Saturday 29 July 2017

Too Many Sequels

It's worth noting that the majority of this year's Best Novel Hugo Award shortlist is comprised of books that are either the first part in a series, or the sequel to another work.

In fact, only one of the six novels on this year's shortlist (All The Birds In The Sky) is a standalone work.

This is not the first time in recent memory that the shortlist has been dominated by sequels, prequels, or works in a shared universe. But it is part of a larger trend, and it's one that worries us. 

In the 1960s, 88 per cent of the Hugo shortlist was comprised of standalone novels. From 2001 to 2010, 56 per cent of Hugo shortlisted novels were standalone works. In the first seven years of this decade, the statistic has fallen to 27 per cent (ten of the 36 novels shortlisted).

The problem with sequels

There's a place for sequels: perhaps a story has too large a scope to be contained in one volume, or perhaps the author has created a universe in which multiple ideas can be explored. Some fine
Some sequels tackle new
ideas and new conflicts.
(Image via
examples of this are Vernor Vinge's Deepness In The Sky and Orson Scott Card's Speaker For The Dead

But it could be suggested that the idea of a series of templated sequels is philosophically antithetical to what Science Fiction is about, and therefore what we think the Hugos should celebrate: new ideas. 

With few exceptions, sequels are not about new ideas. By the time Lois McMaster Bujold wrote Captain Vorpatril's Alliance in 2012, was there ground left to cover in the Vorkosigan Saga that hadn't been explored in the previous dozen books?

More troubling is the fact that sequels, prequels and series make works less accessible to new readers. Anyone can pick up and read Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man without feeling that they've missed something important. The same cannot be said for Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, which is an excellent novel, but one that we have qualms about having been honoured with a Hugo because it is not accessible to new readers.

Without pointing fingers at anyone in particular, sometimes, for some authors, producing endless populist sequels can be a crutch. And these sequels will get nominations because of a small, dedicated, fervent group of fans. 

Books written as the first part in a trilogy, or a series, are more defensible as Hugo nominees, but can still have their issues - how can we judge a story that is left incomplete? If the first book in a trilogy does not stand on its own, can it still be Hugo worthy?

All awards systems have biases

One of the things that gives the Hugos legitimacy, prompts so much great discussion, and engages so many fans is how democratically the awards are run and juried. But the open and democratic system we have for the Hugos should not blind us to the structural biases of the awards, including this
In retrospect, should
Becky Chambers' self-
published debut have
made the shortlist?
(Image via
increasing bias towards sequels.

We suspect this bias exists through no ill intent, but mostly because it can take a while for readers to hear about a standalone work, or something from a new author, or a book that becomes a word-of-mouth phenomenon. So these types of works are sometimes overlooked. A good example of this is Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which Becky Chambers self-published in 2014. We would argue that it missed the shortlist in part because it didn't reach a wide audience of Hugo Award voters until it was republished the subsequent year. 

These biases are understandable — the books we're likeliest to nominate are the ones we've read prior to the nomination deadline, and that is in turn driven by which ones we're likeliest to have run out and bought on the day they hit the shelves. 

We already know that we want the sequel to a book we've already read, and we know we're going to enjoy the latest book by our favourite author. And so the same Hugo voters will reward books by the authors they already know. This probably contributes to the fact that there hasn't been a Hugo shortlist of all first-time nominees since 1963. 

As with all biases, we're better off when we acknowledge their existence, try to mitigate their effects, and act with intentionality.

Trends in publishing

Clearly, these biases have existed since the dawn of the Hugo awards. But I suspect that trends in publishing are exacerbating the issue. 

Fewer novels are being published in mass-market paperback than in previous decades, as publishing
In my opinion, the first
book of Mission Earth
would have been a less
offensive nomination.
houses focus on the pricier (higher profit margin) trade paperbacks instead. The gap in time between hardback publication and either format of paperback has grown from an average of 12 months in the 1990s to approximately 18 months today (for those works that ever even see a paperback publication). This makes newer works purchased in book stores less accessible than in previous decades. 

And of course, publishers *like* sequels because they're easily marketable. I would wager that there are significantly more serialized and sequelized books that are hitting the shelves today than there were in previous decades. 

Compounding this trend is the rise of electronic publishing, which might have reduced costs for consumers looking to buy a new volume, but doesn't provide the same opportunity to browse bookshelves to discover new authors and new works. Although we don't have any data to back this up, we suspect that one is less likely to try out a work from a new author on a Kindle than while browsing at the local book store. It is easy, however, to choose and download a sequel. 

It's easier to be a passive consumer than it is to seek out new works. 

Where do we go from here? 

Lets be honest about it, Hugos 2018 starts right now with the books that people are reading this summer. 

If you are someone who has a ConJose membership, or if you are likely to get one in time to
Does the Fifth Season
trilogy need another
Hugo nomination?
(Image via
nominate works, we would encourage you start figuring out your ballot. 

Give some thought to accessibility, to sequelitis, and to which worthy authors have *never* gotten a Hugo nod. And maybe pick up a standalone novel you might not otherwise give a chance to — try Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion or Omar El Akkad's American War

N.K. Jemisin's Fifth Season was a worthwhile winner last year, and most of our book club voted for it. But does the trilogy deserve getting a third book nominated for essentially a continued exploration of the same ideas? We'd suggest that the space on the 2018 Hugo ballot might be better served with an author who has yet to receive this kind of recognition. 


  1. All good points.

    I feel like I enjoy standalones more than I do multipart works. They’re complete, focused. If it’s a good one, you neither need to slog through an intro volume in order to get to the good stuff, nor be disappointed with a mediocre followup to a smashing beginning.

    So, I’d definitely like to see more of them — in the Hugos, in the markets, what have you.

    The flip side is, a standalone gives up some powerful, popular tools — continuity, familiarity, building upon earlier scaffolding, returning to beloved characters. And, in the current ocean of fiction, standalones can just be really hard to find — not because they’re not being written, but they do seem to be a riskier proposition; given less attention; being written less by already-popular authors. I can see why standalones are having difficulty standing out :-/

  2. I agree with Standback - you do make some really good points.

    Personally, I gravitate towards series because I invest a lot emotionally in the worlds and stories that I love, and I'm almost always going to want more. My favorite series are either really long story arcs that require multiple books, or series that introduce interesting new ideas with each new volume in the series.

    I nominate every year, and I try to read as much new fiction as I can before the nominations close. The sheer volume of new SFF that comes out *monthly* is pretty overwhelming. I'll pick up some new things because they look interesting to me, but mostly I fall back on word of mouth.

    What new SFF (published in 2017) has your club read and enjoyed? Even if you don't have answers now, please post about them when you have some. I'll be sure to keep an eye on your blog here, especially since it sounds like you'll be focusing on an area currently being neglected by the larger blogosphere!

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, there is so much great work being published today. I'm of the opinion that we're in a Golden Age of science fiction literature.

      We've got a blog post that we're continually updating with what we're looking at for our 2018 ballots:

      Right now, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 is the consensus favourite of those of us who have read it (three of our 12-person group have read it so far).

      Right now, in terms of 2017 works, one of us is reading Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes, while another is reading Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion. Hurley's book is one that I kind of think should get at least a nomination.

      Also, although it's too late now, because it came out in 2016, several of us *loved* Company Town by Madeline Ashby.

  3. I'm hoping that the addition of the Best Series category will move focus, so that more good sequels end up getting attention there than in the Best Novel category. As a bookseller, I see publishers (especially print publishers) being far more risk-averse, and sequels (also remakes/reboots in movies & TV) are a safer bet than stand-alones.

    I'm not seeing the supposed new "Golden Age" of SFF you describe. The rise of the Evil Amazonian Empire is, sadly, killing off Mass Market Paperbacks as a format (e.g.: ACE Books has completely abandoned the format, including cutting loose popular and steady-selling series authors like Mike Shepherd), which is also greatly limiting access-to-markets for new writers. No matter how many times Amazon partisans claim that e-books and self-publishing is helping new authors, I'm not seeing that as much as a rise in desperate self-pubbed authors trying to promote their (often amateurish-looking and poorly-edited) print-on-demand titles, having spent thousands to get them printed and now stuck with cartons languishing in their garages. For every Hugh Howey or Becky Chambers (authors whose self-pubbed titles go viral and get reprints by "big" publishers), there are dozens of authors who've saturated their "local markets" (families, friends, hometown bookstores, friends-of-friends on social media), still haven't paid off their initial printing outlay, and are trundling increasingly-shabby copies of their supposed "break-out" first books around to conventions. The most successful self-publishing authors I'm seeing are ones with an existing fan base (e.g.: established "mid-list" authors whose publishing houses have cut them loose, who are taking back rights to out-of-print works and re-issuing them as e-books and/or PoD reprints (sometimes omnibus editions) to coincide with their new releases in those series. It's great to see my author-friends keeping their old favorites in print, and continuing beloved series, but this doesn't help the new and possibly HUGO-worthy authors out there!

    I'm glad to have found this blog, though... Word of mouth is one place where the Internet IS making things "Golden"!

  4. I know people love to keep reading about their favorite characters and settings, but I find book series kind of offensive. Instead of asking me to buy one novel, writers are asking me to buy two, three, or more. I avoid series books like the plague, but sometimes I get tempted by great reviews. And most times, the 2nd book is never as good as the first, and the third is even weaker.

    I read science fiction for far-out ideas, and like you said, sequels don't offer anything new. That's why I've returned to reading short science fiction.