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Pros and Cons of Writing a Series

| Posted in E-publishing |

15

Harry Potter SeriesIf you’re an author and you started out thinking you’d publish traditionally (i.e. find an agent who would then find you a huge multi-book contract with a major publisher, thus ensuring you could quit your day job and write full time for the rest of your life), you probably heard it was a bad idea to write a series.

Because, the conventional wisdom goes, if you don’t sell the first one, how on earth are you going to sell the second, third, etc.? Well, you aren’t. So they say don’t work on a series until you’re sure you have a publisher. (I know all about this wisdom, and it’s the reason I wrote Encrypted after I wrote The Emperor’s Edge — they take place in the same world, but, except for one continent-crossing assassin who appears in both, they have different characters.)

If you’ve decided to forgo the traditional publishing route, however, there’s no reason to worry about what agents and publishers might want. The only ones you have to please now are the readers.

So, should you write a series? Or stick with stand-alone stories? In the end, it might be a matter of your writing tastes, but let’s look at a few reasons for creating a series (and a couple of reasons you might want to hold off):

Pros & Cons of Publishing a Series

Pros

  • Readers may be more likely to buy the sequels — Lots of people get attached to characters, so, if they like yours, it may be a no brainer to purchase more books in the series (I know I’m like that when I read!). On the flip side, if all of your other books have different characters, then it might depend on whether the blurb sounds good or whether reviews are positive.
  • A series can grow into a brand that helps get the word out about your books — It’s hard to open a marketing text without reading about the importance of branding. Books can grow into a brand of sorts, and people may start talking about The So-and-So books even if they can’t remember the name of the author (don’t worry — if someone’s interest is piqued, they’ll have no problem finding you on Amazon by the series name).
  • The free/99-cent lead-in ebook works well with a series — We’ve talked about lots of indie authors who have had success by pricing their first ebook cheaply (or even free) as a way to get folks to try their other higher-priced offerings. This seems to work best when the following books feature the same characters and types of adventures. In some genres, such as fantasy and science fiction, authors will even end novels in a multi-book series with cliff hangers, so you have to pick up the following story to see how things turn out.

Cons

  • If folks don’t like the first one, you’re outta luck — In my opinion, it’s worth waiting and seeing what the reception is for the first book before committing to five more. I know of one indie author who had something like ten ebooks out in a series and was working very hard to promote it, but reviews were lukewarm for Book 1 and, despite all his promotional efforts, sales were lackluster. If readers buy one book and don’t like it, they’re not going to go on to buy the rest, and most new readers who stumble upon the sixth installment aren’t going to start there, no matter how enticing the blurb.
  • You may be forced to write “against the grain” — Some of us love to build characters over multiple books, but some authors don’t. If you get sick of your heroes and don’t want to keep spending time with them book after book, it’s going to show. You might get in trouble trying to write a series just so you can create a brand or entice readers to buy more of your work.

Those are my pros and cons for writing a series. Do you disagree with any or have others to add?

 

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Comments (15)

Very good points. I have nothing to add to those lists, but the cons are helping come to a decision on what I’m writing next.

Regarding cliffhangers… There’s one series that for me-the-reader went like this: Loved the first book, and it was apparently successful enough to turn it into a series. The second I did not like that much. Among other things, some subplots were not resolved, but left dangling for book 3. I don’t think it was even a proper cliffhanger, but such transparent attempts to “force” me to buy the next in the series tend to put me off. (That wasn’t the only weakness, but a major factor of why I gave the second book away and am very unlikely to buy anything by that author in future.)

But, well, generally I vastly prefer series in which each book could be read on its own to ones that are one continuous story.

I think that I know of whom you speak when you say, “I know of one indie author who had something like ten ebooks out in a series,” and there is one major flaw with the books: that author is not a very good writer. I’ve read some of the books. They are substandard in terms of all-around writing ability, which brings up the point: learn to write well before you commit to writing at length.

Lindsay,

I just finished reading The Emperor’s Edge. Immediately went in and bought Dark Currents and Encrypted. Keep writing whatever you want to; I’ll follow. Thanks for the great stories.

Gretchen Rix
The Cowboy’s Baby
When Gymkhana Smiles

I think series work best when they follow organically after an initial success. I’m thinking of the James Bond and Lincoln Rhymes stories or Barry Eisler’s John Rain books. You tell a good tale and if it’s successful you write another, exploring a different aspect of your characters/world. Because what do readers really want anyway? More of the same and a few twists.

Then again, what do I know? I’m the guy who can’t even commit to a 2-page laundry list.

I tend to prefer stand-alone books more often, but I will follow a series if I like the characters and the world enough.

The only thing authors need to make sure is that readers don’t feel cheated or forced to buy the next book. We know too well of many epic fantasy books where almost nothing happens, and books 1 and 2 were just set ups for the next book. I want a satisfying story, not a set up. Regardless of length, good writing is all about knowing how many words is *exactly* enough. I want to read a series because the story lends itself to a series, not because the author thinks s/he’s making a savvy business decision. If there’s padding, it’ll lose readers. If the length and format is *just right*, then yeah, a series can be a very good thing.

If you have a sequel in your head, let it out before you explode. If the first book doesn’t sell to an agent, then try smaller publishers direct. If that doesn’t work, then self-publish it.

Lindsay’s terrific blog is beneficial to all writers because the fact is that we must all do the same marketing, no matter how our books reach the public.

I think in the fantasy genre, too many writers attempt create stories with the artificial breaks that marked the Lord of the Rings publication, which was actually a single novel split in three. That decision has continued to influence the genre rather heavily, though many are moving the direction (and have been for about 20 years in some cases) of long series of stand-alone novels–Terry Goodkind perhaps the best example, as he actually got the end of his series; the later books tended to rely more heavily on past volumes to make sense than the earlier ones, but I suppose by that stage he’d already got to the point of having proven himself and so could get away with writing more cliff-hanger type books…

We’re about to launch the first of a crime-thriller series, and have the next five in the series already at various stages, and another half dozen beyond that in outline.

The balancing act to have a stand-alone story so that readers won’t feel cheated, that also has built in developmental stages for the next books has been an interesting challenge.

What’s clear is that the next books in the series will be that much easier and faster to write simply because key characters, locations and the theme have been established clearly in book one.

On the other hand we need to take into account timelines and how the characters (and especially children) age in the series. We’ve opted for a three month time line per book, marched to season, to allow the characters to develop relationships, children to grow up, etc.

Despite very keen interest from a major NY agent we’ve opted to self-publish and let the readers decide before looking at other options.

That way we don’t need the huge numbers of sales required to be commercially viable with a legacy publisher, and readers that do like it will not have to wait two years for the next.

In the event it takes off like our first novel then we will be in a far stronger position to neotiate a deal for wider rights. A win-win situation.

We’re also preparing to launch the first of a dark fantasy trilogy, where much the same considerations apply.

There’s also the possibility of boredom, the ultimate sin. Too many writers start mailing it in once they get a cash cow, and they quit telling stories. The biggest offenders are the media tie-in series that must bring all the characters back to the same place where they began the book–Kirk can’t kiss Spock, in other words.

I’m a stand-alone novel kind of guy, both in my writing and my reading preferences. But the practical benefits of a good epic fantasy series is undeniable. So I’m going to do my best to write a series of novels that stand alone. That sounds like a fun challenge.

As for myself, I think that I naturally write series. The stories I imagine are just that big. The first fantasy novel I wrote was over 300,000 words, so I split it into 2 novels. Those became Union of Renegades and The Goddess Queen. In the early 2000s I looked for a publisher, but who’s going to even consider taking on 2 books by an unknown? And publishing one without the other would have been stupid. And of course while I was seeking a publisher, I wrote 2 more novels in the series. So by 2005 I was dedicated to self publishing because that was the only way to get my work out there. I have zero regrets.

I think I was born to write series. I can’t imagine writing one novel, trying to get someone to publish it, and then trying to get the company to agree to publish the sequels. What a frustrating waste of time. I write because I want to write and I write exactly what I want to write. I’m so happy producing myself. By the way, my series novels are designed to be read in order. Because I like series, I also read them and too often I find later novels trying to act like someone can start the series from say Book 3 and the novel will have lots of summary information from earlier novels. That is so tedious and irritating. I suspect publishers are trying to design products that will attract new readers later in a series when the reader really needs to start at the start. But whatever. It’s their business not mine.

@TL Glad to help! Going to make the second novel stand alone?

@Anke Me too. I don’t mind cliffhangers too much if the rest of the books are available, but I do like to feel like I got a complete story arc in each book.

@Peter Always good advice. 😉

@Gretchen Thanks for checking them out! I got your email and will write back soon.

@Steve I think that’s a good way to do it. Maybe put a couple of novels out there before deciding which one to build into a series. Just gotta make sure not to kill off the heroes and burn bridges!

@Frida Good points. I think readers are quick to notice when an author seems to be dragging a series out. I often wonder, with series that go 10 books or more, if the author simply has trouble letting go of the characters and moving on to other things or if he/she gets pressured by the publisher (and readers too) to write more.

@Marva Thanks for the kind words. It’s definitely a good time to be an author since there are so many options out there now.

@Brondt I think agents are encouraging fantasy authors to do more of the stand alone novels now since publishers are leery of committing to a 3+ book contract any more. They want to see how well the first book does. Since indies can do whatever they want, it’ll be interesting to see if more of the books-spanning epics come back. There’s certainly an audience that seems to like them that way. (I’m not necessarily a part of it any more, but I did read Brooks, Eddings, Jordan, and all those guys as a kid.)

@Mark You sound busy! I hope the new books work out as well for you guys as your first.

@Scott Kirk can’t kiss Spock? I see you haven’t read the slash fan fiction… 😉 But, yes, there’s probably a sweet spot as far as series length goes.

@Moses Good luck! I’m looking forward to seeing how your first goes over!

@Tracy Haha, a kindred spirit. I never want to say goodbye to characters after just one adventure. I always try to write complete stories but like to set things up for the possibility of future adventures as well.

I usually plan a series then just write the first book and move on … until I sell one.

Been now thinking about ebook series separate from the novels. Too many ideas in my head. I need to learn to write faster.

A little behind on reading up my blog list and just noticed your question. That is a tough one. my second is not really a stand alone in outline form, but I am trying to plan out the writing, so that if someone picked it up that hadn’t read the first, they would have an understanding early on what the situation is. What I really meant though in my comment was that I’m going to write a different story completely and see how the first book turns out. If it does well, I’ll write #2 and so on, or I’ll just move on. There is a cliffhanger ending in the first book, but nothing that doesn’t close up loose ends for the story of that book. I like making each book pretty much a stand alone. I’ve been designing my outlines with that as my goal as much as I can.

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