Editorial March 2004 Reader Friendly? By Hilary Williamson
Be warned; I'm going to rant a bit here, at all those responsible for ... neverending series. Now, don't get me wrong, I love long series. They take away the regret felt after spending hours and even days with an engaging character, only to reach the last page of an engrossing novel and wonder is that all there is? I enjoy following long-running series like Laurie King's Russell / Holmes and Robert Tanenbaum's Karp / Ciampi mysteries, C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner SF trilogies, and fantasy epics like Michelle West's Sun Sword and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (now he's the current king of neverending!) I await new episodes (sequels and even prequels) with huge anticipation.
But let's face it; readers, even the looniest of us, don't spend all our reading moments on only one series. We enjoy other stuff too. And we have to wait a long time (usually at least a year) for sequels, during which life goes on, there are things on our minds, we have senior moments, and ever shortening attention spans ... we forget. The more complex and deep the series world, the more there is to forget, and aging memories of baby boomer readers are quickly compounding the problem. What to do? We could re-read all previous episodes whenever a new one comes out (even speed readers would have trouble finding time) or search the net for info on what came before, but neither approach is efficient.
Book publishing could take advantage of a field called ergonomics, which is not just about car instrument design these days. The UK Ergonomics Society has this to say about it: 'Ergonomics is the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems and environment for human use. Ergonomics comes into everything which involves people.' Have you noticed the term 'user friendly' sneaking into ads for all kinds of products? And don't you think that books could be more user friendly too?
Long-running series (and quite a few stand-alone books) are generally not reader friendly! Those enlightened enough to include a précis of past events are few and far between. Would it be so hard to include summaries in extended series? Let's have glossaries of large casts of characters (sure could have used those for some of the Russian classics with multiple confusing names!), of technical stuff for novels that incorporate complicated science, and of new words and races for fantasies that invent them. How about a timeline to navigate the complexities of tales that jump all over the historical map? Or charts to clarify complicated relationships?
It's been proven in many fields that better ergonomics attracts users. Professional editing has paid off in book readability for publishers, and its lack is one reason why self-published e-books aren't taking off. Seems logical that extending this reader friendly approach beyond the basic text will sell more books, by making them easier to ingest. And it's better than prematurely terminating good series, a trend disturbing to many fans. How about it?
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