Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Do Book Series Really Sell More Books Than Stand-Alone Novels?

I'd like to start this week's post off by reminding everyone that May is national short story month. If you want to get into the spirit of the holi-month, then take a look at New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam!

You get two stories free, but be careful, this book has teeth!
Now that I've done my duty and informed you of that tasty little tidbit, let's move onto this week's topic, shall we?

Do Novel Series Sell Better Than Stand-Alones?

With the jaw-dropping success of books like A Song of Ice and Fire or Harry Potter, to say nothing of The Hunger Games or The Wheel of Time, lots of authors with money on their minds are eyeing the series as a way to get their hands on fat stacks of greenbacks. All they need to do is pull a J.K. Rowling and, bam, they're sipping champagne on Good Life Beach.

Dibs on the blue one!
This logic isn't wrong... the problem is, of course, that the chances of your book series being the next Harry Potter is about the same as you picking a particular grain of sand out of the above picture. While we know that in the thinky-thinky parts of our brains, we often don't really come to terms with it until we've launched out boats and watched them sunk in the Amazon sea.

Is It Really A Better Idea To Write A Series?

Here's how the logic goes for authors who want to write a series as a way to sell more books. You tell a story that will take somewhere between three and twelve books, and by hooking readers with one book you'll make sure they keep coming back every time you put out a new one. You won't just sell a few extra copies of your previous books; you'll sell every previous book because people want to get caught up on your series as a whole.

That sound pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Before you start jotting notes on book four's plot arc, though, you need to ask yourself:

- Does your story require a series?
- Do you have the staying power to write a series?
- What if your first book flops?

These are some serious questions you need to answer before you start working on that 10-book monster between your ears. Nothing is worse than writing a series that leads off strong, but where character arcs meander, the thread of the plot gets lost, and your cast has to re-hash things that have already been solved in past installments. Coming in at second and third place in the awful-shit trifecta is an author that doesn't have the muscle to keep a series going, or who pins an entire career on a series that brains itself on the concrete fresh out of the gate.

We know what the best-case scenario for a series is; you sell a million copies, tell your manager to suck it, and get a contract guaranteeing you a six-figure advance for the next three books in your series. But what about the worst-case scenario? What do you do when you pour everything into the knock-out punch that is your first book, only to get a sea of form rejection letters? Do you work on book two of the series hoping the first one will eventually get picked up, thereby putting all of your chips on black? Or do you move on to a different project and then try to get your series published later?

Overlooked Truths

It's true that by writing a series of books you will have a bigger product on the market for your readers to check out. But the question you need to ask is whether or not a trilogy of books, or a five book series, will sell better than three or five stand-alone novels. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't. What if those novels are set in a shared world, so they get the benefits of cameos and tie-ins without sharing a plot? What if they're in different genres, which results in you drawing fans from different spectra?

What if you gave away a free gun to every 500th reader?
The point is there is no guaranteed way to sell more books, except to write more books and to write them well. The number of books you sell is dictated by your fan base, and how famous you are. That's why you could write a fantastic story of love and triumph, a riveting tale of heroism under fire, and you will still be out-sold by Jenny McCarthy.

Can you sell a huge number of books with a series? Sure you can! But it pays to look at the potential your series has to fail, as well as the potential it has to rise. If you're already established, you have an agent, or you have a company that is more than happy to take your series as you finish it, then that's probably a good investment. If you don't... well, you might be in for a very rude awakening.

My recommendation? Try a stand-alone first. If you really want to be adventurous then write a book that can stand on its own, or which can become the first in a series. That way if it does well you can keep going, and if it bombs you can move onto the next project without tying your next half dozen projects to a book that some publishers (and readers) may consider a boat anchor.

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