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I spin through my various online writing forums and find so many writers talking about working on book two of their unpublished series, I can only grown to myself and offer up a little prayer to the writing goddess in hopes that they will soon see the light.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.
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).