The Magic Number

bookstack In the past, I’ve talked about the plethora of series books out there and how I sometimes wish for standalones, and Leigh blogged about her own series ambivalence. However, instead of answering questions or completely relieving a pet peeve, thinking about interrelated series books begs one big question. What is the magic number for a series? How many books does one need in order to fully develop a series, get closure on the various plotlines and yet not start annoying readers?

Obviously, if it’s not a good, well-written series, one book is probably one too many. Even the good series can go on too long, though. I really enjoyed Colleen Gleason’s Gardella books and Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons, but I consider them an exception. There are too many series worlds that could hold me for 5 or 8 books. I would wager also that there probably aren’t too many series worlds that could equal J.D. Robb’s feat of holding readers for 30+ books, but Eve and Roarke are still going strong. Again, I think this one is a major exception to the rule.

The magic number for most fictional worlds is going to be something smaller because I suspect most readers can think of more series that went on for too long than series that really need to be as long as the examples I just mentioned. For instance, I know there are those who will disagree with me, but I’ll confess that I got sick of Cynsters a while ago. Stephanie Laurens can really tell a story; I just wish she’d spread her wings and start telling some new ones. My other big confession: I also haven’t been able to read every single last one of Mary Balogh’s longer series books such as the “Slightly” books or the Huxtables. I enjoy her writing, but I prefer her work when it stands alone or is simply carried across 2, maybe 3 books.

Perhaps that’s why we see so many trilogies. Three seems to be the magic number for a lot of book series. I can think of umpteen Regency historical or romantic suspense trilogies off the top of my head, and I can see why that would be a workable number. It gives an author time to introduce characters and several plotlines, to develop them, and to wind everything up in a satisfactory fashion. The reader can sink into the author’s world just long enough to enjoy it, but not so long that it starts to feel like a caricature of itself. In addition, the prospect of catching up on a trilogy is not so daunting as want to read an author and learning that you can’t just glom a backlist in any old order, but must follow a series of eleventy gazillion books in order to read the backlist.

Because of this, series that run for more than a few books not only risk becoming stale, but they become something of an “all or nothing” prospect for authors. Let’s say that Author X wrote several fantastic historicals set in a variety of time periods and you loved them all. Now let’s say that Author X decides to write a series. You pick up the first book of that series and it’s set in a time period that isn’t your favorite or perhaps features characters that annoy you. In many cases, the reader at this point will stop reading Author X at least until that series is done. If it’s just a trilogy, Author X might move on to better ideas fairly soon. If the series is a longer one that keeps creeping on book by interminable book, it can be more polarizing as fans of that particular series rejoice but other readers who either don’t like that series or simply don’t want to commit to that many books stay away.

For myself, I have to say that it’s very rare for a world to so enthrall me that I want to hold onto it for more than three or four books. More commonly, I’ll start a single title series or series romance continuity, enjoy the first couple of books, read the third or fourth and then let the others languish as I seek out other things, realizing that I don’t absolutely have to know what happens next for this group of characters. How about you? For how many books can a series generally hold your interest?

– Lynn Spencer

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