Marketing the Book or Marketing the Series: Part 4

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!

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About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces ComeSootheYourAchingSoul.com in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of www.StephanieAllenCrist.com and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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2 Responses to Marketing the Book or Marketing the Series: Part 4

  1. acflory says:

    Hmmm… You’ve really made me think with this one. I started writing fiction about 11 years ago and that first book is still unfinished because it was too big and because life got in the way. Then I began writing Vokhtah at the end of 2004 as part of my first and only nanowrimo [national novel writing month] effort. I decided to try and finish /something/ and I thought Vokhtah could be a nice, standalone little story. And then it grew and changed and became something else.

    I’m really, really glad that I kept changing it because even after all the polishing that first pass was not great. It was the the beginning of me learning how to write fiction, how to write the story I wanted to read. So far I’m with you every step of the way. But…

    While Vokhtah can be read as a standalone novel because it has a complete story arc, it has to be the first book of a series because I’ve already written the second book. In fact the second book started out /as/ the first book.

    So where does someone like me go from here? Sadly I know the answer to that question because I’ve done the same thing all my life. I break the rules and hope that things turn out ok in the end 😦

  2. Where does someone go from there? You could do what I did, keep the story, but set it aside to actually finish it later and use what you learned from that process to start another, purely stand-alone story. Or, you could push ahead with the Vokhtah story and be prepared to work harder to win readers’ trust. Or, you could do something a bit sneaky, and write a short story version of the Vokhtah story that hooks readers into the story line (may be the same world and different characters or may be a portion of the story you’re working on or it may happen before or after the book).

    I strongly recommend starting with a stand-alone novel. But that does NOT mean wasting the Vokhtah story, even if you feel compelled to finish it first. After all, finishing a story does not mean you have to publish it right away, and if you are as underconfident as you seem about the story’s quality, the time away to write a different, stand alone story might be what you need to improve your skill to get the Vokhtah story to the level you want it at.

    BUT as strongly as I recommend this, it’s still possible to break the rules and succeed. People do it and they do it well. but it is an up-hill battle. It’s harder to gain traction, it’s harder to gain a following, and it’s harder to maintain it.

    Part of it is, first novels, even when they’re good enough to get published, are almost always our worst novels. They should be our worst novels, because we should keep getting better and better. And we’re learning how to do this as we’re writing the novel.

    Think about the implications of that for a moment. Your first novel is your worst novel. So, what does that mean when your first novel is also the marketing ambassador of your series? The obvious answer is that not only is the sales of your first novel going to suffer because it’s your worst novel, the sales of your entire series is going to suffer because its ambassador is your worst novel.

    And, just to complicate things further, there’s the curse of the sequel. While we should be getting better and better (as writers) sometimes the series we think is so strong doesn’t really hold up. So, if you write a first novel as the start of a series, and then your second or third or fourth book in the series really stinks, because the series petered out before the story was fully told, then you have another problem. Now, out of a few books, you have two that are “bad” relative to what you could really write.

    And your ability to market yourself to publishers and readers will suffer for it.

    Of course, as long as you realize this, you can prepare for it and plan to overcome the risks. People do it. It’s just harder that way.

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