JD Robb – Managing a Mega-Series

Maintaining the commitment of the readership for the long haul is the biggest challenge facing a series novelist. The longer the series and the greater the stretch between installments, the higher the likelihood of the readers wandering off. However, readers will often develop a sense of loyalty to a series, binge reading all available installments and purchasing new works as they become available. Writing a series, therefore, can be advantageous if the challenges are handled properly.

To learn how to manage the challenges of writing a series, I turned to JD Robb (one of Nora Roberts’ pseudonyms). The In Death series released its thirty-eighth installment this past February and is scheduled to release the thirty-ninth in September. The February/September release schedule is a pattern for Robb and is something that I’ve come to anticipate as a reader. This is the first lesson. To be a successful series novelist, be prolific. Studies have shown that readers prefer to see new installments in nine to twelve month intervals. So long as the quality of each installment is up to par, producing new works with regularity and speed help retain readers.

Looking at a pile of thirty-eight books can be intimidating to any reader. Where does one start? In Robb’s series, it doesn’t matter. For example, I read Salvation in Death (book #27) first, jumped around for a bit (as books were available at my local library) and eventually started from the beginning. Robb writes her books as stand alone mysteries, so I was able to enjoy and follow each work without having the rest of the series for context. The book in the reader’s hands is the best advertisement a writer has for their future works. Make the current book interesting, engaging and easily understood, regardless of background, and readers will want more.

By the same token, as I read more of her library, Robb’s books took on more depth and interest. This is because Robb provides a sense of continuity for her series through exploring her characters and their pasts, growth and relationships. Robb uses many of the same techniques that I observed in Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files for character development and empathy. However, I find that Robb’s use of character is often more subtle than Butcher’s, a stylistic choice that allows her books to be read out of order. Understanding each of the subplots enriches the reader’s experience but isn’t necessary for understanding.

Despite the length of the series, reading the In Death series doesn’t feel like a commitment from the inside. Each volume averages between 350 - 400 pages and is often paced like a thriller. The 3.3+ million words that I’ve read so far have gone by very quickly. When you combine fast paced, stand-alone stories with engaging characters, you can sell readers on a series going on thirty-nine volumes and counting.


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