Fortunately our list-makers over at Word Whores have chosen a one-hit list for this week’s topic: The most essential element for writing a successful series.
I’m not usually the one to give self-publishing advice. That’s because, while I’ve done a bit of it – a couple of backlist books (Petals and Thorns and Negotiation) – I’ve put a lot more focus on the traditional path. There are a lot of reasons for that, which aren’t really pertinent to today’s point, though I’m happy to talk about it if anyone wants to know.) That said, I will be doing more of self-publishing in the future, including a fab anthology project and an exciting secret something with Grace Draven.
Still, I feel like I should say something to up-and-coming writers who decide to self-publish.
Apparently there’s a lot of bad advice out there, because this particular question keeps coming up on my author loops. A gal going to RWA Annual Conference asked for advice on pitching to agents and editors. Which is great that she’s asking! I pitched for many years and it’s not easy. However, she said that she self-published the first book in her series and it’s not doing well, but the second book is almost ready. She wondered if she should pitch the first book or the second.
The answer? NEITHER.
And I should caveat this by saying that she is FAR from the only person to do this.
So here’s the deal. We all read the stories about the self-pubbed book that gets picked up by a major publisher because it did so astonishingly well. This makes for great news in part because it’s SO RARE. It doesn’t seem like it, because the stories are so high profile, but statistically this is hugely unlikely to happen. This is one of the very worst reasons to self-publish, especially the first book in a planned series. Seriously. Here’s why.
If the self-published book does not do astronomically well – and that means tens of thousands of copies – then a traditional publisher will not want it. That’s just the facts of the industry. The book has been market-tested and will hold no appeal for a traditional publisher. Which means that an agent will not want to represent it, because they know they can’t sell it to a publisher. Simple logic.
Also, pretty much no publisher will pick up the second book in a series. There are some exceptions to this. Occasionally a traditional publisher will drop a series after two books and another will pick up the third. But again, this happens when the original series did decently and I’ve only heard of it working when a bigger traditional publishing house drops it and a smaller, usually digital-first, publisher picks it up. I don’t know of any cases where they’ve picked up more than one book. It’s really a gamble that lovers of the series will buy that final book to round out a trilogy. With a series, most traditional publishers want to control the packaging and marketing from the beginning.
So the upshot of this is: 99.9% of the time, once an author self-publishes the first book in her series, she has to commit to self-publishing the entire series. If she wants to try for a traditional publishing deal, too, then she needs to pitch an entirely new series to agents and editors.
(Also, if she really wants to go the agent route, then it’s best to pitch to them first, and let THEM pitch to editors, but that’s a whole other post.)
I want to add that committing to self-publishing a series can be a terrific plan. I have several writer friends doing very well that way. One, Elizabeth Hunter – whose book THE SCRIBE (book 1 in the Irin Chronicles) I’m just *loving* – told me that she saw no significant audience for her books until she published book 3. Other people have said book 4 or even 5.
Sure, self-publish a series! But commit to that path for it and don’t look at self-publishing the first book as a stepping stone to getting it traditionally published. It *can* open the doors to having another series traditionally published. But once that first book is out there, it’s out. If you harbor hope of taking that series down the traditional path, think very carefully before you pull the trigger and click that “Publish” button.
I’m over at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog today, talking about how it feels to wrap up a trilogy and meeting one of my literary heroes.
I’m over at Word Whores today, discussing how I planned my Covenant of Thorns and Twelve Kingdoms trilogies.
I’m over at Word Whores today, following up on our topic of last week (outlines – hates ’em) and taking it a step further. If I don’t outline or know what happens in a story ahead of time, how do I sell a series concept?
I took the day off yesterday – from both day job and writing. We went for a walk, had breakfast on the patio, watched the 4th of July parade and then hung out. I did a lot of reading under the grape arbor. There may have been wine-drinking involved.
I’m reading a Famous Series by a Famous Author. I’m coming in after the series is complete. Some time ago I picked up one of the books in hardback, because it looked intriguing and right up my reading alley. Also I had really enjoy this author’s historical/time-travel romances. I tried several times to get into it and never got past page 52. (I know this, because when I got it out this weekend, that’s where I’d left it marked.)
Recently, several readers mentioned that Rogue’s Pawn has similarities to this series. When I said I’d never read it, they insisted I just must. (And no, this is not Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghost series. A reviewer made that comparison and I’m just tremendously flattered. Stacy’s on her 5th book in that series and, if you haven’t read it, this review might convince you.)
At any rate, convinced that my mistake had been in not starting with Book 1 in the series, I figured out what the title was by going to the author’s website. I couldn’t tell by looking at Amazon, and read it on the Kindle. And okay – it was definitely better that way. I understood more of the story, was more invested in the characters and was willing to continue. I’m told that if I read the whole series, the payoff is big. That’s when I pulled out the hardback again and started over.
And I discovered why I’d gotten so bogged down before.
She starts the book off with recap of the story so far and lots of back story. Really boring “and this happened and that happened and then…”
The other day I posted about not slavishly following the rules, but boy howdy – that rule about not starting with back story and info-dump? Totally confirmed.
So then, I’m trudging through all this recap and she mentions stuff that I know didn’t happen in Book 1. But nowhere on this book does it tell me where it falls in the series. I went back to the author website and discover my hardback is actually Book 3. I buy Book 2 on my Kindle and start reading.
Guess what? It’s almost exactly the same damn boilerplate recap she started Book 3 with. Clearly she wrote it for Book 2, then just slapped it into Book 3, with a few additional details for things that happened in Book 2.
I just don’t get it. I mean, I know it’s not easy weaving in back story. My friend Allison Pang really bled over that when she wrote her Book 2. All I can think is that the author is Famous enough that her editor let her get away with this.
Thing is – it’s awful. And it absolutely stopped me from getting into her series when I blithely picked up Book 3 without knowing it.
Now I feel much better about how I’ve handled back story in RP2.
If I ever do this boilerplate thing? Somebody slap me!
Well, Feeding the Vampire is now officially book 1 in a new series! My Ellora’s Cave editor, the lovely and delightful Grace Bradley, accepted Blood Siren, which now has the working title Hunting the Siren, as book 2 in the Blood Currency series!
Yes, it’s been a busy week. Funny how nothing seems to happen for months on end and then, boom! all in the same week.
So this means I have two official series now, Blood Currency and A Covenant of Thorns. It’s three if you count the Sapphire and Platinum books, which I refer to as the jewel series – but no one has given me an official series title for those, so I think they remain a looser grouping. None of these are contracted series, meaning I don’t have money wrapped up in delivering the next book by a particular deadline. From what I’ve seen of my cohorts with contractual deadlines, this is a pretty nice place to be.
Still, it hit me last night that I’m really moving forward with three series now. And, if I sell The Body Gift and The Middle Princess, that could bring it up to five.
It reminds me of the advice always given to new gardeners and landscapers, not to plant too closely together. Of course, the urge to do this is irresistible, especially when you have a vast expanse of nothing nothing nothing.You *want* to fill it up with stuff, as much as possible, as fast as possible.
We did this at our first house. We had this very long strip of back yard out to the alley, bordered on one side by a chain-link fence and a parking lot. SO ugly. And we had less than zero money to put in a privacy fence. So we planted seedling trees and shrubs, all along the fence. One day, at the city landfill, David scored a bunch of hail-damaged bushes and trees Walmart was dumping. He came back with a truck empty of gardening detritus and full of a small forest. We planted them ALL. Some died, but about two-thirds lived and thrived.
All this time we knew we shouldn’t plant them too close together. All the friends, all the landscaping books, warned us not to.
But we just didn’t care. We had this great ugly desert of nothing and we wanted to fill it up, whatever it took. We always figured we could deal with overgrowth later. Or let the next homeowner deal with it.
Are you waiting for the moment of Great Regret?
Never happened. It’s funny, telling this story and realizing that we never regretted that for a moment. In fact, when we decided to sell, the real estate agent walked into the backyard and actually took a breath in wonder. Our tiny house had this forested, shady grove in back, with winding paths and sweet feeling of privacy.
I suppose I’ve answered my own question now. I may indeed have overplanted. But I’m not sorry now. I’d be sorrier to have nothing nothing nothing.
I’ll take the abundance with gratitude.
See? I take photos of clouds in other places, too.
Ski slopes are funny places in the summertime, all denuded and over bright. But the clouds going by – ah, yes.
So, I’m getting myself back into the writing groove. Trying to plan and be all strategic-like. This is SO not my forte. You all know I envy those folks who plan out what they’re writing. I often delude myself into thinking I could be one of them. How hard can it be to plot a series arc?
Um, pretty damn hard, it turns out.
See, I have this plan (which I mentioned before, so sorry if this is too repetitive – go ahead, roll your eyes at me, I deserve it). Once I get the substantive edits on Obsidian from fabulous editor, Deb (she made noises about modifying the Liam scenes – what do you want to bet they want me to make him a more viable love interest? KAK is already Team Liam and she hasn’t even read the whole thing…), they’re predicted for late October, so I have that time blocked out. Then I’ll dive into the sequel, Aquamarine.
I’ve always thought Obsidian would be the first of a series. Like, um, mumble mumble maybe seven books long mumble.
I KNOW, okay?
Never let it be said that I’m not ambitious. You could add in other words, too, and I couldn’t argue with you.
The problem is, though I have this vague, general idea of how the story will progress and the big ideas of what will happen, they don’t parse out into actual plots. So, naturally, I’ve been bugging my CPs about this. I asked Marcella if she thought all series should be trilogies at most (I could swear I heard her say this once) and she said I’m asking the wrong girl since she’s working on a five-book series. I bugged Laura about it while she was tired and had been drinking margaritas. She said that the danger with series arc plotting is overthinging it. She advised that I simply keep notes on my plot threads, so as not to leave anything danbling.
They both patted me soothingly on the head (They might even have typed ~pat pat pat~ into the IM window.) and told me my process is fine.
But I’m still not sure how I’m going to do this. Any advice?
Otherwise, I’ll just be here, danbling and overthinging.
Lots of people did – packing up their camping gear or party supplies. David and I tossed it around, but we weren’t feeling the need to get away. Plus he’s still trying to get in the groove of the new semester, especially after the big Caribbean vacay. I’m back in the swing of writing, so we decided to hang at home.
And I decided to try something new: an at-home beach party.
One of my favorite vacations is hanging by the beach or pool (or a Tucson patio), reading and having drinks. So, once I hit my writing goals for the morning, I established myself out on our gravel “deck” with my Kindle and some wine. I finished some critique, got a bit of a tan and got to read Ilona Andrews’ new book Magic Bleeds. I’m loving the new installment, Book 4 in the series, and more, I’m really impressed by how they’re handling the series.
Much has been discussed lately about authors with faltering series. There’s a number of factors at play here. First both publishers and authors love a successful series because it’s good bread and butter work. An established series gathers a guaranteed audience. It’s fun for the author because she gets to really explore her world and characters. Readers love them for that same reason: tell me more, more, more.
But a few things can go awry:
1) The author never planned for the story to be a series. She can maybe eke the original idea into a couple more books, but then she’s spinning out of nothing. Sometimes there’s simply not enough depth in the original concept to carry the story that far.
2) Publishing pressure crushes the creativity. When an author is working on revisions for Book 1, on deadline to deliver a draft of Book 2 and a 10-page outline of Book 3, this can create unbearable pressure. Stories don’t always lay down and behave, which can lead an author to force it. And the story can suffer.
3) The author loses interest. I wonder sometimes about authors who are on the 30th book in the series. How can it possibly remain fresh, exciting and fun to write? But, by the 30th book, I imagine you’d have your pattern pretty established. Add these elements and tap it out. Doesn’t always make for as wonderful of a story though.
4) The cow is dry and the author keeps milking. Sometimes a series runs its course. It’s no longer fresh, new and full of juice. Everyone can think of television series that have done this. Sometimes a plot decision takes the story to its natural end and nothing can resuscitate it. Sometimes it just didn’t have that much juice to begin with. Sales decline, no publisher wants to pick up the next book. Time to move on to a new story.
5) As the overall story increases in length, less happens in each book. If you’re going to keep the series going and you’re committed to two books a year, which keeps you clothed, fed and with respectable shelf-space, it would be tempting to slow down the overall plot line. Instead of each book covering years in the characters lives, the pace slows to weeks and days. Sometimes over excruciatingly slow hours.
Anything that I missed here? I’d be interested in other observations of what can go so, so wrong.
Magic Bleeds is surprising me. This fourth book is possibly the best of the series so far, gaining in depth and resonance. I’m sure you can think of examples for each situation above. I’m thinking of one or more specifics for each, but not naming names. I love it when I find examples of a series that actually improves with age. So kudos to Ilona and Gordon, the husband/wife writing team that is Ilona Andrews — a fact that I think only increases the marvel and wonder of what they’re accomplishing.
(How do they not kill each other?)