Querying With a Series and Series in General

This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? :) Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

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  1. Jennifer’s avatar

    Thanks for the advice. It’s good to know whether you should approach it as a series or not. I’ve heard both ways. Some agents want to know, others don’t. I do have one question, when you pitch the first manuscript to the publishing house, do you mention that it could be a series, or see what they say first? Is it better for them to suggest it than for you to offer, or does it not matter.

  2. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Interesting take on the series thing. I’m not a big fan of series books where it leaves so much open at the end, like, in your example of book I for set up, book II for development, and book III for showdown. I want a little bit of all those in each story I read. Call me crazy. :-)

    Great post.

  3. Kat Albrecht’s avatar

    THANK YOU for this post! It helped confirm what ending I should use on the YA mystery I’ve been tapping out. I’ve flip flopped with either the cliff hanger (that, in my mind, would entice readers to buy the second book) or the warm, fuzzy and happy ending. Safe is good, especially in this economy!

  4. Brandi Hall’s avatar

    Wow…I’m soooooooo glad I followed my gut. I’m currently working on book 2 in YA urban fantasy trilogy, but I’ve designed them to each to completely stand alone. There’s a series theme which is in all 3, but each one has separate plots. I was nervous when I first saw this post, but now I’m a bit relieved.

    :o)

    Thank you for this post!

  5. Bryan Bliss’s avatar

    Maybe I’m dumb, but I have a hard enough time focusing on my ONE book….let alone trying to even begin to imagine what will happen in the next one. *sigh*

  6. Elan Cross’s avatar

    Thanks so much, Mary, for your answer. After reading your post, I’m sure glad that I started work on a completely fresh idea rather than a sequel to my recently completed MS. It did seem illogical to begin a second book when the first one hasn’t sold yet. It’s nice to have my feelings confirmed:)

    And, I agree with Lynn. I’m not a huge fan of cliffhanger endings in novels. So, I am pleased to say that one of my test readers said, “Very satisfying ending,” after reading my MS. Whew! Must be doing something right:)
    Thanks again, Mary!

  7. D. D. Tannenbaum’s avatar

    Mary,

    I want to thank you for laying out the changes in the publishing industry. It helps everyone to know how the playing feel has changed. Authors have to adapt to changing economic times like the rest of the publishing industry. Your article gives us a chance to understand how agents and publishers are thinking.

    Thanks again!

  8. Alicia’s avatar

    I found this really helpful – thank you. A lot of people have said no to the series mention, but not specifically why. This makes a lot of sense. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  9. Karen Amanda Hooper’s avatar

    Thanks so much for posting about this. I’ve been back and forth on whether to mention the series potential or not. There is a different answer everywhere I look. Great post!

  10. Patti’s avatar

    I’ve been wondering about this for a long time, that’s for answering the question.

  11. Michaela’s avatar

    Very practical advice — thank you. Does the same apply to lower grade fiction?

  12. Tara Stivers’s avatar

    Thank you for the information. I was wondering whether or not I should add information about a series in my query. Thanks!

  13. Wendy Peterson’s avatar

    Oh, well, that’s music to my ears as I’ve written a paranormal but it’s taken years to write as it’s a huge epic. It is also very stand alone, and the happily-ever-after has already happened. However the story is for adults so it’s not the Twilight type of thing…it’s a deep, spiritual story.

  14. Mara Berkley’s avatar

    I am a reluctant serialist. Well, not reluctant so much as astonished to discover new stories everyday. I am completing the book that has given birth to so many ideas (though a prequel nudged itself in the world) despite uncertainy. This article clarified my goal and was to the point. In addition to sage advice, it is important to have something specific to say, such as: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.”

    Thank you, Mara

  15. Wendy’s avatar

    This is really useful advice for me, having written a series… or at least started one. I’ve been dithering back and forth, unsure how to query it and this has helped a lot. Thank you.

  16. Abby’s avatar

    This is such great info! I’ve been wondering about this for a while, and there is so much contradictory information out there, it’s hard to know how to approach this in a query. Thank you!

  17. Gayle C. Krause’s avatar

    I’m a fan of series, especially fantasies such as “The Sevenwaters Series” by Julliet Marillier. I can see how it would be a daunting task to plan out 3 to four books. So to me, it makes sense to write a stand alone book first. In my writing I find that as the first book comes to a climax the implications for a second book make themselves obvious.

    Thanks for this information from an agent’s perpective.

    Gayle

  18. Dee White’s avatar

    Thanks for this post. As an author, this seems to make good sense to me, too. I’m writing a YA psycho thriller series, but each book is a stand alone…and I’d rather have a home for the first one before I embarked on writing the other three. Apart from anything, it means I don’t have to complete the series before seeing the first one on the bookshelves.

    Dee

  19. Trish’s avatar

    Great post. Thank you for the advice, Mary. I have a series, but have only completed two. My books are all stand alone, and I always mention that in my query letters, but now I’m thinking it’s best not to mention the ones I’m still working on.

  20. Suzie’s avatar

    Thank you. Valuable information!

  21. Kaia’s avatar

    I have enough trouble keeping the story of one book straight, not to mention write it a decent ending. I couldn’t even imagine writing a whole series, that’s just terrifying.

  22. Angelica R. Jackson’s avatar

    Your asterisked comment cracked me up–”and have this be true.” Because as I was reading “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone” I thought, “She’s going to get a lot of that now, from people who genuinely believe it.”

    And I’m not trying to be snarky; I queried a book a few years back that I absolutely believed was finished and polished at the time–I was wrong. I just needed to learn some more things before I could see that.

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