Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Maze Runner.
If you think about the most successful YA books in the last decade what do the majority of them have in common?
So imagine my surprise when my GE editor, Nicki, told me in one of our Editorial surgeries that publishers aren’t keen on series at the moment!
A series gets around one of a publisher’s biggest problems – discoverability/marketability. If a series is popular then they don’t have to work as hard to promote subsequent books, because the readership is already established.
A series also provides a writer with the opportunity to deepen and develop characters, their relationships, their adventures and their world, which should lead to greater enjoyment for readers.
What’s not to like?
I pushed Nicki’s comments to the back of my mind. Surely publishers don’t really mean it? I tried to convince myself.
Then the agent at Winchester who didn't like my story (the only one who hasn't!) completely sucker-punched the reference I’d made in my covering letter about my book being a trilogy, possibly quadrilogy (or a trilogy in four parts to coin Douglas Adams’ most excellent of phrases!). Agents and publishers don’t like that, she said, and would probably even disregard my whole submission because of it. Ouch!
Perhaps she was a bit harsh, but it hurt enough to finally get through to me. Backed up – in a much kinder way – by another agent’s seminar at the same event, I had to acknowledge that this was an issue that needed addressing rather than ignoring.
So what is the issue that publishers have with series? And why do they publish so many of them if they don’t like them?
The problem is undoubtedly that so many people try to write series, mostly for the reasons above, but also because they can be easier (no need to come up with a new standalone idea) and there’s often more money to be made from them (existing fanbase creating a ready market).
For these reasons, I’m sure that agents and publishers have series continually thrust at them which are saggy and waffly, bogged down with too much world-building and without strong enough plot or character arcs to hold up multiple books.
I can understand why they might try to discourage them!
Also, many publishers are risk averse – understandable in our economic climate – and won’t take on a series until the first book has proved its popularity. That’s fair enough too. As a debut author, I never expected to be handed a three/four book deal on a plate immediately.
So, instead, writers need to write books that have “series potential”.
Repeat after me – “series potential”. A standalone book that has the potential to be part of a series.
Although this frustrated me initially, I now think it’s exactly right. But with one massive codicil.
There needs to be joined-up thinking in place for the series in the very first book. I don’t just mean a vague idea of where the story could go. I'm talking satisfying and strong plot and character arcs that encompass the whole series (as well as the essential plot and character arcs for each individual book). There are too many sequels that wander off, having a jolly nice time in the same world with the same characters, but not really going anywhere with any purpose.
In my first editorial with Nicki she spent most of our time together questioning me about these different arcs, both for the individual books and the whole series. I must have satisfied her coz she didn’t tell me I had to forget it or change anything. In fact, my passionate ranting will have made it very clear how preoccupied I am about avoiding two big problems that happen if the tightrope walk between standalone and series isn’t perfectly balanced.
The first comes from just thinking about "series" – the individual books don’t have satisfactory endings. Too much is left hanging or unfinished, almost if that’s okay coz hey, this is a series and they’ll be dealt with in the next book. While a good series builds on the previous book(s), “ending” in that way is NOT OKAY. A writer needs to remember that even if they know where the story’s going and how things will work out, their readers have to wait at least a year until the next instalment (and possibly longer for the final denouement). Not fair. And often not nice. Draw each book to a decent conclusion, then stir things up again at the beginning of the next one.
The other main problem happens when just thinking about "standalone" – not knowing the story/plotline for the full series before the first book is completed. Subsequent books can therefore feel like add-ons – they might build on the first book to some degree, but not as much as they could have done had they been envisioned before or while it was being written. When I was rough drafting book 2 earlier this year, I was about to do something with a couple of characters when they suddenly suggested something completely different and wonderfully radical. So, I went back and incorporated tiny hints about that into book 1 – nothing that would be frustrating if that's all you ever got to read, but they're there, ready and waiting to turn into more if they're allowed to!
Many series fall foul of this issue, with their writers only planning books two and three when the first book is already written and successful. Although subsequent books can still be great, it's likely they could have been even more satisfying if elements in them had been set up more fully in the first book.
Contrast this with Harry Potter. It’s well-known that JK Rowling did a HUGE amount of plotting for the whole series early on in the writing of them. There are small, seemingly insignificant details throughout the seven books that come together or re-emerge and show their importance at different moments. Just before “Deathly Hallows” was published I was terrified that JK wouldn’t be able to pull together all the strands in this enormous series authentically and fully. There were so many. Too many! Surely she’d have to leave a few flapping or weave them together in a gratuitous or unsatisfying way?
I snatched the book out of my postman’s hands at 8.30am on publication day and sat and read until I finished at 5.30pm. As I closed the book I actually applauded.
She’d done it. She’d brought everything together, with the winning twist set up in the previous book (who had any idea that Draco disarming Dumbledore was SO significant? We were too focused on Harry and Snape to barely even notice he’d done it). A-ma-zing!
That’s what I want to achieve…or something similar at least! I’m making sure my book that can standalone if it has to – i.e. it’s not popular enough that a publisher commissions a subsequent one – but also has seeds planted throughout it ready to develop in future books and build to a wonderfully satisfying crescendo!
And I’d bet money that that’s what publishers really want to see too 😉