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Self-Publishing Basics: Focus on One Book Series or Start Multiple Series?

| Posted in New Author Series |

24

If you take a look at the indie authors doing well out there (i.e. those who’ve been able to quit the day job and write full time), most of them have a number of books out. I had four novels and several shorter stories out before I started thinking, “Hm, maybe this could be the day job.” Now I have eight novels out, and it is the day job. Just having novels out isn’t the only factor though; six of my eight books are part of a series (and the others are part of a mini two-book series that ties in with the first).

A lot of successful authors, self-published and otherwise, have a core series that accounts for the majority of their income. So if you’re starting out, you should definitely focus on putting out a series… right?

Well, maybe. I thought I’d take a look at some of the pros and cons of focusing all your efforts into publishing multiple books in a series.

Pros

  • As I’ve mentioned, if a series takes off, it can not only pay the bills every month, but it can become that reliable source of income that allows you the freedom to quit the day job (while there are no guarantees in publishing, it’s likely that you’ll have X number of people buying your new releases when you put them out, so you can predict your income months in advance, something that’s hard to do if every book is a new, unrelated one that might — or might not — appeal to readers).
  • It can grow on people, making them more likely to share the series via word-of-mouth. With rare exceptions, most books are pretty forgettable, especially as the months and years pass and you read lots of other things. The more books a person reads with a certain set of characters, though, the more likely that series will stick in their memories, and the more likely, too, that they might think to share the title with friends looking for new reads. It’s unlikely that Harry Potter would have been a huge phenomenon if Rowling had stopped at Book 1!
  • Advertising dollars can go a long way. I’ve talked about everything from paid advertising to doing book tours and submitting to review sites here. With a lot of these things, it’s difficult to break even (even if the only investment is time — time is valuable!) on the sales of one book. If your book is priced at $2.99, and you make $2 per sale, a $200 advertisement has to move a lot of copies for you. (The numbers are far worse for $0.99 novels.) But, if you have a series, and you can expect a certain number of people who try Book 1 to go on and buy the next five books, you stand to make more from your time or your advertising dollar.

Cons

  • The big one here, and I’ve seen it often, is what if Book 1 doesn’t catch on? If, for whatever reason, people don’t twig to it, nobody’s going to buy the others in the series. And if you’ve invested a lot of time in writing a sprawling six-book epic… ouch.
  • You might be missing out on more success by sticking to one series. Now, if you’re doing well with your first series, this might not be an issue, but maybe you’re selling a few hundred books a month and thinking that’s not bad, but in the meantime you have this idea for a different series that you’re putting off because you’re focusing on the first series. And what if that other series is the one that might really take off? In this case, you might be limiting yourself.
  • If Book 1 of your series is your first novel, it may very well be the weakest novel you have out. Ask any seasoned writer, and she usually cringes a bit when talking about her first published novel. And it’s not uncommon to see reader reviews along the lines of, “If you stick with the series, it’s gets better in the second book.” Well, not everyone is going to stick with the series. Book 4 might be where you really hit your stride, but you’re having to focus on selling Book 1 because that’s where people start.

Is there a way to balance the pros and cons?

I think so. Whether this is feasible for you or not is going to depend on how prolific and how patient you are, but you may want to start two or three different series, or at least put out a couple of stand-alone books that could be turned into a series if they do well. Once you have these starter books out, you can spend time on advertising each one and see which has the most potential.

I inadvertently did this myself, publishing the two novels I had ready, Encrypted and Emperor’s Edge in the first month that I got started. I’d always had a series planned for the Emperor’s Edge characters, but if Encrypted had taken off for some reason (I confess, that was my second novel, and I’ve always thought it was a better story than EE1), I could have developed a series with the characters. Early on, I also gave pure steampunk a try with my Flash Gold novellas. It’s hard to compare novellas with novels (I’ve always found that my book-length works sell better), but if those had started selling extremely well, I could have written more of them. (I’m still planning to write a couple more, but they’re in no danger of dethroning EE as my flagship series, so I’ve had my focus on EE this last couple of years.)

What do you guys think? Have you had better luck focusing on one series or in writing multiple series? Or are you a screw-series-I-prefer-stand-alone-novels-thank-you-very-much person?

 

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Comments (24)

Excellent tips, as always, dearie! Thanks for this series!

As i am in the process of writing my first actual novel i read things like this avidly. I have a question, the novel i am writing is currently planned as a one off, but now i’m wondering if i should think about making it one of a series. Not sure it will work though … i need to come up with more story lines for the two main characters … would a one off work? I keep asking myself this.

Not saying a one-off wouldn’t work, and different genres can work differently, but it seems less likely. But if a standalone only finds a bit of success it can be a nice asset once you do have a series.

My adult fantasy series isn’t a recurring character series. The tales are standalone and related only by theme and location. And they don’t sell nearly as well as my YA series with two, soon to be three, books in it.

YMMV, of course.

My mind is whirling now on how i could expand my idea into a series …

Very good advice as always. The first novel we released is supposed to be part of a series and we are already in the drafting stage of part two. But, in the mean time, we’re releasing a serial in a completely new genre, under a second pen name. It’s really an experimentation in the genre for us, but I do have to wonder what we’d do if that one took off while our original serie sell only few copies every month…

This opens a related question to this topic.

Is it worthwhile spreading your author “brand” across multiple series or should you create pen names for each separate series?

I think that you are better advised to keep to a single author name overall.

As has been said many times, the challenge for writers is getting noticed amid the flood of material that readers are presented with when selecting their next book to read. This is certainly true within a given genre, but it is likely true across genres as well.

At the very least, creating pen names loses the benefit of having any advertising work for your entire line of books. The pen name novels would have no obvious relationship to the others.

Pen names should only be used if there is some sort of literary odor that is associated with the original author (in traditional publishing, failed authors would use a pen name so that publishers wouldn’t identify the writer with an expensive flop by another publisher) or if the subject matter being attributed to the pen name would taint your original author name (this was often the case with writers of erotica, but also extended to romance writers switching to or from other genres).

I tend to think that having your writing known to span multiple series and even genres is a good thing in the long term, but it may cost you sales in the short term. If your initial success is with horror stories, a reader who comes across your paranormal romance, despite the related attributes, may be disappointed and avoid or be skeptical about your next novel because of that disappointment. In the long run, with a reputation for handling multiple types of stories well, you are more likely to have a broader audience of readers and the greater numbers that implies, but getting there will take more time.

My writing partner and I split the difference. We write “sets,” not series. The books stand alone, but some characters overlap and the setting/world are the same. That way, a true fan will pick up the whole set, while a casual reader can start with any one of our books and not feel lost.

The downside is that we have to work to earn the reader’s trust each and every time. There is no built-in goodwill that you get from a series.

Very interesting, i like the idea of ‘sets’ something i shall think about.

It worked for Terry Pratchett. I’m trying the same thing.

In my authors’ group, seeing how well series go, have opted for sets too. And we won’t number them Exactly for the reason that readers might start where they stumble upon. And they might even choose, when they they like one author more than the others.

And we thought of a second set, too.

As we’re just starting publishing, so far I have no idea, what will happen.

I’ve always mostly written stand-alones, but a few years ago I wrote a novel that just naturally turned into a series. (The immediate story problem was resolved at the end, but the main characters were in worse trouble than they were at the beginning.) So now I’m working on that series. I’m planning to finish it before I start releasing it because I wanted to make sure I really can finish it, plus it’s evolved in some unexpected ways so I’m going to have to make a lot of changes in the first few books to make everything match up. I’m excited about this series; it’s a western-fantasy-romance, and I’m having way too much fun writing it ๐Ÿ˜€

I also have a number of novels and short stories (written and planned) set in a fantasy world I invented, but otherwise unconnected or only loosely connected. One of the stories is already out, but at some point I’ll also put it into a collection of stories just from that world, and the first novel set in that world comes out late this month. It’ll be interesting to see how well loosely-connected novels and stories set in the same world do compared to the continuing-story series.

I have a similar problem. My mind tends to invent series rather than stand-alones. I have about 10 I want to write and I read Hugh Howey suggesting similarly to try a couple of things and see what takes off before investing in a particular series. But try as I might I can’t see how I can do this when as I write each book in my current fantasy series, the further I go, the more i return to the first books and update/tweak/foreshadow etc… The Self Publishing Podcast guys have been commenting that they want to get into this ‘writing the whole series ahead of time’ for this very reason. So I’m torn between what makes sense (launch first book in different series) and how my brain works (have to write each series consecutively before publishing or else story wont be as it should be…).

Such a classic question! If only there were enough time to do everything . . . ๐Ÿ˜›

I’m figuring that I’ll start out with a series, but if I end up a couple of books in and interest/sales are still pretty low, then I’ll think about starting a new series and possibly returning to the original one later. The beauty of the self-publishing world is that even if a series doesn’t catch on for a while, or even for years, it can still catch fire later. The potential is always there.

And even if your first series is written when you are less skilled as a writer, you may well have fans of your newer work who are really excited to go back and read the older stuff.

This is such a timely post as I have been toying with this idea for a while. When I committed to writing again in 2006, I started out with a light hearted fantasy series. I planned about 8-10 books in this series, wrote the first one, rewrote it 3-4 times, then sent it out. The feedback was consistent. Good writer. Wrong material. Light hearted fantasy doesn’t sell. Or, in the case of the UK market, it’s Terry Pratchett’s market (I’m a HUGE hard core fan of TP but I found that statement the most depressing of all; in this day and age, well 2008-2009, with the amount of fresh talent out there, that agents and publishers could be so narrow-minded as to say that astounded me!).

The book I ended up self-publishing last year is the first in a supernatural thriller series. It started life as a short story that made the shortlist of the British Fantasy Society competition a few years ago. I garnered serious interest from a couple of agents and publishers, but was never offered a contract.

I’m now committed to writing and publishing one book per year in this series and there will likely be 6 novels in total.

Thing is, that light hearted fantasy series is still very close to my heart. I’m far enough from it now to see that the first novel (and the draft of the second one) needs a serious rewrite, but I would like it to see the light of day. I love those characters. They were the ones who make me return to writing.

I’ve been toying with writing and publishing one book in both series every year. I think it will be very hard physically and mentally to do this while having a day (and night job, I’m a doctor). I will likely not have a life, period ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ve heard of some seriously prolific writers who have a day job and still churn out several 80K+ words novels a year. And have kids! I suspect they have a time machine in the garage!

One author I recall reading about has two computers. She always writes two books simultaneously and just goes from one computer to another.

If there’s one thing I could do over again, it would be to not write Chains of a Dark Goddess and to push ahead to Storm Phase 3, which I’m about to release. The adult books are only loosely related in their series and don’t sell nearly as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chains and it may be my best book, but it does bring in the $ or the readers. But the fans that do find it seem to all love it.

It’s crazy, but after I release Storm Phase 3, I’m going to release Book 1 in an upper MG series. It’s a rewrite though and the book began before I started indie. The thing about having an agent from 2004-2008 and being in the traditional world was that I built up several series starters with no sequels.

I’m also planning out a novelette series to run in between the Storm Phase books. I’d love to write Storm Phase back to back to back, but I need time to reset between each book. Time I can spend on another book.

I’m not sure I got to my point. ๐Ÿ˜‰

My point was, all the separate books and #1’s don’t pay out as well as the books in a series do. Not even close. Having just a Book 2 was a huge boost to my sales.

However, I will have a lot of series starts that can catch fire and grow in the future.

Book 3 of series one (The Hounds of Annwn) comes out this month and I’m starting book 4, but after that (in other words, in about 6 months), I’ll be starting a new series. Part of the issue is to break out of my new-author limitations some of which are difficult to do within the first series because the style changes might be too large.

I hope it works. Book 2 really boosted my sales (in my tiny pond), and I’m eager to see what book 3 will do. I can’t complain — all 4 books in series one will have taken less than two years (darn those time-consuming day jobs). It’s only with book 3 out that I think I can start doing the useful marketing and price maneuvering that lets book 1 be a cheap intro to the rest of them.

Another great post, but one “pro” about writing multiple series that didn’t seem to be mentioned is the fact that it can be fun, and refreshing, to take a break from a group of characters.

I labored over my first novel for a year and a half, revised it multiple times, and finally released it. Once it was out, I wanted a break. I started a novel in another series, completely different in tone and setting and even genre, and I’ve been having lots of fun with it. It’s been great to just rollick along with something entirely different, without having to worry about carrying the weight of earlier accomplishments.

Meanwhile, I’m getting excited about revisiting characters and stories from the first series, and I’m starting to build up the energy to re-enter that world. I’m also pretty sure that the second book will turn out better for having given myself a break.

One author who’s used this multiple-series strategy to great effect, in my opinion, is Jim Butcher. By alternating between Dresden novels and books in the Codex Alera, he seemed to keep his momentum going well, and to crank out a lot of really fun books.

Some great points in this post.

I wrote my first novel as a stand-alone, but after I finished it I found I liked the characters and world too much to leave them alone. I ended up writing a sequel fairly quickly.

The first book came out at the end of last year, and I hope to have the sequel out before the end of this year. I’ll see how much of an impact having a Book 2 will have on my sales.

Even though I have parts of a Book 3 outlined, I’m starting work on a brand new series. It’s a series that I’ve planned on it being a series from the beginning. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes things knowing that going in.

I have ideas for about 4 different series – 2 in the mystery genre, 1 crime, 1 sci-fi. But I also have a day job that is pretty demanding. So, I’ve decided to work on the 2 series that I like the most (and think are most marketable). I’ve committed to doing 3 books in each before I move on to the other series. If a series is showing promise after 3 books, I’ll continue with it. If not, I’ll move on to one of the other series.

I dont’ think you can accurately gauge how a series is going to do with less than 3 books. However, all of the series I plan to write have a set number of books – 6 in two of the series and 10 and 12 in the other series. In each series, each book will stand-alone in that the main plot will be resolved at the end of each book. However, there will be recurring characters and sub-plots that will carry through the entire series.

That should keep me busy for a few years, dontcha think? ๐Ÿ™‚

I also meant to say you make some excellent points in your article, Lindsay. Thanks!

I think it’s hard to know what’s going to take off, so you should just write what you want and then go from there.

A couple months ago, I started getting all kinds of ideas, and have gotten a few more ideas since. I created a production schedule and a release schedule, and am going to alternate each title. Right now, my plan is to divvy my focus between all of them. If one begins to look more promising, I might concentrate more on that, but my main focus is to “just do it.” ๐Ÿ™‚

Series: when they are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are horrid. Just like everything in fiction. Everything is a risk. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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