This is the final post in a four-part series.
Marketing a Series: The Big Picture
Now, if you’ve followed me this far, then chances are you want to write a series and you want to market it effectively. You may have already started a series. You may be knee-deep in a series. The point is you envision yourself as a series writer, just like Robert Jordan or Anne McCaffrey or Piers Anthony, which means you want to write at least one series, even if that’s not all you intend to do. So, now it’s time to take a step back from marketing a book or marketing a series, and look at marketing your career.
A lot of people will tell you it’s hard to get published today. It’s hard to win an audience. It’s hard to be a midlister and it’s hard to get the traction you need to be a midlister and it’s even harder to get the traction you need to be more than a midlister. All of this is true enough. But, there’s something I’ve noticed about some of the people who spend so much time complaining about how hard it is to get published and gain traction with their audience: They don’t seem to think all that much about their audience or their career when they decide what to write.
Yes, we’re artists and we need to write what moves us. Yes, as artists, we shouldn’t follow wherever the market would lead us, because that’s not being true to our art and our stories. But, BUT, that doesn’t mean we, as writers, shouldn’t seriously think about what we’re doing. There’s art, and that’s all fine and good, but for art to be art you need an audience. What’s a painting with nobody to look at it? What’s a movie with nobody to watch it? What’s a book with nobody to read it? Whatever it is, it’s not art. According to the biography I’ve read, Emily Dickinson was a fabulously under-confident poet. She wrote wonderful poetry, but she wasn’t able to handle rejection. So her wonderful poetry moldered in a drawer (or some other storage space) for the entirety of her life. It wasn’t art. It was a failed dream. It was a failed dream, because she didn’t take the risks necessary to make that dream come true. Only after she died, only after her work was published, only after her work was read, loved, and cherished by generations of readers, did her work become art.
Right now, you’re not just an artist, you are also a craftsman and a businesswoman—at least you are if you intend to succeed. That means three things: 1) You have to be true to your art. 2) You have to be true to your craft. 3) You have to be true to your business. Only then will you be true to yourself. It’s not a contradiction; if it seems like a contradiction, then it is a contradiction that can and should be reconciled.
Here’s another rule for you: If you are a first-time author, you should not start with the first book of an interdependent series. If you are a first-time author, you should not write a book that will depend on other books to feel complete. If you are a first-time author, you should write a book that can (and deserves to) stand on its own.
The BEST contemporary example of this that I’ve seen is Brandon Sanderson. The first book he wrote was Elantris, which was a stand-alone epic novel (yes, it’s possible) which tells a completely satisfying story all by itself. It’s an epic that is a complete story arc, (which doesn’t mean he couldn’t expand on it if he wanted to, but that’s not the point). For those who’ve read the first works of author who become consummate masters, you can tell that Elantris is just such a book when you read it. It’s a great book! It’s a first book, and it reads like a first book, but it is a great book. This is important. Because, you see, I’ve read Elantris and I’ve read two of Sanderson’s contributions to the finale of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and on the merits of these three books I’ve invested in an entire series of novels written by Brandon Sanderson without having read the first book in the series. So, yes, I’m contradicting what I said before, but only because Sanderson earned it.
Furthermore, Elantris was published first (2005). The next book is Mistborn: The Final Empire, which is the first book in a series (2006). In 2007, he introduced the next book in the Mistborn series and started a new series with a new first book. In seven years, he published (or will publish) three stand-alone novels and a total of nine series books in three different series, plus he was honored with the task of completing the Wheel of Time series, which is another three books. So, without knowing what his sales figures are, I can tell you that this man is a success and that his success as a series writer was built upon the foundation of a single, stand-alone novel. And it wasn’t just any old stand-alone novel, but one that obviously meant a lot to him and was executed with burgeoning skill and craftsmanship. This, my good readers, was a savvy business decision, even if Sanderson didn’t know that at the time.
*Now, here’s a personal example to drive this point home. I wrote a novel that I started in high school and finished shortly before my first son was born. It was bad, as most first drafts of first novels are, and at the time I had neither the energy nor the insight to fix it. I took a break and then tried to fix it. Before I was finished my third son was born. It was better, but it still wasn’t good. All that time and all that energy taught me a lot about how not to go about writing a book. Then, life got in the way. I studied and read and studied and thought, all in an effort to figure out how the vision that was so clear in my mind completely missed the page. Time passed as I slowly discovered the answers.
Now, my skills as a writer are much improved. My understanding of story is much improved. Now, I strongly believe I have everything I need to really fix that novel, to not only tell the story I wanted to tell, but to tell an even better story that delves further than I’d ever gone into that world and those characters.
So, why don’t I do that? I still have passion for that story. I believe the story is worth the effort. I believe I have the skill. I could do it. But I don’t. Why?
The story I want to tell is the first book in a series. It’s in the style (again, as a series, not as a story) of the Wheel of Time, or maybe Pern. Basically, without going into details, the first book starts a story that will require at least three books to be fully told. So, even though I think it’s a very worthy concept (and I’ve vetted it with enough people to trust that others would enjoy the story) and I believe I can tell it properly, it’s not the right story to tell now.
You see, this book requires two subsequent books. If it fails, then I’m still committed to writing those books (think Firefly fiasco). Even if it doesn’t fail, I will lose some potential readers who aren’t willing to commit to a series for fear that it’ll never be completed, so it’s more likely to fail because some of my potential readers wouldn’t be willing to give it a try.
The point is that this first book is not a good first book for a first-time author. So, instead of writing and rewriting this book until my skill caught up with my vision, I’ve been developing my skills and looking for a stand-alone story that I could tell as my first book instead. Since I tend to think and dream in series form, this has been harder than it sounds. I have a dozen series I could write, but only one stand-alone novel. Yet, the point there is that this stand-alone novel was worth the wait. And it’s worth the effort of searching for it for the sake of my career.
And that’s the point. The story you want to tell, the first story or the next story that comes to your mind and drives your passion, may not be the best story for you to tell at this stage of your career. It’s hard to think like that, but it’s important to do so. The story that comes easily to mind can always wait, and it’ll be better for the wait if it’s really as good as you think it is. If you’re afraid you’ll forget, take notes. If you don’t think that’s enough, then chances are the story isn’t that strong to begin with. Write the book that will take your career to the next level. Work your way to the point you need to be at for this story to work. And then, when you’re ready, tell your story. But…and this should be another BUT, that doesn’t mean you tell any old story.
The point isn’t to sell ourselves out; the point is to build ourselves up. Otherwise you risk falling prey to the same pattern I’ve seen so many writers throughout history fall into, and that’s to tell the same story over and over again until they finally get it right, publishing multiple versions, sometimes with a new cast and sometimes with a new setting, but always following a subtle variation on the same plot/story, until they can finally realize their vision. In the end, they might have that one great story they’ve been trying to tell, but in the meantime it’s all mediocrity because they’ve been chasing something that was too far out of their reach. Instead, they could have found a story within themselves that was within their reach that they could still be passionate about, that was still worthy of being told, even if it wasn’t that story.
The world is full of stories. Our imaginations can combine and twist these real-world stories in so many fascinating ways that there never is, nor shall there ever be, a shortage of worthwhile material. The very idea of being out of ideas is unfathomable to me, because the pool of ideas is boundless. The lack of ideas isn’t the problem then, but the lack of passion can be. That’s the key: Finding the passion to tell a story you believe in that is within your reach. Now, that’s something you can build a career on!