Rocky Balboa and Rambo. The difference? Probably an extra 50% at box office.
Book publishers have long known that you don’t put numbers on the covers of a book series. This occasionally irritated me when, in younger days, I had to look inside to find which Elric or Ellery Queen book to read next. The publishers didn’t care because they already had me hooked; it was the non-fans they needed to attract. If somebody saw “James Bond book 5” on the cover and hadn’t read the first four, they wouldn’t bother to pick it up. If you number a series too conspicuously, the law of diminishing returns soon kicks in.
Some series can buck the trend. Toy Story and Star Wars movies don’t mind adding the weight of a Roman numeral to the poster. That’s because those series have already broken through to the real mainstream. If you’re going to see the next movie, it’s a dead cert you already saw the earlier ones.
This all came up recently in a discussion with the chaps at Megara Entertainment, who may be running a Kickstarter for a new Fabled Lands book later this year. Perhaps I should add a word of caution here before I overstimulate the hopes of FL aficionados. The problems I've already cited with Kickstarter haven't gone away. (Short version: even if you raise $50,000, after printing and shipping all those hardbacks you might have less than $5000 to pay for writing, art, editing and typesetting.) So we're still just at the discussion stage, figuring out how it could be made to work. Megara may decide to run a Kickstarter campaign for something else this year. Paul Gresty, who has volunteered to write the thing for nothing but love and praise, may yet come to his senses and focus on paid work instead. There are no guarantees in life.
If there are answers to the Kickstarter Paradox, they can only be found by a group of people proposing and debating different strategies, refining the best ideas, and all getting behind an agreed plan. I started this particular discussion off by saying that, given the twenty-year gap, we could hardly sail in with, “Here’s book 7” like nothing had happened. Most of the people we’ll be talking to would never have heard of Fabled Lands. And even for the fans – well, think of Sherlock Holmes. Does anybody want yet more formulaic adventures of the dear old bod? Even his creator was sick of those. When a new Holmes book comes out, what we look for is something interesting like Moriarty or A Slight Trick of the Mind. Nobody but a Baker Street Irregular is going to want Sherlock Holmes V – and they’d just swipe a copy without paying and then use it to cosh a tramp.
Anyway, here’s what the Megara team had to say. Joining in are Mikael Louys and Richard S Hetley, Megara’s CEOs in Europe and the USA respectively; Paul Gresty, the author of the new book whatever it ends up being called; and me and Jamie, as the ones to blame for all this FL stuff in the first place.
Richard S Hetley: “That is an interesting possibility. Sure, the Way of the Tiger worked out very well, but ‘rebooting’ a series is often a peculiar thing psychologically. After all this time, why not act as though it were a standalone book? Part of the point is that they already are "standalone" in the sense that you can start from anywhere. So, ‘We acknowledge that it's been years and the initial plan of twelve books isn't getting completed. We are returning to the Fabled Lands for this one book. Sure, it connects with all those books, and it draws from the missing 7-12 domain, but we know things are different 25 years later and this book is its own thing.’”
Jamie Thomson: “I just don't see the value of not calling it FL 7. It's a series of linked books, each playable on their own anyway. Mucking about with it at this stage will only confuse people. Is it Fabled Lands or not? Or some new spin off? There's no need to complicate a fairly simple idea. There's a bunch of fans out there who want more in the series. We just give them the next one. Then we find out whether there's enough of them to justify the work, but hopefully there will be. And if so, they'll want the next, and we could even keep doing that until they don't want to fund any more. I can't see where the gain is. It sounds like we'd be saying, 'This isn't book 7, although actually it is.’ Unless we did it as a stand alone title, but it referenced all parts of the world, and wasn't just set in the Feathered Lands. You'd just have fewer adventures, but spread around a bit. It wouldn't actually be book 7 then.”
Mikael Louys: “The fans want it to be a Fabled Lands book not a standalone. I've heard this often enough over the last few years.”
Richard: “There was a recent movie called Tron: Legacy. It was not called Tron II. They didn't even try to get people to watch the original Tron first. That's what I mean by ‘standalone’.”
Paul Gresty: “Looking over the FL reprints, they aren't really called 'Fabled Lands 1', 'Fabled Lands 2' etc. The pertinent number appears on each book's spine, but that's the only place it does appear. The cover of Book 2, for instance, says: Fabled Lands: Cities of Gold and Glory. So, for the Kickstarter, it's easy enough to drop the 7. By the very nature of the FL series, The Serpent King's Domain could easily be considered the first book you play anyway.”
Dave Morris: “That’s what I’m saying. The fans already know The Serpent King’s Domain is the seventh book in chronological order of publication. They also understand they can start in any book. But somebody who has never played Fabled Lands before but does have an interest in gamebooks and is willing to support a campaign on Kickstarter – I submit that could be a respectably large set of potential backers, for whom seeing it described as ‘book 7’ will only put them off.”
Paul: “I think it would be particularly tricky to reboot Fabled Lands, given how interconnected the books are – far more so than, say, Golden Dragon. The as-yet-unpublished Lone Wolf 29 apparently takes place twenty-five years after Lone Wolf 28. A quarter of a century has passed in real-life, and it has passed in the life of the book's protagonist as well. Could something similar be done with Fabled Lands? For the moment, I'm failing to see how. As I say, the books are too interconnected, and non-linear, to make that sort of thing easy.”
Dave: “I don't think anyone is advocating an FL reboot. And I like the sound of what Joe Dever is doing there, letting the 25-year hiatus be a feature not a bug, but we can’t really do it with Fabled Lands because we don’t have a central character in that way. Short of adding show tunes or pop-up maps, what can we do to make this, not a reboot, but more than just ‘here’s more monsters and treasure’?”
Jamie: "I think we just have to say it’s book 7! You know what will happen if we don’t: ‘Is this book 7 in the series?’ ‘Can I go straight from one of the earlier books to this one?’ ‘Why isn’t this the next in the series’. ‘What is this?’ ‘Can I take my old Fabled Lands character into this book?’ ‘Is this set in the same time period as the original series?’ ‘This sounds interesting, but I really just wanted the next in the series’ and so on, and so on.
It seems the debate will rage on and on. Should the book be trumpeted on Kickstarter as "Fabled Lands Book 7" or as "Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain"? Or should it even be a single volume that wraps up the whole Fabled Lands series once and for all? A lot depends on whether we are willing and able to reach out to a new bunch of readers, and thus inject the series with a fresh lease of life, or whether the market for Fabled Lands books is going to stay restricted to those players who have stuck around for the last twenty years. What do you think?