There you are, in the bookstore, library, or browsing online. There it is, a cover that catches your eye. You pick it up, scan the back cover, or read the blurb. Sounds good. You drop it in your cart, real or virtual, and now it’s yours. You settle into your favorite reading nook, all ready to get lost in the story, and then you get that feeling. This. Is. Not. The. First. Book. In. This. Series. There are two options here: read it now, or read it in order What are you going to do?
Okay, technically, it’s a little more nuanced, and there are more options than only those two. You could walk away, right now, but let’s be real. You’ve got the book. You’re already interested. You’re going to read it. The big question is, do you read it now, or take another approach? There’s no hard and fast answer to this one. Too many variables for a one size fits all kind of deal on this one.
First variable: are the previous books available? In the days before e-publishing, having prior books go out of print was a very real danger for long running series, or new readers who hopped on board, later in the journey. Even now, it’s not entirely unheard of for a prior book to be unavailable but for a chance encounter in a brick and mortar used book store. It may not be in the library system, or available online, but at a prohibitive price.
In that case, the second variable may well come in handy. Many authors assure readers that, even though linked by character, place, setting, tone, or other factors, each book can stand by itself. In some cases, this is true. Well-placed mentions of prior characters and events can go a long way to orienting a reader who arrives after the party has started, and maybe even whet their appetites to circle back and hunt down those books, too, to see what went on, firsthand. The tricky bit for this variable, though, is that too many “as you know, Bob,” bits of dialogue can slow the pace, or cause longtime readers to skip ahead, because they were there the first time. Adding a character who is new to the story world allows the reader to experience things along with their fellow newcomer, and can add some new blood, when most of the original characters have found their HEAs or HFNs.
Third variable gets a little squiggly. Do you want to read the prior books? Maybe one of the lovers has the same name as an awful ex in real life, deals with a subject that may set off emotional triggers, contains a historical or cultural error that would take away from the ability to fully immerse in the story, or any other reason that sets off the “no thanks,” response. In that case, it is worth mentioning that there are no book police. A phrase from the early days of fanfic communities comes to mind: don’t like, don’t read. There is a reason romance novels fall under the category of pleasure reading. Same, as well, if you absolutely can’t read out of order, because you will always, always have that nagging feeling you’d be missing something, and absolutely do need the overall continuity.
Which brings us to the next, and maybe biggest variable, the one that comes into play when the books aren’t written or published in chronological order. There are a lot of reasons this can happen, and it kind o circles around to that random book encounter in the wild. Maybe the author didn’t know they were going to write the story of the prior generation, at all, but readers demand to know how the first book’s hero’s parents met and fell in love. The seed gets planted, it takes root, they write the book, but what number do they give it, when listing the entire series? 0.5? 0.1? Is it the first book, now? Is it a prequel? Spinoff? Companion? Where does it gooooooo?
This can lead to a lot of healthy debate. Say the author of the above series also made a passing reference to a pair of lovers who lived centuries before, and founded the company or ranch or stately home where the whole series is based, in that parents’ book. Is that book now the first one? What if it comes out the year after the first book in the second (or is it third, now?) generation’s first story? Or at the same time? What if it was actually the second generation’s first book that was written first, before the author even conceived of the first generation as the readers know it, but it wasn’t a right fit at the time, they wrote what we know as the first generation which is what caught, and now we have a lot of options for reading order.
For some readers, there isn’t even a question. They’ll read a book as they come upon it. If they like it, they’ll look for the others, or maybe wait until the book comes to them. Other readers will immediately put that later in series book back on the shelf, do their research, email the author if necessary, get the whole series arranged in their preferred order, and then plow through the whole thing like it was one realllly big volume. Though there are a lot of variables going on here, the only right approach is the one that allows the individual reader to read the story.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. How do you prefer to read series books? Are you a take it as it comes type? Prefer to start at the chronological beginning and move in a straight line? Prefer some other order? Pull up a chair in the comment section, and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.