I received a comment from author Michael Walters to a post I wrote the other week addressing the question of whether the sequel is more suited to crime fiction than to other genres. As his comment is far more interesting than my post I thought I would create a post of its own out of it. Thank you, Michael! he writes:
I'd draw a distinction between writing a 'sequel' (which sounds like an afterthought) and consciously setting out to write a series of linked books. I think the latter does work particularly well with crime fiction. I embarked on a series because I was attracted by the idea of balancing a fast-paced thriller plot against the slower narrative arc of the developing characters and their interactions. I'm a great fan of writers who manage to sustain that over numerous books – Reginald Hill or Ed McBain, to take two quite different examples. It's possible to think of non-crime examples – in fantasy and science-fiction, of course, and also series like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, or even non-genre examples like Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time' series or John Updike's Rabbit books. But they do seem less common, perhaps surprisingly so, outside the crime genre.
As for branding, whatever that means, well, it's not surprising that publishers and agents are keen on the idea, particularly given the growing influence of the supermarkets, as Clare points out. They're keen to lock readers in to their particular products, and a successful series is a pretty good way of doing that. And I don't think that applies only to individual authors. It's also about trying to relate newer authors to established 'brands' through cover design – which is why crime books tend to look so 'samey'. And many readers, if they're fond of a given author, do look for more of the same, so it's a reasonable commercial strategy.
I suspect the danger is that, in constantly promoting the new J K Rowling or the new Ian Rankin, publishers sometimes forget that those past successes initially came, not from trying to replicate something else, but simply from having faith in the creativity of talented writers. Publishers can no doubt make money by copying what's already there, but I suspect the real (commercial as well as artistic) successes will always come from left field – from Alexander McCall Smith (I bet most publishers wouldn't have seen those as best-seller material) through Stieg Larsson to David Peace.
My own view is that, unless perhaps you're James Patterson, writers shouldn't worry themselves about this stuff. My own approach is just to try to write something I'd like to read, in the hope that some others will like it too. I suspect that trying to write a best seller or to second-guess the market is probably the surest route to writing unreadable rubbish. On the other hand, that might not stop it being a best-seller.
Michael Walters is the author of the Nergui novels – a series of crime thrillers set in modern-day Mongolia. My reviews of these exciting and highly recommended books can be read at Euro Crime. Michael also has an engaging blog, which can be found here, and will be attending Crime Fest this year.