ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: A STAND-ALONE WITH SERIES POTENTIAL

For a long time now I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that every query letter you send out should have the title of the book you’re trying to sell plus these six words emblazoned across it:

 

. . . is a stand-alone with series potential.

 

And I really, really mean it.

But then why does it seem as though no one is listening?

Related in many ways to last week’s post about word count and the maybe-maybe not demise of the so-called “fat fantasy,” we have to also start to look at the fat-fantasy’s twin sibling: “the endless series.”

Some authors will consider themselves lucky if they end up in a position where a publisher is clambering for the next book in the series, every year, year after year for decades. Who would want to say no to that kind of predictable income in a business where income is anything but predictable? The endless or at least seemingly endless series is a staple of the genre mostly because fantasy (and to a slightly lesser degree science fiction) readers keep buying them, so it may well seem that, like the >200,000-word magnum opus, starting with a series concept is just good business. You’re giving the people what they want!

Okay, maybe, but . . .

For what it’s worth I love a great SF or fantasy series. Not only have read more than a few in the past, like Frederick Pohl’s series of sequels to Gateway (I’ve read them all), Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr (read them all) or Foundation series (read almost all), but I’ve written a trilogy, and one book in a six-part series, and edited more series and trilogies than I can even count. In fact, I’m always reading one book in a series, alternating now between Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series which will then switch to Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s expanded Dune series, and Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Please believe me, then, when I say that I’m not anti-series in any way, shape, or form.

But I am realistic about the publishing business as it stands right now, and if you’re writing with an eye on making a career out of it, you should be too. And right now—and very likely forever more—the publishing business is skittish about commitment. Think of the publishing business as a man in his twenties.

They love us authors, and desperately want to meet new authors, they fantasize about the perfect author . . . but they don’t want to go on a blind date with the assumption that we’ll move in together the next morning. Think of your first novel sale as a “safe lunch.” The advance will be low, as will expectations, and you’re going to have to show up looking your best and really work hard to keep the conversation going. If that goes well, a second date will be proffered, but the jury’s still out. The crucial third date will either seal the deal or send you packing. But those dates will not be scheduled in advance.

I desperately hope that your work-in-progress novel has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. If it doesn’t—if it ends with a cliffhanger then “to be continued in . . .”—rethink that ending while it’s still “in progress” and not “on submission.”

If you are not already a successful, published author with a proven sales track record, please don’t even try pitching your series, or even your trilogy. No one wants to commit to more than one book to start: to see if there’s a readership, to see if you’re on trend, to make sure you won’t blow up your career by getting into weird online political fights or say something absurd at a convention, or in any entirely innocent way write one of the 90% of books published in America in a given year that fail to make a profit.

If Book One of your twenty-six book series tanks, the few readers who came with you for the blind date and like you will now find you failing to return their phone calls when the publisher kills the second book in the series. Then that one book will disappear from store shelves for the same reason, and your career now becomes: Guy Who Failed to Get That Series off the Ground.

Always up for a good series, but...

Always up for a good series, but…

And in this fear- and money-driven business you’re only as good as your last book’s BookScan numbers. Even then, the biz will give you a second chance, but not with a sequel to a failed book. They’ll want a fresh start.

I know no one wants to see these genres we love reduced to the mercenary level of sales and forecasts and P&Ls, but that’s the truth. It is a business, and we all need to approach it as such . . . once the book is finished.

Pour everything you have into that book: your hopes and dreams and politics and spirituality . . . every scant ounce of creativity . . . and wrap it up so that if that’s the only book anyone ever sees from you it remains forever as a satisfying read.

Then if it sells write a sequel, and if the sequel sells write another sequel.

This idea that scaredy-cat New York publishing is going to hand out three-book deals to unpublished, unknown authors . . . just not going to happen.

But they’d love to find the next perennial seller, the next Terry Brooks or R.A Salvatore. And readers are lining up to read those series. But neither Brooks nor Salvatore signed a twenty-book deal based on the first manuscript. As fans we all voted with our wallets to keep them going.

To me, this just seems terribly obvious, but I still keep getting questions from people who are working on a trilogy and the second book is already written, and . . . I hope I don’t outwardly cringe.

How about this for an example.

When Star Wars was released in 1977 it had a very satisfying beginning, middle, and end—literally capped off with a ceremony in which the heroes receive shiny gold medals—it was a stand-alone. But Darth Vader’s TIE fighter spun off into space after the Death Star was destroyed, so the villain is still out there—it had series potential. If no other movie had ever been made, no book or comic book written, Star Wars would have stood as a great, fun, solid, complete movie.

As a rabid Star Wars fan, age thirteen, I hung on every word reported about that movie, which I loved all out of proportion. And it was only after Star Wars proved to be an immensely popular international blockbuster that I head George Lucas talking about how he’d always planned on Star Wars as a nine-part trilogy of trilogies with Star Wars (and no, I will not refer to it as A New Hope) inexplicably inhabiting the fourth slot.

I believed him then, but now . . . sorry, Mr. Lucas, but no.

Star Wars was a stand-alone with series potential.

And what a successful series it continues to be.

So maybe you really do have plans for a thirty-book mega series to be sold as ten trilogies spanning millennia of story on your created world. Okay!

But if that’s in the query letter for the first book, and if that first book ends with a cliffhanger, the world will never know.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to ONCE MORE WITH FEELING: A STAND-ALONE WITH SERIES POTENTIAL

  1. mjtedin says:

    Where is the line between leaving a book with a cliffhanger and leaving it open for future stories? If I leave information out of the background of a character in my first book, it might be irrelevant for the current story, but still be interesting in future stores.

    I like to think each book in a series should stand on its own. That is, you shouldn’t have to have read the first book before reading the second. Each should stand on its own.

  2. I see sound advice in this!!

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