Which of Your Books Should I Read First?

by Alafair Burke

I am a better writer today than I was in 1999 when I started my first book, Judgment Calls

I make that observation neither to apologize for my debut novel nor to boast about my current abilities.  In my humble and biased opinion, Judgment Calls is a good book.  I’d say PW and Booklist were probably about right in describing it “a solid first effort” and a “promising debut,” respectively.  (Proving that reviews can be scattered, The Rocky Mountain News may have been overly generous in comparing it to the “best of the genre,” while The UK’s Guardian was undoubtedly harsh in dubbing it their “Turkey of the Year.”)  And though I say I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote that book, I know I can still develop further in my craft. 

But the objective fact remains that I am better today than I was then.  So, therefore, are my books.  In fact, after just finishing my seventh novel, I can say (and I think my readers would agree) that each novel — without exception — has improved upon its predecessors.  I chalk the advancements up to hard work and confidence.  I try to write every single day, challenging myself to be better with each session.  And with each book, I have been more willing to trust my instincts, experiment with form, and follow my characters on their journey.

It turns out I am not the only writer who believes she has improved with age.

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A with Lisa Unger at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan about her new book, Fragile.  I asked her whether she viewed her earlier books, published before she was married under her maiden name Lisa Miscione, as part of the same body of work, or whether she preferred the later Lisa Unger novels to be treated as works by a different author. 

I found her response to be such a wonderful description of how many of us might feel about our development as artists.  She expressed a sincere pride in her early books and made clear that she was not one of those writers who seek to distance themselves from certain books through the use of another name.  But she also noted that she started her first book, Angel Fire, when she was nineteen years old.  She tries to become a better writer everyday (I obviously liked that part).  And, interestingly, she said that readers who picked up Angel Fire and Fragile would not recognize them as having been written by the same person because she was not the same as she was as a nineteen-year-old.


Harlan Coben recently found a different way of expressing a similar observation about his own work.  When his first novel, Play Dead, was re-released, he wrote the following note for the front of the book:

If you ever doubted Harlan’s ability to be humble and funny, you probably don’t anymore. 

The writers I most admire aren’t the ones who shoot out of the gate with a shattering debut that subsequent books just never quite measure up to.  They’re the ones — like Lisa and Harlan and Laura Lippman and Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and Lee Child and Karin Slaughter– who keep rolling out bigger and better books, delving deeping into their own souls to find fresh material year after year after year.

But there’s one question that I’m asked multiple times a week that must give pause to any writer who believes she’s improved with every book:  Which of your books should I read first?

In some ways, there’s really no better question to find waiting in your e-mail or on your Facebook page.  It means a new reader has found you.  Someone has heard about you from a friend or has finally seen your name enough times to be interested in your work.  Woot! 

The downside to the question is you’ve got to answer it.  And what’s the right answer, particularly if you write a series?  No matter how hard you’ve tried (as I do) to make each book work as a standalone, most genre readers like to proceed in order.  On the other hand, if you’ve become a better writer with each book, you might know (as I do) that, as proud as you are of that first novel, it’s not as good as the last.  So, for me at least, there is no short answer.

What I want to tell people is to read in order, but to expect each book to get better and better, and to stick with me through the end.  But that sounds simultaneously boastful and apologetic.  It also assumes a new reader is going to devote herself to your entire oeuvre.  So instead I say each book can be read alone, referring readers to the chronological list on my website.

I have to admit that when asked that impossible question, I wonder whether it would be better to be one of those people who torpedoed out of the gate only to come to a slow limp in later books.  And when I say “better,” obviously I don’t mean better.  I guess I mean something like luckier.  No, I mean easier. 

To explain what I mean, let me invoke some television shows as examples, since I love me some TV.  I absolutely loved Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty at the get-go.  Great characters.  Great hook.  Pulled me right in.  And then, you know, stuff happened.  Silly stuff.  Lame stuff.  But I was already invested, so I didn’t stop watching.  Other shows — shows like Friday Night Lights and, as I’ve been told at least, True Blood and Mad Men — had impressive enough starts but then blossomed into some of the best series on the tube. 

Creatively, of course you’d rather be the creator of the higher quality material.  But commercially?  An early peak can be pretty sticky as far as an audience is concerned.  If my first book had been my best, it would be so easy to tell new readers to start there.  Start with that first, awesome book, fall in love with the characters, and then stick with me even as I phone it in.  See how easy that would be?

But I don’t want writing to be easy.  I don’t want to phone it in.  I’m incredibly proud of the fact — yes, fact — that I’ve written seven books in about a decade, each being better than the previous.  I hope to write twenty more in the next two decades and be able to say I’m still a better writer every day.

But, my God, that trajectory sure does make it difficult to answer that damn question:  Which of your books should I read first?

So what do y’all think?  If I writer’s early books are good but not as great as the later ones, how do you hook a new reader in?  How do you talk about your body of work without apologizing for or distancing yourself from those early books?

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27 thoughts on “Which of Your Books Should I Read First?

  1. Dudley Forster

    First, as a reader I want to thank authors who strive to improve their craft. There is a special kind of disappointment when a reader gets hooked on an author, particularly a series, where the author’s first work was really good, even breakout good, then when they have made their name, start calling in their books. When that happens I get a little more cynical about publishers and “best sellers”. Every time an author “calls it in” he or she insults his or her readers and every writer who tries to write a better book than the one before.

    I have learned that many debut novels are not going to be as strong as later work. Same with some author’s work being a little uneven book to book. As a reader that’s okay with me. Alafair, I can see your dilemma I will try to read the books in order and for the same reason it is hard to make each book a stand alone. In some author’s series the character development and back story novel to novel is so connected, with so much having transpired, it becomes harder and harder to fill in new readers on what happened 3, 4, or 12 books ago. With these types of series, you can miss critical pieces of the story by not reading the books in order. You mentioned Karin Slaughter, she is a great example. In one of her Grant County series, a major character is murdered. My response, I cried like a baby. I would never have had such a strong emotional response if I hadn’t read the previous books.

    There are some author’s series where reading them in order is not that important. Dirk Pitt is going to be Dirk Pitt, well at least until he magically discovers he has kids. The question is how am I to know when starting to read a new author which kind of series it is going to be.

    How do you answer your the question? For me you already have when you said, “What I want to tell people is to read in order, but to expect each book to get better and better, and to stick with me through the end. “ I don’t think it is boastful or apologetic. I think it is honest and shows integrity. Allison said something very similar to me on this blog when I said I was starting her series with PREY. That engendered respect for her as a writer even before I read a word she wrote.

  2. Rebbie Macintyre

    This is a great post, Alafair, and thank you for it. Like so many others, I try to improve my writing with every piece. I experiment, I write every day, I study the craft and I read, read, read. When I see writers I admire getting better with each book, it makes me believe I can achieve the level of writing I'm striving for. As to tell readers what book to read first? My latest. It's my best. And even though I try not to be embarrassed about my first books, I do wish I knew as much then as I do now about listening to the story and writing to that.

  3. Spencer Seidel

    Writers are often terrible critics of their own work. As a reader, I don't pay any attention to authors who say I shouldn't read this or that book. That said, I'm hesitant to pick up early novels by big authors published after they've had a bestseller, simply because at one time the manuscripts were unpublishable, and there's probably a reason for that.

  4. Jennifer Brooks

    Thank you, Alafair, for being so insightful and transparent – this is a great essay, and it has inspired me more than you can imagine. And I agree with the preceding commenters; I'd like to think that most readers, if not all, understand that writers like us continually strive for improvement – whether the early works are breakout good or simply a 'solid first effort' (which, strictly speaking, is pretty darn good in its own right). I find that readers in general are an intelligent people, and if they discover a writer they like to read, then perhaps they would expect each subsequent novel to be better than the last. At that point it becomes our job to meet both their expectations and our own.

  5. Brett Battles

    Alafair, it's like you've read my mind. I've had these exact thoughts every time someone asks me which book to read first. And, like you, I strive to get better with each new novel. Great topic. Love that letter from Harlan Coben.

  6. Louise Ure

    See, this is the joy of writing stand alones. You can say, "Start anywhere! But my favorite is always the latest … until the next book, of course."

  7. Jen Forbus

    I'm not sure I can answer this for your perspective, Alafair. I was hooked with JUDGEMENT CALLS. However, I find that when I, personally, am recommending books to people I take into consideration the individual. That's easier for me because I usually know the person or I ask them questions about their interests. I know some people may not necessarily appreciate Samatha as much as I did but they'd devour Ellie…or vice versa. And that helps me direct a person. Then I have the folks who must read a series in order, regardless. They're pretty easy to direct. And then I have folks who just want me to hand them a book and I do just that.

    I guess in the end, since every person is different, there isn't one answer that "fits all."

  8. Jude Hardin

    Since my debut comes out next May, it's going to be easy for me for a while. 🙂

    I guess we all like to think that our latest efforts are our best, so as a general rule that's probably how I would approach the question.

  9. Debbie

    I've always enjoyed reading an author's works in the order they were written if I'm aware that there are multiple titles and when there is a series, I prefer that it be written for the fans, covering very little back story to bring new readers up to speed. Having said that, if I like an author, I want everyone to discover them and hope that there is enough backstory so that new readers are invested as emotionally as I am. If a person enjoys your voice, they'll pick up other novels, and more than likely, will then begin with your first. (BTW…just two days ago I went to the first Murderati post to see where it all began!)

  10. Alafair Burke

    I sometimes do tell readers I think the most recent book is the best, and y'all's comments have me feeling more comfortable about that. I do wish the book world was more celebratory of people who always get better and better.

  11. Dudley Forster

    Spencer – On publication of earlier unpublished mss. Exactly! That has got to one of the dirtiest tricks pulled by publishers.

    Louise – I’ m a selfish reader. If you write a great book with characters I love, I am going to want more of those characters. It’s like the Turkish Delights from the White Witch in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE.

  12. PK the Bookeemonster

    I try to read series books in order but I'm not fanatic about it. I read a lot of historical mysteries, therefore, timelines of historical incidents can play a part in the storyline hence my preferred reading order. That being said, I usually anticipate that an author will get better with each book.
    There are those occasional authors whose books lose their ability to hold my attention with each subsequent book to the point where I eventually drop that series from my reading rotation. I usually attribute that to my tastes changing more than the lack of skill of the author.

  13. Dana King

    This has become my favorite question to ask authors in the Q and A that usually follows a panel. Almost without fail, they recommend their most recent book. I always thought it was because that's the book they were currently flogging. It never occurred to me it might be because they thought it was their best.

  14. Barbie

    You know, as the good OCD I am, I can't imagine just WHY someone would read books in any order but chronological. No, really. Even if the story happens before, I think it should be read in the order they were written. I'm no author, but I play writing, and, sometimes, I write stories that happened before stories which were written before them, and, I like it when my readers (aka a couple of my guinea pigs — err, friends) think: "OH!!! That's why in that story she reacted to [event] like that." 🙂

    You know, I followed you on Twitter just because I think it's so cute when you say at the end of your posts if I liked that I should follow you! 🙂

  15. Alafair Burke

    Barbie, It's a shameless way to get people to stay in touch with me!

    PK, sadly I think a number of authors whose work I once loved simply stopped caring about their writing. I won't name them, of course, but in each instance, I really believe the writer decided that the most important consideration was to sell a ton of books. They tried to guess what their core audience wanted. They tried to guess what would expand their readership. They weren't motivated to write the best book they could, and the shift in their priorities showed up on the page (and not in a good way).

  16. Catherine

    I understand that for most authors each work will be built from the experience they gained in writing previous books. The deft handling of words to create story with characters that make me care is a key part of my reading pleasure.

    However sometimes I find myself loving an earlier work because for me, that story spoke louder. I can appreciate the skills gained in each successive book, but that earlier work will stand out for me as favourite because of the story.Reading is such a subjective pursuit.

    For instance the book Dudley referred to that Karin Slaughter wrote where a major character died, …is a stand out for me, for the sheer guts it took to do that. This to me has given my reading of her subsequent books a greater edge, because I suspect no one is safe.

    I find that for me my choices are more to what story appeals the most at what given time. So I do read out of order sometimes. This gives me more of stand alone perspective. Then I find a way to read them in order and see the extra layering and connections.

    I add my view, not to throw the cat among the pigeons, but to suggest that there is no right or wrong answer to which order books get read in.

  17. toni mcgee causey

    Excellent question, Alafair. I have not known how to answer this one, either. I love that people enjoyed the first book, but I'm usually biting my tongue to keep from blurting out, "But book 2 is better than 1! and 3 is better than 2!"

    I'm always worried that sounds like flogging, like they have to buy all 3. I've made sure that there's enough backstory (not too much) in each so that they can be picked up without having read the previous stories. And if someone were only going to give one book a chance, for me, I'd rather they bought book 3, because I know my skills had vastly improved by then.

    It would drive me nuts to phone it in. I'm pathological about improving–the overachiever in me, I guess. If I'm not improving, I don't see the point in the exercise.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Since I write standalones, I tell people who ask this question that it depends on what world they feel like inhabiting at the time that they ask me.

    I find I am utterly unable to predict which book of mine a reader will most respond to. Personally I think that THE PRICE is my most intense (and therefore maybe my best) book, but I think (surprise surprise) my new one, BOOK OF SHADOWS, is the best in terms of execution.

    But who am I to say? All I can do is do my best to make that world and those characters live, whoever they are and whatever they're doing.

  19. pari noskin taichert

    This is a wonderful post. I know I've felt that way about my books (though three doesn't seem like much when compared with the writers you mentioned). Though my three are a series, they still deal with very different themes. I do think I've become a better writer, but when someone asks me that question — which book of yours should I read? — I usually answer by telling them the basic themes of my works so they can pick the one that best resonates with what they want.

  20. Alafair Burke

    To my fellow Murderati bloggers who've posted today, I should note that one of the reasons I was so enthusiastic about joining this terrific group of writers is because we're all devoted to the quality of our work as artists more than trying to anticipate what other people are looking for from us.

  21. Fran

    From a bookselling standpoint, we try always to get people to start at the beginning of a series (although it stinks when you get someone hooked with the first book or two and the middle goes out of print). If the first in the series is a debut and is, perhaps, a bit rocky, we've been known to say things like "Author X's first one may have a few rough spots. Hang with it. You get to meet the characters and learn the world. Trust me, you'll enjoy her work, and her voice/writing (whatever word will work for the customer) just gets better and better."

    Unless we really don't think that. I'll be honest, not all first-in-series are the best places to start. But if the author is one whom we like and trust, we're not above skipping a book and saying, "Start with this one. You can grab the previous books if you like it — which I know you will! But this one will let you see just what Author X is like."

    At least that's how we generally handle it.

  22. Alafair Burke

    Fran, Thanks so much for the bookseller's perspective. I'm curious: Don't you have customers who aren't so into a first book show reluctance to continue, or have you earned sufficient goodwill to persuade them to stick it out?

  23. Robert Gregory Browne

    I like all of my books, but then I've only written eight. I do, however, see a definite improvement in my work. Still, when a reader points it out to me — "You just get better and better" — I sink a little because I'm thinking, hey, what was wrong with my earlier books?

    Typical writer, eh?

  24. Laura

    I'm the kind of reader who'll pick up a book and go "Hey! That looks good!" and read it, regardless as to whether it is a aprt of a series. If it is a series inwardly I cheer. And go back and read the series – doesn't have to be in order, whichever I can get my hands on first. With Tess' books I started at "Body Double" and Alafair, I'm currently reading my first of yours, "City of Fear" and enjoying it immensley. If I like what the author has given me, I'll go back for more. And yes, I often enjoy the later works more – but without reading the earlier titles, I'd never know just how much I like the author and appreciate the effort made to improve their craft. I hope that made sense (I shouldn't be writing this I'm at work, but hey, I work in a bookshop… so it's sort of work-related!)
    Great post Alafair.

  25. Fran

    Alafair, it depends on why our customer didn't click with the book. If the style or content wasn't their cup of tea, we booksellers file that away in our memories, offering an apology and trying with something else. We ask lots of questions so we can figure it out. Was it too gruesome? Not gruesome enough? Was it too wordy? Thing like that.

    But if a customer waffles, maybe didn't click entirely, then we encourage them to try one more, maybe the next in the series, maybe one we feel is a sure-fire winner.

    As we get to know our customers, we're better able to help. I've told customers whose tastes I know to put down a book I love and walk away. They've come to trust me, and I take that very, very seriously.

    But in the end, we all agree that what some people love, others won't and there's no real way to explain it except that people are different. And that's a very good thing!

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