f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part III

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, June 16, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part III

Why would you write a series?

From a writing standpoint, I see two main reasons. The first is that you have a story that simply outlasts the practical bounds that be contained by one book.

The second reason is that you've found a character or locale or hook that you'd like to see put through a variety of situations or opportunities. The key is a willingness to till ground that you've already worked. In some cases, this leads to deeper, richer exploration. In other cases, it can simply seem tired and recycled.

That's from a writing stand-point. How about from a market stand-point?

As with most commodities, one of the important factors in buying a book for consumers is their "reliability." With books it's not functional reliability (the cover will stay on and the pages won't be ink-smeared) but practical reliability. In other words, if we're spending money (and time) we want to know that we're going to like a book.

Whenever publishers or authors talk about a "brand" this is what they're talking about. A brand makes a promise to a reader of what will be delivered in a book. The best brands in fiction are author names. King. Koontz. Kingsolver. Get the chance to write enough books and you'll likely to have built a brand.

There are other ways to address practical reliability of a book, however, besides an author name. Certain imprints--if you're paying attention--seem to mean something. (McSweeney's, anyone? Black Lizard? SoHo Press.) A character name (like Harry Bosch) offers it's own reliability, at least to fans.

And of course series do, too. The assumption was that, Soul Harvest, four books into Left Behind wasn't suddenly going to become... Finnegan's Wake. (I've actually read neither, so if the two are similar, I apologize.) The Great Brain wasn't going to turn into Goosebumps...and Goosebumps wasn't going to turn into Sweet Valley High. You want a certain experience and a publisher/author are going to honor that by giving it to you.

It goes further than that with serialized series. In serialized series you not only want a certain experience but you want answers to a story you're following. This is the most powerful sales aspect of a series. Because now, not only are you offering an assumed reading experience...but you've got a hook that will drive readers to the store.

TO BE CONTINUED. We've all seen these words on television shows. And if the hook was set right, they tweaked a fair amount of anticipation and excitement. This is a visceral response to a creative work that is the peak of artist/viewer interaction. And it's why it seems that series can grow to unrivaled peaks in terms of sales and reader interest. (DaVinci Code aside, it's no surprise that other phenomenons in publishing are series. Harry Potter and Left Behind drove reader expectations by creating a demand...and then delivering new chapters to eager fans. Readers talk and ponder in the interstitial times, drawing more readers to the early works and stuff builds.

When it works, in other words, it is self-sustaining. And explosive. And because it involves multiple books it is HUGELY lucrative. To quote a non-series book, it's the stuff that dreams are made of.

Which is why I see so many proposals from people starting off by saying, "This is the first book in a proposed 9 book series."

Next week, we'll look into why those proposals shiver my timbers, and address the downsides of series as well.
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Continue to Part IV of our discussion on series.