Thursday, August 18, 2011

Publishing an ongoing series

I'm a series author and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I love coming up with new ideas and seeing how my characters react. I love referring to previous events in passing, usually mocking myself in the process. (In book four, one of my characters points out they've already had enough mis-adventures to fill three lousy novels.)

Unfortunately the bookselling trade isn't geared for an open-ended, ongoing series, so if you're writing one, there are a few things you need to know:

First, no publisher is going to offer you a contract for six, or ten, or fifteen series books, even if you've already written them. You'll be lucky to get a contract for three, and that's if they form a self-contained trilogy.

It costs a fortune to edit, proof, design, publish and market a book. Publishers are basically big money gamblers: they weigh up the odds on each title, put up their stake and roll the dice. If the title does well they collect on the bet - as does the author. On the other hand, a poor throw means losses.

There are many, many reasons why a book fails to do as well as the publisher expected. It could be the cover, the blurbs, the writing style, the theme, the genre, the competition, bad luck ... and a hundred more. Most often, it just fails to make a big enough splash. (Let's face it - when ten thousand books are launched across the publishing spectrum, mathematically speaking only a handful can become bestsellers.)

No problem, you think. Books two and three will gee things up, and then people will seek out the first. I'm afraid not, because your first book will no longer be sitting on bookstore shelves.

Picture a conveyor belt of books entering one side of a huge warehouse. The belt is stacked with row after row of books. There are big piles of some (headline authors) and small piles of the rest (midlist and newbies)

Let's fill the warehouse with people - our bookstore customers - lined up three deep on either side of the belt. Now and then they grab a copy when something takes their fancy.

At the far end of the warehouse the belt goes into a giant mulching machine. Once a book reaches that point, it's done.

Twenty years ago this belt was one or two feet wide and it moved pretty slowly. There was plenty of time for buyers to inspect all the books, and if they missed something they could chase it down and grab a copy.

Ten years ago the belt was four feet wide, and it was moving twice as fast. There was still time to find a particular title, but it was harder.

Now the belt is 20 feet wide and it's moving at 200 miles per hour. Books appear and disappear so fast they're shipped from the printers to the recyclers, with a brief detour to bookstores along the way.

I'm not suggesting the ratios in this example are entirely accurate, nor that it's precisely how things work. I just want you to picture that 200 mph conveyor belt stacked with books when you're telling yourself that the release of books two and three in your series will drive people to book one.

So what's the solution?

I can't speak for everyone else, but I'm planning 15-20 novels in one of my series, and possibly 5-10 in the other. As per my blog of a few days ago, I believe the time is right for me to skip publishers altogether and hire the professionals myself. (Editing, cover and interior are the three biggies. For ebooks interior design is less important, provided you know exactly what you're doing. On the other hand, getting the guts of an ebook designed for you is much, much cheaper than paying someone to lay out a printed book.)

Am I expecting to outsell trade publishers? Hell no. But I'll make five to ten times as much per copy, so I can afford to sell only 1/10th as many. On top of that, I'm hardly going to can my own series because it's not selling enough copies.

Believe me, if you indie-publish and make a success of it, agents and publishers will come calling. When they do, you may have six or seven books they can release in rapid succession, increasing your chances of building that all-important audience.

To me, it's the way to go. I've never been comfortable with the glacial pace of publishing, and this way I work to my own schedule, please my own fans, and build my own career.

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)


PCGuy said...

Not crazy - Amanda Hocking details on her blog taking one of her self published series (three books) through a publisher.

Simon Haynes said...

Amanda Hocking (and John Locke) have become the poster children for self-pub authors. JA Konrath too, but for different reasons.

They're the headline acts which others strive to emulate, and they're definitely giving hope to writers who have struggled for years to find an agent or a publisher.