Incomplete stories: a frustrating trend in publishing

What is a book?

At first glance, it seems like a pretty silly question. A book is, well, a book. Back in the day, you could hold it in your hands and read from front to back, losing yourself in a new world. Then e-readers came along, bringing with them the ability to carry hundreds of books at once.

But the e-reader opened up other opportunities, too. It allowed authors to play with the idea of the book, reviving old formats and exploring new ones.

One format in particular drew a fair amount of attention. The serial. Once (a long while back) a staple of regular publications, the format had largely died out until e-readers revived it. Instead of books being a complete story, a “book” in a serial was more akin to a television episode, telling one part of a larger story. Authors would release a “book” a week, or every two weeks, even going so far as to title their “books” episodes. Each “book” ended on a cliffhanger, creating legions of readers eager to purchase the next installment to know what happened next.

The craze for serials has largely died out, but they are one part of the digital publishing revolution that continues to alter the way we both write and consume books. And in my own reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about the serial format lately.

I read primarily science fiction and fantasy, and within those genres I am encountering a particular decision more often, one that calls into question what a book is.

And that is the decision to end a book without ending the story.

In the past couple of years, I’ve read several books that failed to conclude either a character arc or a plot arc. In almost every case, the book has ended with a big battle or dramatic event, but one that isn’t conclusive in any way. Worse still is the “cliffhanger” ending, that doesn’t even pretend to tell a whole story. (And it’s the type of ending that makes me think back to serials). I’ve seen the same in both independently published fiction and traditional fiction.

This bothers me.

And as I’ve been thinking about this, I think it goes back to the question I opened with.

What is a book?

To me, a book is a generous transaction, and a promise. I’m more than happy to pay my money for a new book, and in exchange, I will get to read a story.

When I read something that is only part of a story, it feels like the promise between author and reader has been broken.

As I browse books on stores, it is becoming apparent that many readers don’t even have the expectation of a full story anymore. I see reviews that say things like, “Well, it’s the first book in the series, so you can’t expect anything to get wrapped up,” and it breaks my heart a little.

To be fair, I recognize the problem is complex. Fantasy in particular has a long history of telling stories too big for one book. Series, of course, are far more commercially viable than standalone books. And with the growth of subscription reading services, the idea of a book means less, as the next book in the series is right there waiting for a reader, who perceives it as being free.

And yet, none of that changes how I feel. And, as a writer, I think this is one of the rare places in life where one can have their cake and eat it, too.

I know authors can tell a satisfying story and leave threads hanging for another book in the series. They can satisfy with the first book and still make a reader eager for the second.

What is a book?

It’s a promise between an author and a reader.

I’ll give you my money, and perhaps even more meaningful, my time and attention.

And you tell me a story.

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