The first-time-unpublished-series-author. When I first started writing I too only thought in terms of series. My first book was a part of a series, my second book was the first in another series, in-between those were two other stutter start novels that were also a part of series and the current book … is a stand alone. 


You see, quite a while ago I realized something when I was looking up books from some of my favorite authors. If you go back far enough and find the first thing they published it’s often a standalone. While some agents and publishers will take on a first time series, many do not. Series are the exception, not the rule. So when I spin through my various online writing forums and find so many writers talking about working on book two of their unpublished series, I can only grown to myself and offer up a little prayer to the writing goddess in hopes that they will soon see the light.


As I understand it, the publishing industry wants to make money. And while, yes, series make more money than standalones, they only do so when the author is known. Not many readers want to invest time into reading the first book in a series that they’ll never get to the end of.


The other issue you’re dealing with is contracts. Who wants to sign a contract for three or more books when they’re not sure that they can sell the first one? That’s just bad business sense.


Now, for those of you getting ready to start book two of your series, I’d like to offer up some advice: Don’t.


I’m not saying don’t write a series, go ahead and write the first installment of your three part epic. What I’m saying is that while you’re out shopping for someone to buy it, spend your writing time working on a new project. The book industry is a fickle friend, one day they can be all about your urban YA and the next day they’ve jumped over to paranormal (I know, not much of a jump, is it).


Pay attention to the agent blogs. Take note of how they will specifically ask for a certain niche, or exclude others outright. “Sorry, not accepting Urban Fantasy at this time.” Now, I know that we are all writing genre redefining stuff, I mean who isn’t, but if the people you’re hoping to sell it to just aren’t reading it, then you’re out of luck. Sure, you could wait around until the market swings back in your favor, but why? You can continue to try and sell your story while trying to sell others. Look at it like an investment portfolio, you have to diversify. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Don’t sink your company’s fortunes into SUVs and then cry for help when gas prices rise (because it defies reason that a finite resource should ever rise in price as it becomes more difficult to find) resulting in no one wanting your gas guzzling clunkers anymore. Sorry, tangent within a tangent.


Also, understand where part of your apprehension about starting a new project comes from: fear. You’ve invested all of this time into a world, you’ve peopled it, lived within it, you said “let there be light,” and there was. The idea of starting that all over again can be overwhelming. What if you don’t have it in you? How can you possibly create anything to rival it?


I have news for you, you can. Your best stuff hasn’t been written yet. And when you come back to that first novel in your series, after you’ve written all the books that come after it, you’ll realize that you are a much better writer and that the first book doesn’t stack up to those that came after. But it doesn’t matter if that last book in the series is out of this world because no one is going to read it. The reading of that last book hinges on the first book. Therein lies the pitfall of the series. It’s not that your series isn’t any good. It’s that the first book pales in comparison to the last.


I wonder where this drive to produce three, four, or even five and six part epics comes from. Is it because we’ve all been raised on movie franchises and Tolkienesque tomes? Or is it just the spiritual connection to the numbers three and seven that seem to live within the collective unconscious? Whatever it is, keep in mind that something came before LoTR, a little hobbit by the name of Bilbo. And remember that Tolkien started his great epic in 1937 and that it was not published until 1955. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have twenty years to gamble on one story. What I do know is this, I have yet to see an agent post that they are looking for “first-time-unpublished-series-authors” in any genre.

Edit 090826: 

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner recently blogged about the Five Myths about agents. Myth number five? “Most agents won't consider any manuscript over 120k words in length.” How depressing for me, wrong again.

Oh, but wait! She was pulling a fast one on us. She goes on to say that this is “NOT a myth - this one is true! Until you've proven yourself with a couple of books that sold well, you're not likely to sell an epic or saga much over 100k. There are always exceptions, of course. But if you're trying to break in, your 180k-opus is probably not the ticket.” (It should be noted that Rachelle does not represent Sci-Fi and Fantasy).



Paige Bruce said...

I think the middle ground for anyone in the middle of writing book one of a series is to make the book work as a stand alone. In fact, I've heard some say that this is your best option - write the book to work as both a stand along and, if it sells, as the first book in a series.

David Noceti said...

Agreed. I think you can always expand any "stand alone" to be something more. But it is definitely easier if you start out with it being a part of a larger whole. You just have to be sure that you can make that ending of the first book be a BIG ending, not a "To be continued" ending.

Amber J. Gardner said...

I love your blog. It's beautiful and has excellent advice!

Now this topic is exactly the dilemma I'm in now.

I knew about the "your first novel should be a stand alone novel" since 2008 when I first started to write seriously. I had a bunch of ideas for stories, but my best ones were series. So I tried to make the first book into a stand alone despite it. Like for my YA parallel universe series, I planned a new book that will be the "first." A "prequel" to me, but a stand alone for everyone else. But I never finished it.

A brand new idea had been boiling over in my subconscious, so I abandoned everything to write it. And I did it. My first completed draft. But I had a problem. I had intended for it to be a stand alone, but the ending...just didn't sit well with me like that. I felt "Thats it?" So I gave it a bigger, better ending...and with it came a sort of cliffhanger. And thus my supposedly stand alone became the first of a trilogy.

So what should I do? Abandon it? After I put blood, sweat and tears in it just because of the ending? I don't even know if it's a bad sort of cliffhanger either. I've never shown the entire manuscript to anyone before.

It feels so right the way it is and I really, really don't think I can start something else. It'll probably end up as a series too...

David Noceti said...

Thanks so much, Amber. It's always great to hear that what I'm putting up might actually be helping others.

Congratulations on the completed manuscript! That's awesome. I bet it felt good to print it all out and hold it in your hands. How many words did it end up being?

As for the ending, no, I wouldn't scrap it, especially if you love it as much as is conveyed in your comment. If the writing sings an agent will pick it up and then they'll advise you as to whether or not the ending should be changed. They talked about that on Writing Excuses once. They had an editor on and he addressed that point. His words were, "I can help you fix a bad ending, what I can't do is make you a good writer." Or something to that effect.

Now, if you're asking if you should move on to the next story in the series, that's a tougher one. Would I? No. Is that something that you should necessarily do? No. Am I being of much help when pressed on an issue . . . No. :)

But honestly, with my writing, I really do move on to the next concept. If writing for this long has taught me anything, it's that I'm never as good as I'm going to be, so until that first novel sells, there's no point in writing the one that comes after it. That's just the way I see it. But there are multitudes that would disagree with me.

damihjva said...

I might be one of those multitudes, David. :)

Now, in both Fantasy and Sci-fi, many of the agents and published authors that I've talked to thus far advise trilogies rather than a stand alone to any new author looking to break into the business. I was told that this is because serials have a better chance of gaining large readerships, which in turn makes the publishers less hesitant to take a chance and contract a newbie-nobody -- provided that your story is a salable, and well-written one to begin with. (Notice that I said "salable" before "well-written". Not saying good writing isn't important, just that it must be something they can sell.)

The bottom line is that publishers want to make money. Serial novels are very profitable. With the overwhelming phenomena of series like JKR's Harry Potter, SM's Twilight, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire, Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth, (etc., etc.,) out there, publishers are keeping a sharp eye out for the next "sensation" to put on the market.

So, while it is possible to successfully publish a stand alone, your odds are much better with a series.

Amber J. Gardner said...

damihjva -- True, but that's only in the case of Fantasy and Sci-fi, I think. For other genres, it might be harder and also, if you have a trilogy with the combined word count is over 600,000 or so, I doubt any publisher will want to pick it up.

David -- Thanks. It was awesome! And thick. It was a little over 120k but then I decided to get rid of the prologue and the info dump of a beginning and it went down to 116k. It still needs some heavy revision (I've decided on a new ending, though the twist/cliffhanger thing is still there, and to take out a chapter or two), but I think it's a great story overall. I'm trying to aim for or below 120k since it's fantasy and I don't want to go too over the top since I heard 120k was the max limit.

It's true, what you say. I understand your way of thinking. But I have been thinking about this since I posted the comment and came to a conclusion that I wanted to share.

In this post, you mentioned LOTR Trilogy movies. I think they were incredible. Like, the best trilogy ever. But the thing I like about them was how they seemed...all together flawless. They fit together, like one very long, yet good story cut into three. And that was because the creators shot all three movies at once.

Also, debut author Brent Weeks came out with the Night Angel Trilogy. Perhaps he's the exception you pointed out, but I also noticed that each book of the trilogy was published one month after the other (the first in October 2008, the second in November 2008 and the third in December 2008). This gives me the obvious impression that he wrote all three of them before getting published.

So I've decided to write all three books one after the other so they fit together. I think that way it would be easier to give them the same tone and feeling, so one book doesn't feel out of place from the other.

I also think, that if I query agents with all three books already written and polished, it'll give me a better chance of getting their attention. It tells them I'm serious and can write more than just one book.

Though, I may also just write and polish the first book and pitch it as if it were a stand alone while secretly writing the next book like mad (though I know this can backfire. This is really the impatient side of me talking XD).

Sorry for talking so much. But if it wasn't for your post, I wouldn't have come to this decision, so thank you. You are definitely helping others with this blog...especially since it's all mostly true (especially that self sabotage post, sigh).

damihjva said...

Amber -- Actually, my information came from several different agents (at different times) who represent genres outside of SF/F, so, no, this does not strictly apply to just SF/F.

Examples of authors who writes serials:

In the literary genre, Diana Gabaldon. (Not to mention, each of her books are between 800 - 1000 pages; she is on book number eight.)

Mystery/Thriller writer, Dan Brown, is working on the third installment of his Robert Langdon series.

Historian, Kenneth C. Davis, is about to release book number twenty-six in his "Don't Know Much About" series.

Then of course, there are the countless romance authors I could name who are serial writers: J.R. Ward, Julia Quinn, Nora Roberts, Stephanie Laurens, Galen Foley, just to name a few.

I do agree, however, that when writing a series, each novel should be able to hold up as a stand alone. Not everyone comes into a series right at the first.

David Noceti said...

Dahmijva (who happens to be a close friend so any snarkiness must be read by others as being purely in jest): Could you please stop making good points? Kidding. I'm actually really really REALLY glad that there's an actual discussion going on here. That said, I am sooooo going to disagree with you. :)

Now, I can't speak to Gabalon or her books, but come on, Rowling, Mayer, Goodkind? Flashes in the pan. You might as well have thrown in Paolini. Those are works that just so happened to catch the right eye at the right time. They had the right gimmick and were sell-able. And I know for a fact that you aspire for better.

George R. R. Martin? There you have a point. A very good point. His name and “greatest fantasy author of all time” are commonly breathed in the same sentence. His first novel. :) A stand alone Hugo Award nominee, 'Dying of the Light'. His 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series didn't come until after four stand alone novels.

Dan Brown also had his first novel as a stand alone. Or at least I think it was. It sure doesn't sound like the others, 'Digital Fortress.'

Kenneth C. Davis's first book was published in 1984, 'Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America', and was not a part of the 'Don't Know Much' series.

Romance I'm not even going to touch. But I'd venture to guess that you're spot on with that.

And what about other greats? Neil Gaimen, R. A. Salvatore, Orson Scott Card, Frank Herbert, Tad Williams, Ann McCaffery, Stephen King or Patricia McKillip? Heck, we can even add Tolkien to that list. If we want more recent authors you have Brandon Sanderson, Jay Lake, . . . and some other people that I can't name. . . :) I'm not sure about LeGuin though. Her first novel is fuzzy, like it is a part of a created reality in which other stories happen but I'm not sure that they can be classified as a series in the sense that we are using the term.

I think that you are totally right about a series making more money, I just don't think that agents and publishers want to gamble on them as first timers, especially in this market. I think that we assume that an author's first work was their series because that is what is popular, but once we do some digging we find that it is often not the case.

Whew. And now I must write a response for Amber. :o)

And Dahmijva, this is why I love you, you're always willing to call me out.

David Noceti said...

Amber: First of all, no one talks more than I do, so don't feel like you're talking too much. XD

I think that 120k mark is a good one to shoot for and that's the same thing that I've heard. I'm sure you'll be able to trim it up nicely. I'm always amazed at how much I can cut when I go back and read things over. Dahmijva does a good job of pointing those things out to me. :)

You're totally right about LoTR. Tolkien wrote it as one novel, it was his publisher that broke it up into three, and I think that he wasn't very happy about it if I recall correctly. Still, his first book was The Hobbit, so if we're looking at it from a getting published POV . . . :)

I also think that you're right that the story will be much more cohesive if you write it all in one go. And if that's what you want to do, then do it. I'll root for you all the way. I'm just throwing out ideas that I think don't get talked about often enough. And admittedly, I'm also trying to stir the pot a little to entice people to comment. ;) Seems to be working.

damihjva said...

But David, you're not supposed to be right, I am. ;)

I will concede to your point regarding my examples for being authors with stand alone breakout novels.

However, you missed my point. It wasn't that they were all first-timers with a hit-series. Not at all. It was that their names didn't start falling from the lips of babes, scabby angst-puppies, and lonely housewives until they wrote a series. (That of course, excludes JKR and SM, whose first books were a part of a larger story.)

THIS is what the industry is looking at currently. The success of "the series."

And, I don't know about you, but when attending workshops and discussion panels, and the agents sitting in on them echo the advice that "publishers aren't buying as much due to the economy, and are *less likely* to publish stand-alones written by first-time authors ... I suggest writing a trilogy", I tend to believe them. It is their job to know the business, after all. (**Note that I said "less likely", which does not mean "not at all.")

And you know me far too well as to where my aspirations are placed, David. :) You're right, I don't aspire to JKR, SM, or Paolini's status. I'm rather leaning in the direction of Issac Asimov/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's achievements ... that is, as far as aspirations go anyway. Inasmuch I am a realist as I am a dreamer.

Say, come to think of it, both aforementioned authors debuted in the writing world with a series. Hmmm.

David Noceti said...

Oh, you are a sneaky one, Dahmijva, a sneaky one. Slipping that in there right at the end. :D

And honestly, you've been to way more workshops and conventions than I have. We'll have to compare notes in October when the fantasy convention roles around. Who knows, maybe I'm working off of old ideas. One things certain, we are living during interesting times in the realm of publishing.

Amber J. Gardner said...

I like JKR...well until the pressure got to her and it affected her writing in the last Harry Potter book (my theory anyways). I think SM and Paolini are bad writers who just got super lucky and incredible marketing help.

Honestly, I don't think there should be a "should" when starting out. I think the best way to get published and get successful is to write the story that's in you and then after its done, figure out what needs to be done after that.

If you write a trilogy ONLY cause they said they're looking for it, or write in a genre only cause it's hot right now, most likely it's going to turn out to be a crappy story because your heart isn't in it.

I think the quality of the work comes first and then all the publishing and marketing aspects come later. That's why I would write the trilogy all together at once (true, it wasn't Tolkien's first published book(s), but it was one hell of a story, better than the Hobbit perhaps?) before going on to a stand alone if a person feels it would be easier to get published that way.

Or if what you really want to write is a stand alone, then write that first and then later write the trilogy to get the agent's attention. (I'm using both sides of the argument here XD)

It'll take longer, but I think the work itself would benefit more that way since your entire focus and heart is into it.

Then again, there are the incredible multi-taskers who can write more than one book at a time without loss of quality... I envy them so much.

Now I don't know much, but isn't aren't Issac Asimov and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both authors that came out years and years ago? I don't think it's the same market now than it was then.

damihjva said...

Amber -- Ooh, playing both sides. I heartily approve. :D

And, I do agree with your main point that you have to be true to the story first, however long it may end up.

I also believe that if you follow a trend, rather than try to set one, you'll always be one step behind. (I can't count how many crap-shoot series that involve some HP/Twilight/Sookie Stackhouse rip offs out there.)

However, (I do say that a lot, don't I?) my initial redress was in response to David's last statement What I do know is this, I have yet to see an agent post that they are looking for “first-time-unpublished-series-authors” in any genre.

In this, I've had the benefit of those in the industry advise me otherwise. Given that I know David's personal stance on getting published, this was more or less, my two cents worth of what I know.

As for Isaac Asimov and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you missed my point. I mentioned them because both authors' works are highly celebrated years after their deaths. Every SF/F writer dreams of winning the Asimov award someday. And Sherlock, the last I checked, is alive and well, and looking very hot these days with Robert Downey Jr's portrayal.

Legacies. That is what I was referring to.

That they didn't write in the same market that we are writing in today is of no consequence, and shouldn't be applied in such terms. It goes without saying that the market has changed.

But the fact remains, authors like Asimov and Sir A.C. Doyle (along with countless others over the years) are the reasons that give the industry so much pause. The marked successes over the course of time and with the recent sensations of JKR and SM, is it really any wonder why?

The true challenge is finding the balance between keeping true to your story AND still having something that the publishing world will want.

David -- As if you ever had any doubt about my sneakiness. Perhaps, I should have continued with speech and debate after all. ;)

damihjva said...

Oh, and I forgot to address this point, David -- Not many readers want to invest time into reading the first book in a series that they’ll never get to the end of.

Usually, when someone is contracted for a series, say a trilogy, they are contracted for the three books, not just the one, so I'm not certain as to what you mean by "never get[ting] to the end of."

Also, I do not know of a single credible agent who would contract a series that they weren't sure they could sell. Were that the case, their credibility as a good agent would be highly dubious.

RE: Readership - Truthfully, that I work in a bookstore has proved to be far more insightful than I had anticipated first going in. I have the opportunity to talk and interact with my future audience on a day to day basis, how cool is that?

My observation is this:
So far, most of our customers have asked for the latest series in (take your pick) genre. Why? Because (whoever's) story is one that they want to emotionally invest in on a long term basis. This is the reason why it is crucial to have a good first novel, one that hooks and compels.

First time authors, like well known ones are only discounted when they fail to engage the reader. I can't tell you how many times I have meant to buy Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, only to have found a new author that I'd never heard of and decided to buy their book instead. It's not that I don't enjoy Gaiman's work ... I LOVE the man. It's just that I found something new, different, intriguing ... and I know Gaiman's work well enough to know what to expect, what he's capable of.

That is how I found Patrick Rothfuss ... of which I just thought to mention, is not only a Quill award winner and newbie-author, but his book, The Name of the Wind is also the first of a series. ;)

YA is also becoming popular for its serials. Maggie Steifvater, (an awesome lj friend and writer!) has just hit #3 on the NY Bestseller's list for her YA Shiver. It is the first of a series. (And yes, her first published book Lament is also one of a trilogy.)

K, I'll stop now. :p

David Noceti said...

"la la la, I'm not listening." :) I still think that the majority leans towards standalone first then a series. I think that they want to see if you can actually write a book, work under deadlines, make corrections, do edits, get out there and promote, so on and so forth before they commit to a series deal. You have to have something in your resume that shows that, or a really good gimmick. Like say, being a teenage boy who has written a really cool dragon book, or a single welfare mother who's written a children's story. Otherwise, they need to test you out first. Consider it your trial period at a new job. At least that's how I would work it if I were an agent/publisher.

I'm also sure that there are a number of books that get sold as a stand alone and then the author is told, "hey, this is selling really well, let's keep going with it. What's the next book in the series going to be?" If they author has already written it as a part of a series, awesome. If not, then they figure out how to make it into a series and capitalize on it.

So, I'm sticking to my guns on this one. Sell your stand alone first, even if it is a part of a series. In my view, it's easier to get a 300 page foot in the door than a 1000 page one. :)

damihjva said...

*smiles and nods*

We'll leave it at that, since the agents and authors I talk to aren't to be believed apparently. I suppose the only way to find out is to actually write and submit, eh?

*arches eyebrow* You game, partner? Sit down and prove to me just how wrong I am.

Love ya, buddy. :D

Peter said...

I don't mean to be picky, but strictly speaking LOTR is not a trilogy. It's one story told in three parts. Modern series are closer to this than they are to the true trilogy, in that you really do need to read all the books to get the story. The true trilogy on the other hand (three separate stories linked together in the same reality) allows each book to really stand alone, with no reliance on the other two.

This is worth mentioning only for this reason: a real trilogy is ALWAYS begun with a stand alone. It's then followed up by two more stand alone's.

My trouble is that I come up with too much material to put into one book, so I "have" to think of it as a series. I've just written what began as a stand alone YA historical fantasy, and came up with so much stuff that I like that I'm now pondering breaking it into three parts.

Enter the importance of what I said about true trilogies. A real trilogy might be the answer for authors like me who can't contain themselves. Write the first one, keeping all the extra too-cool-to-leave-behind material to use as reality linkages for the other stories, if ever you write them. This could allow you to move on from book one to something unrelated, and return when you want or need to.

For me the hardest thing to do is to not use all the stuff I come up with. As David points out, it's hard to trust in the possibility that I'll get my chance to use it all. So I'm re-approaching my historical fantasy as a true trilogy. I will make the necessary cuts, with the consolation that the stuff I cut still stands a chance of being used.

David Noceti said...

That's a great point, Peter. I never really thought about it, but most of the series that I've read could indeed have the first novel stand on its own. It's more the second novel in a series that tends to sag. The question is, did those authors design the first to stand on it's own, or did they write it as a part of a larger whole with the knowledge that they would have to hook the reader with the first? I think that is going to be a question that I make sure to ask author's in the future.

Regardless what we choose to do with regards to writing a stand alone or a series, that ending of the first novel has to have a truly satisfactory ending.

And I have the same trouble of coming up with too much. My current WIP started to give me that problem and may indeed have it crop up again. One of the strategies that I've incorporated has been to limit the cast of characters. I find that the more people I get involved, the larger the story becomes, more angles and possibilities present themselves. By keeping the cast small I can hone in on the core of the story and stay on task. Like you said, anything that's left over can be developed in the next book if I'm asked to turn it into a series.

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