1. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    Series or Standalone?

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Raki, Jan 23, 2011.

    Apologies if this has been a topic of discussion before; I'm not very adept at searching through forums, even with the search feature :p.

    Anyway, I recently had a discussion with a writing colleague of mine about which is better to start with as a "new writer," a series or a standalone novel, and I thought that discussion worth bringing to these forums.

    For years, I’ve heard the best place to start as a “new writer” is with a series. Until the conversation, I hadn’t noticed that what I’d heard was all hearsay. Publishers and agencies were more likely to start with a new writer who had begun a series because they didn’t need to worry about the new writer being a “one hit wonder,” is along the lines of what I heard. But there were also rumors of new writers beginning a series, having an absolutely fabulous first book, and then ruining their career with the second.

    My colleague had heard otherwise. He’d heard that publishers and agencies were more likely to take on new writers with a standalone novel, because they didn’t need to worry about whether or not the author could produce the subsequent books. Take Stephen King, for example, who started his career with a standalone novel among many others.

    There is also the possibility of standalone novels to be a part of a series, like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara series. But the question remains, when trying to sell your novel to a publisher or agency in the markets today, should you advertise it as the first book of a series or a standalone? If it’s a standalone with the intentions of being a part of a series, should you advertise that fact? Basically, do publishers or agencies even care if you’re attempting to write a series from the book you are submitting to them?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Your colleague is correct. Taking on a series by a new writer is a huge risk for a publisher. So it's better for a new writer to focus on a standalone book, and once he/she has established himself as a good writer, then it'll be easier to convince a publisher to publish a series.

    If you really want to write and publish a series, then make sure the first book can stand on its own just in case the publisher decides not to publish the rest. And unless you have some serious writing credentials to your name, I would pitch your book as a standalone.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yup!... all of that...

    never mention you're writing a series in your query... let the first book sell itself--and you!

    only if/after your first one has sold well is the time to bring up the subject of a series, or sequels... not before...
     
  4. NoaMineo
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    NoaMineo Member

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    I've heard the opposite, one of the writer's who's advice I took when working on my latest querry said that he sold his very first book be mentioning it was the begining of the a series and he got a two-book deal out of his querry letter.
     
  5. Speedy
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    Speedy Contributing Member Contributor

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    What was the name of the publisher who picked this guy up/ I'm curious to know.

    What, Thirdwind and mammamaia say is the expected, the norm though. They are right.

    This bloke sounds lucky. But i'd like to know who picked him up.
     
  6. NoaMineo
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    NoaMineo Member

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    He had written a how-to guide for querry letters, and he didn't say who eventually picked him up. It was an agent, I know, he was recomending against querrying publishers directly.
     
  7. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    This is somewhat along the lines of what I expected to be the case. I've sent several query letters off with a brief mention that my book was the first of a four-part series. It's also standalone. I've received, like many, several rejections, but there has been a few requests for the full ms. So advertising it as such can't be all bad, but I do wonder if some may read "series" and automatically hit form-reject.
     
  8. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    The point is that marketing comes after the manuscript has been accepted, so there's no way of predicting how well a story will do. If a publisher takes on a series and the first book doesn't do well, then that's money lost for the publisher. Based on this, I'm sure there are agents/publishers who automatically reject a writer if he/she pitches a series.
     
  9. NoaMineo
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    NoaMineo Member

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    Of course, unless they sign you to a multi-book contract, they cal always say "better luck elsewhere" if the first book doesn't do well. I understand it's not uncommon for different books in a series to be published by different companies.

    I made a breif mention in my query that it was a series as well, although I just sent off a stack of letter. We'll see how that goes.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    noa... while that can work well for non-fiction, as in your friend's case, it does not, for fiction... and i thought we were discussing just novels here...
     
  11. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    I've also heard elsewhere that it will increase your chances at pitching a series if you have all of the books in the series completed, like Weeks, who had all three of his books finished before he got his deal (all three published a month or two apart, too). Any thoughts about this?
     
  12. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Obviously it helps to have the books completed. If fact, I'd say it's a bit foolhardy to pitch a first book, knowing it's intended to be part of series, without the second book at least at the point it's ready for editing.

    You don't want to scare agents away by not having work done on the series you think you deserve having published. And it can be a huge turn off. That first book may have taken you 10 years to get publishable, and you may have far less time to work on the second, so it's better to have it ready to prove you're ready.

    What matters most is the writing, though. I'll say it again: the writing is [almost] always the most important thing.

    If you have a really amazing novel, and are pitching it as a series up front, you'll find more success than a terrible novel pitched as a stand alone.

    People love to fuss about all the little things. Worry about the big thing. If your novel is amazing, it's also amazing what you can get away with.

    Most agents I've talked to say there's a very strong correlation between the quality of query and the quality of the manuscript. It's not like you're going to have an amazing novel, and the query seem written by a third grader. And most agents I've talked to don't reject a query that is well written, thoughtful, interesting and honest just because it's not perfectly formatted or makes minor 'you shouldn't's.

    Pretty much always, the only way to really screw up a query is to be obscenely ignorant (not following query guidelines they supply you with), arrogant ("you'll be sorry if you don't pick this novel up for publication!") or are just not a very good writer in your query, which means your novel probably isn't much better.

    So yeah, you shouldn't pitch the series upfront. But honestly, if I had a completed series that I [seriously] thought had potential, I'd personally have no qualms about mentioning it in a humble and purely informative way (no expectation or demands, just honest about the situation).
     
  13. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    I'd say it's less fuss than an attempt to better understand some of the facets in how the system works. Saying the writing is all that matters is being a bit naive; there are other pieces to this business, and if it relied upon writing alone, it surprisingly wouldn't do as well it does. While writing is probably "the most important thing" a writer can "worry about," we shouldn't limit our understanding to writing alone. A better understanding allows for better decisions.

    What about pitching a first book with the entire series thoroughly outlined? It could be pretty damning to have written six books (or 600k words) to a series to have an editor go through the first one and change major sections to the plotline that could potentially have butterfly effects throughout the rest of the series. I know this is straying a bit from the comparison topic of a standalone or series, but for discussion purposes, would an outline suffice? Thoughts on this?
     
  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    From my point of view, having an outline doesn't really mean much. It gives no indication of whether the writer can actually finish the series. You might have a better chance if you write the entire series. Of course, my advice of writing a standalone book first still stands.
     
  15. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Which is why I didn't say the writing is all that matters.

    Bit of an exaggeration. :p

    First, I don't think anyone would recommend never querying until you're completely done with a 600k word project. Like I said, it's a good idea to have some sort of proof you can actually produce. I'd personally advise a 'here is the manuscript' level of proof, but any proof is good.

    And you'll WANT the head start. The sophomore slump is real. Jewel, for instance, had an amazing first album because she had her whole life put into it... second album not-so-much.

    Do yourself a favor and get a head start, whether it's the second book in a series or a second novel. The pressure to re-peat success, or worse try to salvage not finding success with a first effort, is the killer of many first-time-published writers trying to keep that going.

    And you never have to do what an editor says. Sure, it might cost you a book deal, but you'll still have your integrity, right? ;)
     
  16. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Just to jump in here, I think the thing a lot of people are overlooking is that publishing is a business. The publishers are in it not only to give great literature exposure, but primarily to make money. Regardless of the quality of the writing, a series is always going to be a bigger gamble for them to take on than a stand alone novel. With a stand alone novel, if they publish it and it sells well, great. If not, then the liability ends there. With a series which doesn't catch on, they are faced with a choice to either press on with it anyway (and make a loss), or sever the contract with the author (and make a loss).

    For an unknown writer especially, this will rack the odds up against a pitch of a series. Of course there are going to be exceptions to this, there always will be, and it's not impossible. But submissions are, on a basic level, a game of odds. As the writer, you want to maximise your odds of acceptance. A series will decrease your odds. By how much, I couldn't say, but if I was in the publisher's shoes I'd be highly disposed not to accept a series from a new author.
     
  17. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry for a naive question, but why can't the publisher publish the first book of a series, with no promises to buy the rest if it doesn't sell?

    Will it reflect badly on the publisher if they don't give readers a completed series, or...?
     
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  18. Tesgah
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    I have an idea for a series of books (3 or 4), that I really want to write. However, I have never written nor published (duh) a book before, so what you all are basicly saying is that if I want any "realistic" chance of publishing, then I should write a stand-alone book first?

    That complicates things... It's not like getting published is that important to me, I really just want to write and do something real for once, but still... Being a published writer is kind of the dream of every writer, I guess.

    Bah, maybe I'll just start on the first book in the series, get it done and then see if I want to write a stepping stone later:redface:
     
  19. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    A stand alone book doesn't mean it doesn't fit into a series. It's not like you have to slaughter all the characters at the end or it doesn't stand alone well enough.

    Imo even books written by successful, published authors who have been contracted for a series, should (and probably do) work to make each book relatively stand alone. That's how story telling works. It's not one very long story arc, but a series of smaller arcs cascading down to the point I know plenty of writers who'd argue that on some level every scene should stand on its own enough the reader can reasonably understand and empathize with what's going on.

    So, keep that in mind. Even if you know you're writing a series, each book should feel like it's own completed story arc.
     
  20. Tesgah
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    Tesgah Member

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    I see your point, however, the first book does have it's own story arc. It does have its own motivation, its own plot etc., but it is part of one much bigger (naturally). The ending is a scene were the main characters have suffered a great loss, and is unsure of what to do next. It ends with one of them stating that he does not want to go on with what they had previously planned, because he wants revenge (or something similar, I am still in the process of fleshing out the details). The main idea is that the characters wants to go home, but because of the loss they have suffered, one of them wants to stay and thus they all stay.

    I suppose it's possible to make it work as a single book, but it's going to be quite flawed because it will be somewhat designed towards the two-three other books. The main problem will be that the reader won't be given the motivation of many of the important secondary characters. There will be so many holes in the story.

    Damn, it'll never work as a single book :rolleyes:


    BTW: When you say that the story needs to feel like it's own completed story arc, you don't mean that there cannot be questions which are not answered?
     
  21. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Depends on what you mean by questions. Like everything, it can be a good thing, or a bad thing. If at the end of a story you wonder if so and so really ended up doing that thing you knew they wished they could do, then that's good, because you're engaged in the story and thinking about what happens later to the characters.

    If by questions you mean one of those 'wwaaaaait a second, what about the weiner dog, it was never explained how he could fly, much less have planned the rescue!' then that's bad, heh. And 'wait for the next book to find out' is bad.

    Ever seen a movie that shamelessly sets up a sequel, and you groan, because it's not handled cleverly at all and instead of leaving you fulfilled, but knowing danger is still present and may come back in the future, the movie just completely undermines its own story for the sake of shamelessly plugging a sequel?

    That's the bad kind of thing agents don't want from writers. If at the end of the book, they have to ask you what happens in the next book for the first book to have made sense, that's bad. If they have to ask why the story seemed to end, and then kept going for a chapter that was horribly open-ended and ask when you're going to finish the book, that's bad.

    I wish I still had the graphic I made to show how story arcs build on each other, but basically like this:


    (scene)(scene)(scene).....(scene)(scene).....(scene)(scene).....(scene)(scene)

    (.........Chapter.........).....(.....Chapter...)....(....chapter....).....(.....chapter....)

    (..........................book 1...................).....(...........book 2........................)

    (...............................................Series..................................................)



    Like that, assuming it formats properly, with each ( xxx ) being a story arc, beginning, middle, end sort of stuff (generically speaking) and each making some sort of sense and being recognizable as the story form.

    Very basic, and obviously this doesn't always happen and can still be good and well written. But this is often how story arcs break down. In poetry they call them movements, and don't have to follow rigid structures as they can sometimes cross stanza breaks. In fiction the same thing can happen, but 'movements' seems to confuse people, so it's easier to speak of the breaks we end up expecting in fiction to inform us where/how story arcs are forming.
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    of course they can... and do!... the point is, they'll only accept and offer a contract for the first book, if it is a good, marketable stand-alone... meaning that no one other than than the author will care if the others are never published...

    if there are other books in a series, or sequels to that first one, that will be of interest to the publisher only after the first is out and if it has sold well...

    that's why they only accept stand-alones that don't leave the readers unsatisfied, with an open ending... no one should be able to tell it's an uncompleted series...
     
  23. Tesgah
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    The graphics have been copied and saved. Thanks for explaining it to me, popsicledeath. I think I got it now ;) Let's see if I can get it to work.
     
  24. Raki
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    Raki Contributing Member

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    I would look at it like a TV Show. Take Lost for example, each episode had its own plot, and each episode resolved that plot by the end of the episode. However, it still had the overall plot questions, "are we going to be rescued? will we get off the island? what is the island? who are the Others?" and so on, stretching across multiple episodes or the complete series (or multiple series). So the story you were watching was resolved, but the overall question remained unanswered and that's what would bring you back the following week for the next episode.

    I think a series of novels needs to work much in the same way, but there are several things you can probably cross over to the second/third/so on books safely. If the main ambition of your character is to get something powerful, for example, it's probably best to resolve something like that as to whether he gets it or not in the book where the plotline is introduced, but what does the character do with it after he gets it? You could safely save that for another book/story. These types of things vary by circumstance.
     
  25. NoaMineo
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    IMO the length of the series does matter to some degree, as well. A trilogy vs. 4+. Take a look at Lord of the Rings, or the original Star Wars trilogy. In The Two Towers and The Empire Strikes Back there is a complete plot, but nothing is really resolved. If anything, the situation is worse-off than when they began. Then the third instalment comes along, it's been set up for an epic finale. It harkens back to the three-act structure from plays that works so well.

    However, this format is best used if you only plan to write 3 books and resolve the plot at the end of the third one.
     

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