This is the third part of a four-part series on how to market a book which is part of a series.
When to Market the Series
If you remember, way back in the first post on this topic, I made three differentiations among series. Wheel of Time refers to a series of interdependent books that rely on each other to tell a complete story. Xanth refers to a series of wholly independent books that can be read as stand-alone books. Pern refers to a series that mixes interdependent and independent books. I also said that each of these types of series appeal to different readers. For this reason, when and how you market a series is going to be different depending on where your series falls on this spectrum. As with any lines we draw, it’s important to recognize that there will be series that blur between these distinctions. But, for now, let’s keep it simple and focus on how to market these separate types of series.
First, a rule revealed in the second post in this series is that the series itself is only marketed to fans. You don’t try to sell new readers on a whole series, because no amount of marketing (unless you consider previous books marketing for subsequent books, but we’ll get into that in the last post) can convince a new reader that you deserve their commitment for an entire series.
Let’s think about this for a moment. I love series and I love epics. I will spend a lot of time (and a good deal of money) on a writer that I love. I will buy book after book after book. When each new book comes out, I’ll go back and re-read the books that have come before it. Or, I will keep buying new books and save them until I have time to do so. A good writer is worth the investment, because I trust a good writer to provide a return on my investment (and I’m not talking about money or craft-learning here, though there is that, too). I have absolutely no fear of a series. I don’t find the commitment at all intimidating, though I admit it’s rather frustrating (and a real risk) when the author or one of the co-authors dies before the series is complete. (Here I must give a nod in appreciation for the contributions to the speculative fiction genre made by Andre Norton, and stick my proverbial tongue out at the people who squabbled over rights after her death and thus denied readers the joy of her posthumous work—let Elvenbred be completed and published please!)
The thing of it is, even though I prefer series and, epic series in particular, I won’t start a series based on the draw of the series. I’ll read the first book. If I enjoy that first book, then I will invest in the series. So, while I have many series which I try to collect in their entirety, I have many more which I have only purchased (and sometimes discarded) the first book. I’m not sold on a series and I’m not sold on hype. I’m sold on the execution of the first book.
Furthermore, an author has one, maybe two, chances to prove herself, and if she can’t, then I’ll move on to someone more deserving of my time. Melanie Rawn comes to mind here. She may be a great author, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve read one of her books, the first in a series, and I was so disappointed that I haven’t been willing to invest in any more of her books. And she’s not alone in that. Perhaps that seems uncharitable, particularly for a writer, particularly for a writer who has not yet published a book, but the fact is my time is limited. My leisure reading time is particularly limited. I won’t waste it on books I expect to dislike when there are so many more books to be read, many of which I have good reason to think I’ll like very much.
So, there are two conclusions you can draw from this. First, each book counts. Especially first books. They can’t be good. They have to be great. This is your chance to win a new reader, so you’ve got to give it everything you have, everything your agent/editor has, and everything you can scrounge from anyone else who will make themselves available to you. It is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
Second, if someone who loves series and epics (me) is this difficult to sell to as a new reader (assuming you’re trying to sell the series), then how much more difficult do you think it would be for those readers who enjoy series, but are also intimidating by the time commitment? There are readers, and I’ve watched them making buying decisions, who’ll get into a snippet of story, but won’t follow through because the story is marketed as a series. It’s not that they don’t like the story, it’s that they’re being sold on a series and that’s just asking too much of them.
Time is precious and far too many of us are far more busy than we’d like to be. If you, as the writer, want us to invest our time into your body of work, then you have to earn our trust. We have to trust that we’ll get a return on our investment! And, while you can build enough trust to sell a book using marketing alone, you cannot build enough trust to sell a series based on your marketing endeavors.
So, you’re not going to sell new readers on a series. You’re going to sell new readers on the first book of a series—not for the sake of the series, but for the sake of the individual book. Once you’ve won the reader over with the first book, then you can sell readers on the series. In this sense, if what you’re trying to sell is the series, then the first book of a series is part of your marketing. That’s the hook. You hook them with your marketing materials to get them to read the first book, then, within the first book, you hook them on the series.
At the end of the first book, you can drive readers to marketing materials designed to get them excited about the series. If you’ve satisfied them, they’ll likely follow you to these materials. That’s when you sell them on the series. You’re worth the effort and you’re worth the risk, and the reader knows that because you’ve proven yourself in the first book.
If you try to market the first book by marketing the series, then you get the reaction that I explored in my last Trailer Time, and you fail.
Now, here’s the exceptions: If you truly have a Xanth-style series or if your current book is a Xanth-style book in a Pern-style series (not talking actual content here, but the relationship to the rest of the books), then any book that can be a stand-alone novel is an ambassador to the series, just like the first book is an ambassador to the series. If the reader can really start (and appreciate) your series with the book you have now, then market the book you have now and use it to hook readers to the series, just as you would do with the first book.
Once you’ve won readers over, then it’s time to market the series. How you do this is going to depend a great deal on whether it is a Wheel of Time, a Pern, or a Xanth, and it’s also going to depend on the content of the series relative to the content of the hook book. If your books are interdependent (either a Wheel of Time or part of a Pern), then you market the series much as you would market the book, by giving readers a taste of the full cast and the complete story arc. If your books are independent (either a Xanth or part of a Pern), then you will need to base your series marketing on the style and the milieu.
For example, if I were to use a Xanth novel to market the series, I would concentrate on the witty punning and magic, while also drawing attention to the tongue-in-cheek social commentary. I might even allude to The Simpsons. If I were to use the Moreta novel to market the Pern series, I would draw attention to how the legend of Moreta shaped the world of Pern and how so much that was lost must be rediscovered if Pern is to survive. Depending on which came first, I would tie Moreta’s story with the series as the “contemporary” Pernese rediscover and explore the Southern continent. And if I were to market the Moreta novel to fans of the Pern series, I would say something about “the truth behind the legend,” which treats the world of Pern with a greater sense of reality than would seem appropriate to new readers, but which makes sense for those who are already sold on the Pern milieu.
The point is, as a writer, you have to market your work in context to where your reader (or potential reader) is in relation to your stories. If you don’t, if you try to accomplish too much, then you’ll fail to capture the reader. If you don’t connect your work to its series at the appropriate time, you’ll fail to leverage the hard work you’ve already done by winning the reader’s trust. Either way, you lose.