The First Conundrum

Nancy J. Cohen

Often people will start reading a series with book number one. “You can begin with any story,” I’ll tell folks interested in reading my Bad Hair Day series. But they insist on starting at the beginning. “That’s fine,” I’ll say, but is it really?


I am thinking how that first book is not the best example of my writing skills today. How long ago was it published? In 1999. And the book had probably been in production for a year before. So that means I wrote it sixteen or more years ago. Don’t you think my writing has improved since then? Yet here is this potential fan evaluating my entire series based on that one book. You’d hope she would cut me some slack.

At least I got the rights back to my early futuristics. I revised those stories before making them available in ebook formats. No problems there.

I do not have the same opportunity with my mysteries. But even if I did, would it be a good use of my time to revise all of my earlier stories? Or is it best to leave them in their pristine state, an example of my earlier writing style? If so, let’s hope that the readers out there coming to my series for the first time will approve and understand.

Sometimes the opposite is true. A writer’s early works are his best efforts, before he gets rushed to meet deadlines or to quicken production. In such cases, the later writing might suffer. I’ve seen this happen with some favorite authors.

So what do you think? If you want to read a new series, do you begin with book one or with the latest title?

Now for some BSP. My new book, Warrior Lord (Drift Lords Series #3) is being released on Friday, August 1.
August 1, Friday, Book Launch Party for Warrior Lord, 10 am – 4 pm EDT. Join the fun. Giveaways all day!

41 thoughts on “The First Conundrum

  1. Not any more.

    When I heard of an author someone thought I’d enjoy, I would seek out their first book. I wanted to know the history of the main character and follow their story in a chronological order.It usually worked out fine, I was pretty tolerant as a reader.
    Now that I’m learning more about writing, not so charitable.

    I became hooked on Brad Parks by reading “The Good Cop”, which I believe is his third in that series. Read all his books after that, starting with his first. He has certainly improved over time. Would I have kept reading Brad if I started with his first book?
    Yes. I believe if you’re good at telling a story, it will show up in whatever you write. You’ll simply get better as you go along. If your heart stays in it.

    I just finished Linda Castillo’s “The Dead Will Tell”. Loved it. Will now read everything she ever wrote, starting with her first in this series. Looking forward, as a new author with a mystery series coming out this year, to see how her writing progressed.

  2. I’ll ask the author, if I have an opportunity. Absent that, I’ll start with either the first, most recent, or least expensive option as a test drive. I have no problem looking back while reading a series; I kind of like it. I’d read close to a dozen Spenser books before I got to the one–I forget the title–where I said to myself, “cool, this is the one where we’re introduced to Hawk.” Knowing where the relationship was about to go made the introduction more exciting.

    • Yes, cost definitely enters into the equation when readers think about trying a new author. That’s the whole point of giveaways, to perhaps hook a reader who might not have tried our series otherwise. For myself, I don’t mind dropping into the middle of an ongoing series. If I like the book, I’ll look for others by that author.

  3. Interesting question, Nancy.The goal in writing a series is to let every book stand on its own in case a reader jumps into the middle. But there are always going to be small tidbits in previous books that might enhance the reading experience if the reader starts at the beginning. Think of jumping into the middle of a long running series on TV such as 24 or Downton Abbey You’re still going to get enough out of the show to be entertained, but it sure would help if you knew what led up to the current segment. Personally, I like to start at book 1 or show 1 of any series if possible.

    • Hopefully, if a writer has done his job properly, you won’t need to read those previous installments to get what’s going on. But the continuing relationships do enhance the reader’s enjoyment. As for TV shows, best to start with the first season if possible.

  4. I usually start with the first knowing that the authors style will change over time- some improve and some unfortunately get worse (I’ve seen series go downhill after the first book). A lot depends on the genre too – paranormal/urbanfantasy and science fiction series usually do a lot of world building in the first book

    • Maria, that’s true about world building. It’s important in any series to lay the groundwork in book one, along with introducing the readers to any recurrent characters.

  5. Good question, Nancy! We were just talking about this since Husband’s reading a prequel one of his favorite (Big Name) authors wrote. He commented that it wasn’t as good as his new stuff. Well, of course it isn’t; it was written over 30 years ago. Personally, I’ll start with a new book, then go back and find the older ones if I like it.

  6. I’m anal about wanting to start at the beginning. I need to meet the characters and decide if I like them. I’ve been known to put down a book when I discover it’s not Book 1 and then go back to the beginning. Perhaps my most anal moment was when Laurie King had a ‘gap’ in one of her books, where the characters went off somewhere, but it was just one of those “we went away and when we got back…” and the story picked up from there. When King wrote the book about what happened, I went to the early book, read to the point where they left, then read the new one, then re-read the rest of the prior one.

    I don’t like to know anything the character doesn’t know (hate omniscient POV) and I’ll forgive the writing if I love the characters.

    • I’d think it would be really annoying to have a gap missing in characters’ lives whom you’ve come to care about. It’s good that King wrote the book to account for that time.

    • Yes, it helps to understand the character development as you watch the people grow and change over time. I lose patience with series where this doesn’t happen and the people stagnate in the same mental place.

  7. I always want to start with the first because I want to know every detail. I especially like to be in on the inside jokes or references an author will make to previous books as the characters and relationships develop. I appreciate that an author often writes a book so it can be standalone as well, but I really do enjoy series.
    If it’s a long series I will remind myself when starting that even if I don’t especially care for it, it is an earlier work and I will decide about reading more based on if the characters and the premise have drawn me in, not just put it down because the writing might not be that good. I would never give a bad review of an “old” book in a series without checking out the latest book. And if I read a first book in a “new” series I am generally tolerant and will try another book or two to see if the story and the writer’s skills develop.

  8. Usually I don’t mind starting in the middle of series. If I like it I will go back and read others. In one case if I had read her first book I never read her again. She is one of my favorite authors. I try to give an author at least 2 books before I decided not to read him again. Cost makes some books out of my range

    • The cost factor is why some authors offer sales or freebies, to attract new readers. I have found new authors I like that way, and then I’ll look up their other works.

  9. I think it depends on the nature of the series, and how series is defined.

    If it is a series that follows a character through similar adventures that are not necessarily connected from book to book (at least not in the primary plot lines) then picking up a book at any point of the series would work. I am thinking about books like John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series (just narrated the latest “END GAME” and it was just as awesome as the last several), Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, or my friend Marc Cameron’s Jericho Quinn thrillers. You can pick up any book in those or similar series and enjoy the story, learn enough about the main character to follow on, and skip around to various installments without confusion.

    On the other hand if you mean a series such as Ken Follet’s Century or Pillars of the Earth trilogies it is much more difficult to get a sense of what it happening if you start in the middle.

    My own previous books have certain recurring characters and a very general plot flow from book to book, but I generally steer folks to to my second novel rather than my first since it became a best seller, while the other was…well…my first book. That said the current series I am writing is a true series that follows a specific plot line from book to book and I’d think would be best to pick them up in order to really follow along.

    • After posting that a thought occurred to me. Perhaps those latter books I mentioned, Follet’s and others like it, as well as my own new series, are not actually series at all but just really long, thousand plus page novels broken up for marketability. I mean who wants to carry around a twelve inch thick, twenty pound paperback on a airplane.

    • Good points, Basil. I suppose we do have to consider the type of series. In another example, James Bond has adventures in each book but his character doesn’t change much. Same goes for Nancy Drew. While those are fun, I myself prefer series with continuing threads, overall series arcs, or at least characters who evolve from book to book.

  10. I’m with Amanda. I start with the first, and don’t mind if the writing isn’t as good as later books, as long as the story is solid.

    I tried reading a series out of order twice. The first time, I thought the book was garbage and would have given up on the whole series if the first book hadn’t sounded intriguing. In another series, even though I started with #7, I found I better understood the world the author had built when I read the first book, though it was clear the author was still trying to figure out the genre.

    So yeah, I always start with the first.

  11. Whenever possible, I prefer to read a mystery series from the beginning. I enjoy getting to know the characters from Day 1 and following their lives. But, it doesn’t always happen that way.
    Sometimes, I’ll order a new book (in an existing series) that intrigues me. If I really, really love it, I’ve been known to go back and start at the beginning of the series. I did that with Marilyn Meredith’s Rocky Bluff PD series.

  12. As an indie author, I really like that I’ve been able to go in and revise and polish my two published books, several times each, while working on the third. Maybe not such a good use of my time, as that (and promoting my books and editing for others) has really slowed down the writing and publication of my third book, which should have been out several months ago!

    I guess funds don’t allow it, but in an ideal world, it would be great if publishers allowed revisions of early books, and even supplied copyeditors to polish the revised/rewritten version. But I obviously know so little about the world of big publishers…

    Good luck with your new release, Nancy! I’ll be looking for it! πŸ™‚

    • Yes, that’s another conundrum isn’t it? If I got the rights back to my earlier books, should I revise them or not? At this point, I’d say no. There are simply too many of them and it would take away time from forward motion. As such, they will have historic value about my early ability as a writer, however much I cringe when I read some of that prose now. I did revise my first four scifi romances, however, before releasing them into ebooks.

    • And yes, you’re right about indie publishing. You control the edits and that means you can revise or even do a new edition whenever you desire.

  13. I like to see authors grow, so depending on the series (some can be read out of order quite easily), I’ll slog through the first one if I need to, to learn more about what happened before.

    I find it encouraging to see authors’ earlier works when their later works are better. There’s hope for me!

  14. I started Robert Crais’s series midway, but liked those 2 books well enough to start at the beginning. I loved seeing his development of Elvis Cole & Joe Pike from start to finish. I also noriced his style had changed & gotten better, but it didn’t bother me that his first books were simpler. The voice of an author is there from the start & hopefully will have added depth as the series grows.

    Nice post, Nancy.

  15. Travis Magee. James Bond, John Jakes’s “Bicentennial” series, Jason Bourne, Joe Pickett. Walt Longmire~ I guess you could say I tend to follow a series now and then… The only one I started at the beginning was the Jakes series, though when I’ve had an easy time finding the starting point I tend to “go back” to the start.

    I’ve found both cases you mention~ soft starts that get stronger and strong starts that get soggy – I hadn’t thought about deadlines being the reason, though ~ mainly I got the “phoning it in because it’s due” impression.

    I’ll continue to give series-es (?) a chance… and not let my OCD get (too much), in the way…

    • With the first book, you have all the time in the world to perfect it. But once you sell, deadlines and promotional pressures eat into your writing time. You have less time to polish. But then again, as you work with successive editors, your writing improves so you need less time to complete a novel.

  16. I don’t mind starting a series somewhere along the way. If I like that one, I go back and start at book 1 if it’s available. Otherwise I read the earliest one available. Of course, some series are easier to do this with than others. Thank you for this interesting post.

    • And you have to hope you can find those earlier books. Right now, my series has a gap with books 2-4. These titles have dropped through the cracks and are no longer available in digital formats. I have requested my rights back because I want to make these available for readers. It’s very frustrating.

  17. I would be horrified if someone read my first novel. Thankfully I never published it. It may see the light of day someday, but not until after some major revisions. I’m reading a series now by Karin Slaughter. Interestingly enough, people on Goodreads are telling me that it’s an older book and they do get better. My point is: maybe readers are doing the same thing for you

  18. My mom, who is 86, works her way through the entire body of work of every author she bonds with. What happens is that she reads something she likes, then goes back to that writer’s beginning. She enjoys seeing the development of characters–as well as the development of the author’s style–over time.

    Trust your readers. They are wise! πŸ™‚

  19. I started David Poyer’s Dan Lenson series at the first one, even though by the time I was aware of him the series was on its 10th or 11th book. I’m glad I went back to the beginning; I got to see the young naval officer grow from a green ensign just out of Annapolis in the mid-70s to a hardened veteran who is at the Pentagon on 9/11. Likewise with William Kent Krueger’s series on Cork O’Connor, the quarter-Ojibwe county sheriff turned PI in northern Minnesota. O’Connor’s family plays a large role in the series and I got to see it evolve over time.

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