After my somewhat ranting post on cliffhangers a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about what would make authors go to such lengths in an attempt to guarantee readership. And there is a reason. I might not agree with it, but it’s there and I understand it.
Let’s prove three things before going any further.
First, money is good. I wholeheartedly agree with this. It is the ideal to write a book, publish it, and make a tidy sum that is hopefully enough to quit the day job. Should it be the sole reason for writing a book? No. It is, however, the practical end-goal of many authors which enables them to spend their time doing fun stuff like writing instead of, say, flipping burgers.
In the same vein, readers are good. The readers, after all, are the people who make or break a book’s success. They buy it, read it, review it, recommend it. . . the author’s success is heavily dependent on readers’ reactions.
With that said, we can also conclude that publishing the first book is only clearing the first hurdle. After the book is on the shelves, there’s a whole slew of marketing activities the author needs to do to give their book a fighting chance. Then, of course, there’s writing the second book, which should be published soon enough that the author is still known. However, even if the author markets like crazy and publishes regularly, there’s still no guarantee that readers will pick up the second book–and then, boom, back into obscurity they go.
At this point, it’s easy to start looking for a way to guarantee that the next book–and the next, and the next–are picked up by readers. After all, writing may be a hobby, but publishing is a business, a career. Which brings us back to point 1, money is good.
With that in mind, what can an author do to make readers wait anxiously for book 2? Well, there’s marketing the heck out of book 1 and building up hype as book 2 is on the journey to being published. This takes a lot of work and doesn’t always work. Then, of course, there are cliffhangers, which are not nearly as difficult, give the author a good excuse to write another book, and are certain to induce a longing in the reader.
Which seems more attractive?
Granted, cliffhangers don’t always work either. As a reader, I am more inclined to blacklist the author rather than wait anxiously for the next book. (The exceptions to this rule are serialized stories and manga–due to their format, I realize cliffhangers are necessary. That, however, is the subject of another post. I’m also softer towards cliffhanger if the whole story is available–think the Lord of the Rings trilogy :D.) I’m sure that there are other people out there who react the same way as I do. In rare cases, the public outcry is enough to condemn the book to the lands of the out-of-print. . .
. . . but there’s also strong evidence that cliffhangers do, in fact, work wonders. Take James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series or Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series. Maximum Ride ends on a cliffhanger on every single book except the last one, and it’s a bestselling series. Eragon ended on a cliffhanger for two books out of the planned trilogy. Paolini then shocked the world when Brisingr was published with an even bigger cliffhanger and the news that Eragon was now a four-book cycle, thankyouverymuch.
Needless to say, it is also a bestselling series.
For more examples: Serialized stories rely on cliffhangers to keep readers’ interest burning until the next installment. Because it works. Same with a lot of TV series (if you don’t mind me dipping into another form of media). Because it works. Need I go on?
Like I said, there’s reason for the continuing reign of cliffhangers. I don’t agree with the evidence, but it’s there. So, writers (and readers!), my question to you is: What is your take on the debate? Are cliffhangers acceptable, condemnable, or just part of doing business?
*A final note: I realize that many authors who otherwise would use cliffhangers are unable to or choose not to for their first book. There are many reasons for this, including traditional publishers being more likely to publish a stand-alone book vs a series when looking at a first-time author. However, I chose to go for simplicity in this post by using a two-book example rather than being vague or complicated.