love about fantasy in this regard also tends to present problems. We want lots of characters, but eventually this large cast gets overwhelms us and makes the books seem to drag. Personally, I think these complaints will be much lessened when some of these great series are done, and you don’t have to wait years and years between volumes.
Anyway, Terry Brooks talks a lot about this in his biographical work Sometimes the Magic Works (I highly suggest the book as a quick, interesting, engaging read). He mentions how, when he left Shannara to write other things, the fans begged and begged him for more. Until finally he broke down and gave them more books in the world.
A lot of authors I know tend to live in this state of perpetual wonder and amazement that, finally, people are actually enjoying and reading their works. After all the years of failure trying to break in, I know that I feel this way a lot. When someone comes to you and talks about how much they love one of your works, asking you to write more…well, we’re storytellers. If people want a story, we want to give it to them. It’s hard to say no. (Though so far I have.)
I intend to keep writing stand-alone novels. But I do so knowing that 1) they will not sell as well as series books and 2) readers will ask me for more, and so each stand alone will only increase the number of requests for future books that I can’t write. I’m in the fortunate place that I can write, and publish, what I want–whether it be series or stand alone–and no longer have to worry about the money.
But, in my heart, I’ve got a strong desire to write a big epic. I grew up reading them. I want to see if I can do one, my way, and add something new to the genre. So maybe that’s the reason. Looking through Robert Jordan’s notes, reading interviews, I don’t think he ever artificially inflated the length of his series because of publisher desire or money reasons. I think he loved the long-form epic, and wanted to tell the story his way, no matter how long it took. And as he added more characters, it took longer and longer.
In a way, being free from the worry of finances gives creators a chance to really explore their vision the way they want to. And…well, we’re fantasy writers, so we can get a little long winded.
Kind of like this response, eh? Thanks for the question.