Is Writing a Series Before You’re Published Worth It?

Photo credit: [phil h] on Flickr
So two years ago I wrote this post about why I’ve yet to write a sequel. And, well, I still haven’t written a sequel (but it’s more likely now than it was two years ago, so yay!), but one of you fabulous people sent me a question about the value of writing series vs. standalone and. Well. Here I am again. 

Before I go on, please do note that just about everything I’m going to say here applies to those who want to get traditionally published. For those who plan to self-publish, it’s a whole different ball game. 

Okay. So. 

It’s no secret that for many many years, series books, particularly trilogies, have been massively popular, especially with children’s books. Over the years, however, with the recession and people just in general getting tired of the same series format over and over, series books have started to fall a little out of style. Not entirely, of course—there are loads of totally successful series still being released—but there’s definitely been a push toward companion novels (rather than strict linear series books), dialogues (instead of trilogies), and standalones. 

It’s not impossible to sell a series. But there’s also no guarantee that if you sell your novel, you’ll end up with a multi-book deal, even if your book does have series potential. 

So what does this mean for unpublished and/or unrepresented writers? 

Basically, writing a full series before you sell the first novel (and yes, I mean sell, not find representation for) is really really risky. In the sense that you could potentially lose a lot of time and effort if your book doesn’t sell (or if your book does sell, but it when it hits the shelves it doesn’t do as well as everyone hoped and you don’t get the chance to publish the sequel). 

Something that’s equally risky? Writing a book with a cliffhanger-type ending that can’t stand on it’s own. Hell, I’d say this is even riskier, because in most cases, books need to stand on their own to sell at all (though, of course, there are always exceptions). Still, it’s probably best you just don’t do this. 

Here’s the thing: sequels are fun—or at least, I think they are—but when you’re a writer, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’re going to get that multi-book deal. Or that after you sell your debut, you’ll also sell the sequel. I mean, yes, they both happen, but they don’t happen always

I’m absolutely not saying that you should give up all your hopes and dreams of writing and publishing a successful series. I’m not saying that you should never write a book with series potential again. What I am saying, is when (or if) you do, you need to be a professional and be realistic about it. 

Sequels can be good news for everyone—writers, agents and editors alike—but they’re only good news when they sell well. And sometimes you need to prove yourself as a writer before you can get that multi-book deal everyone dreams about. And you know? That’s okay. 

In the end, I think the thing to remember is publishing is a business. And if you act like a professional, and listen to your agent and your editor and your book sells well, then you know what? You may very well see a multi-book deal in your future. 

But until you’ve reached that point, it’s important to keep yourself grounded and focus on what’s important—writing your books, one at a time.

So those are my thoughts, but I want to hear from you—what do you think? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
When writing a novel, @Ava_Jae says every book needs to stand on its own. What do you think? (Click to tweet)  
Writer @Ava_Jae says writing a series before you sell the first novel is risky. What do you think? (Click to tweet


Sam Taylor said...

Although I seek to make my current WIP capable of standing alone, I do have the plan/hope for it to have a sequel. BUT, the next book I write will not be that sequel. I'm brainstorming a completely different story, in a different fantasy world, for all the reasons you listed above. I want to give myself a fighting chance (and let's face it, some hope) if my current word-baby does not get picked up for representation. And I'd like to flex my writing prowess by challenging myself to come up with a new world, characters, voice, and the works. Because world-building for a fantasy story is immensely fun!

That said, I am a fan of companion stories, and I think I'll play with this concept in the future.

Ava Jae said...

I think you have a great plan, Sam. I actually found that by forcing myself to start new projects with every WIP, it actually did a lot for my self-confidence in that I realized I was capable of producing unrelated works and I wouldn't be a one-story author. There's something to be said for discovering new characters and worlds with a shiny new WIP. :)

And while I haven't written any companion stories either, it's something I'd like to eventually play around with, too.

emperatrix said...

I feel the same way. My current WIP started as a standalone, but I saw sequel/companion potential after my first rewrite. I might do a fast draft, just to get it all out, but I don't see myself expending as much effort on part 2 if part 1 isn't picked up.

Great post as always :)

Ava Jae said...

Thanks! I think it can be hard, because as writers, we fall in love with the characters and worlds we create and many times we want to continue the story (or at least keep living in that world!). But there's a right time for it, and pre-publication tends not to be it.

Bolo Yeung said...

Very interesting post - investing in a series of books takes time and effort, which can be wasted if its books doesn't sell well. In my case, I think my attention span wouldn't last long enough to write a series of books - starting on something completely new and different after finishing a story sounds like a solid and fun plan!

Ava Jae said...

I think there's something gratifying about writing standalones. You've written a book that ties up all of the loose ends and it's a complete story and...that's it! :)

Jen Donohue said...

My completed werewolf book is the first of an intended trilogy, which is problematic for a few reasons. 1. werewolves, 2. trilogy. All three books aren't written yet, anyway, but there's a particular terror that even if the first book sells, the subsequent ones might not. My werewolves are why I'd consider "going hybrid" i.e. self publishing some works while being "traditional" with others (this of course predicates on signing with an agent, etc. Elsewise I'm just self publishing). I wrote the first book for the love of the story, and the characters, market be damned. We'll see how things go.

Ava Jae said...

While I think going hybrid (or self-publish) are both totally valid choices, I'd advise you to be careful about why you want to do those. Self-publishing is great, but it's a huge amount of work and I tend to be wary when writers tell me they're going to self-publish if they can't get a bite with the traditional marketplace. Not because I think self-publishing is a bad idea (I don't), but because you need to be absolutely sure that self-publishing is the right choice for you and your career and that you're not just choosing to self-publish as a backup plan.

That being said, I definitely understand your fear as far as a werewolf story goes. I have a YA Paranormal I absolutely love that I tried to query for a long time before I eventually had to put it away, largely because the market is ridiculously difficult for YA Paranormal right now. But when things calm down and YA Paranormal starts to become undead (pun intended :D), I'll have my MS ready. :)

Jen Donohue said...

Thank you! These are very, very valid concerns. I am not a professional editor, I am certainly not an artist, nor a marketer. A lot of people self publish because they think it'll be easier and don't know what they're getting into.

In a way, I know that I don't know what I'm getting into (if that makes any kind of sense), and am certainly not going to slap a file up on Amazon without careful, careful consideration.

Ava Jae said...

That definitely makes sense! And I'm very glad to hear that. Some writers, I fear, jump in and realize too late that they're in over their heads. Research before you make any decisions is absolutely important, so I'm happy to hear you're on it. :)

Jen Donohue said...

I think a lot of people get into self publishing because they think it's "easier", and that's alarming. I mean yes, it is in theory as easy as slapping a file up on Amazon and going through their formatting regimen. But that isn't what I want for myself and my writing.

Ava Jae said...

I think you're right—or they think traditional publishing is going under or no one reads print and so self-publishing is the end-all-be-all. Blah, there are so many bad reasons why people self-publish, which is sad. But there are also a million and two good reasons to self-publish, so I'm really glad to see that you're thinking it through careful. Good for you. :)

S.E Dee said...

After LonCon in August, I took that question to Janet Reid, the lady who does query shark. I did it because I'd heard two weird stories at LonCon that gave an opposite view on when to write sequels. Janet said some interesting stuff and after hearing the nightmares those two authors went through, I think now I would say to someone if you have a sequel in mind, either plan it seriously or just write it.

Dunno about series because they can go on forever but if it's a trilogy, yeah, just do it. The worst that can happen is no one wants it, the best is that you'll still be writing and learning along the way. Hell, you might even write the third book, look back on your first and be all "man I've come a long way..."

Anywho, I should probably get to writing up that blog post... Heh

E.Arroyo said...

I agree. It'd be safer to pitch/write the book as a standalone with series potential. If/when the agent falls in love, the ending can be modified a bit to add a cliffhanger.

Jordan McCollum said...

I used to say the same thing, and I almost always start a novel as a stand alone--but by the time I finish, I often have ideas for a sequel or two. I generally write whatever book I'm most passionate about next, and if that's the sequel, THAT'S OKAY, TOO.

I always go into it knowing I might "waste" a month or two or three--but 1. I write because I enjoy it, so why not write something I'm enjoying? And 2. before you've sold something is the perfect time to "waste." You're not writing something you shouldn't because you're on deadline for something else.

Another advantage is that if you've written a sequel or two first, you can tie in threads throughout all three better because you can still edit the first book while working on the others. (Conversely, though, you can't be too much of a slave to the sequels, because the first book does have to be coherent and stand alone.)

Now, caveats: I draft quickly (2 weeks - 3 months usually), and I wouldn't bother editing a sequel (except maybe to get the first-draft kinks out while they're fresh in my mind) before selling the first book. It (almost) ended up working out for me, because I did get an offer from a publisher on the first book . . . but the contract was awful. Now I'm self-publishing, starting with a different series, and I have a three-book series waiting in the wings. It's a good feeling :) .

Ava Jae said...

I don't think every series book necessarily even needs a cliffhanger, but yes, I agree it's definitely the safer option.

Ava Jae said...

So I was writing this nice long comment in response to your super thoughtful response and blogger crashed on me right at the end. *facedesk*

Take two...

So I actually agree on some points here. Firstly, I never consider writing a waste, even if you end up trunking a MS you've written. I've trunked something like 8ish MSS (I think) that I have no intention of ever pulling out of the drawer, but I learned something from each of them and if I could go back, I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. So I think, if you're okay with the fact that you might not sell the first one, and so the sequel may never see the light of day, then go for it. You'll probably have fun and learn something along the way.

That being said, not everyone is okay with that or can go into a book knowing it has lower than usual chances of being published. Which is okay. It totally depends on the person.

As far as the sequel threads go, I actually think it's a great idea to write a synopsis or keep a list of ideas you have for potential sequels going if you decide not to write the sequel right away. Not only does this come in handy if you do decide to write it, but if you sell the first book as having sequel potential, chances are likely your agent and editor will want to see some kind of synopsis for that sequel.

I also actually found that while revising one of my MSS, I actually got some extra ideas for the sequel and it all started coming together in my head as I revised the first book, which I thought was pretty cool (and made it possible for me to embed potential sequel threads even without having written the sequel).

But at any rate! That was a super long answer. It sounds like it worked out really well for you and I'm sure it feels awesome! So congratulations and good luck! :)

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