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

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

Monday, June 19, 2006

Series vs. Stand-Alone: Part IV

Why wouldn't you write a series?

I'm assuming you're bright enough not to mire yourself in plots and characters you loathe, so I don't really see any hard-and-fast reasons not to write a series from an artistic stand-point. There are some warnings however.

1. You may like your characters and settings more than your readers.

2. Sequels are, in some ways, built to disappoint readers. We LOVED book 1 so we demand book 2, but book 2 is, necessarily, different than book 1 and it's impossible to replicate a feeling and, well, it just wasn't quite the same. That's the fickleness of humans.

3. There is the possibility of getting stuck in a rut--simply repeating tropes and stories and characters under new names/covers.

4. The mechanics of telling a monstrous, multi-volume epic are, well, complicated. Harry Potter did not emerge from a disorganized mind. (And as a very unlikely side-note, the pressure of writing a vastly successful multi-volume epic seem immense to me. Can you imagine 8 million people waiting for your next work?)

Those are the writing reasons you may reconsider writing a series. The market reasons are, perhaps, even more crucial.

1. Series often face a problem of diminishing returns. Yes, there are certainly examples of series that explode to heights of popularity in the middle, but many go out strong and then fight a battle of attrition over the remaining titles. If you sustain 90% of your audience that's fantastic. But if you keep 75% of your audience for Book 2 and another 75% of that audience for book 3 you've gone from 15,000 sales to 11,500 sales to 8437 sales.

And because many stores operate by a "what have you done for me lately" mentality what's fresh in their mind isn't that you sold 15,000 but that you couldn't break 10,000. You may seem half-the-seller you've proven capable of.

This is a problem most linked to serialized series. Think of it in marketing terms... if you have book three of a series, who are you targeting as readers? Most of your efforts need to go to alerting previous readers that the newest release is available. Because a series is supposed to be self-sustaining, the uncomfortable fact is that it's hard to convince new readers to join in at book 3.

2. Tied directly to this problem are questions of retail concerns. You have twenty feet of space devoted to fiction. Inventory management becomes crucial. What do you do with series? It seems absurd to only stock book 3 (you're almost guaranteeing only previous readers will buy) but book 1 may be up to two years old. And that's a long shelf-life for fiction in these days of huge competition for shelf space.

3. There's no guarantee, from a publisher's standpoint, that book 2 or 3 will be of equitable quality to your first title. Particularly if it took you 36 months to write your first novel and you've gone 9 months to complete the sequel. Stepping outside of books for a moment, think of The Matrix trilogy. I don't think that ended the way anybody wanted it--fans, producers, perhaps even the directors.

And yet with all these concerns...the things still work. And often work well. Tomorrow we'll try to define the best circumstances for series ideas...and times when you may be shooting yourself in the foot by attempting one.
Continue to Part V of our discussion on series.