Writing a Series Query Letter and Series in General

This question about writing a series query letter is 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.

series query letter, writing a series
Writing a series query letter: do you have a series up your sleeve? Focus on the first book in your query.

Good question, Elan. Writing a series query letter is something a lot of writers should be researching beforehand, 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.

Writing a Series Query Letter: Past and Present

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 writing a children’s book series for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

Series are Risky for Publishers

This isn’t fun to hear for the fantasy, paranormal, or sci-fi writer who’s planning to write a series query letter for their seven-book story arc. 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.

Create Stand-Alone Stories

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.

Gauge Interest Before Writing a Series

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 it’s fine to send agents a series query letter. 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.

Writing a series? When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I can help you structure your novel so that there’s subtle potential for a sequel.

Writing in Different Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question about writing in different genres the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in multiple genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to writing in different genres or sticking to one? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

writing in different genres, writing in multiple genres, multiple genres, writing for multiple audiences
If you write for multiple genres, you may have more career juggling to do.

Writing in Different Genres as a Career Path

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here.

A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets and writing in multiple genres. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write. (If you’re having trouble identifying your genre or category, start here.)

How to Pull Off Writing Multiple Genres

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one in multiple genres or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Have diverse writing interests? My editing services cover many different genres and categories, from children’s book to memoir to fantasy.

Sending a Revision to a Literary Agent While They’re Still Considering Your Work

So I hear you’re considering sending a revision to a literary agent while they’re still considering your work. Should you be in this situation? No. Because ideally, you would’ve queried only your strongest work. Because Mary told you to send query only your strongest work. But you didn’t believe me or didn’t know any better and then you decided to revise and here we are. It’ll be okay.

sending a revision to a literary agent considering your work, sending revised work to a literary agent, revision to an agent, revised query letter, sending a revised manuscript to an agent, revision request
Dearest Agent: About that submission you previously received from me… Funny story, my account was hacked…

Writers frequently ask about submitting a revision request to an agent. Here’s the situation: you polish a manuscript draft (so you think) and then you send it out to agents. Then, since publishing is notoriously slow, you sit around and have some time to think about what you’ve done. And think. And think. You realize things about your manuscript that you should’ve done differently. You begin to revise and realize there’s a LOT you could’ve done differently. Finally, you realize that “how to get my novel published” does not entail submitting the piece of garbage that’s out there in agent-land.

Oh no.

Will Sending a Revision to a Literary Agent Make you Look Bad?

Now you can’t even begin to fathom how awful your last draft is and you can’t believe that it is sitting in Dream Agent’s inbox in that deplorable, horrid, unfinished condition. An anxiety flares up and makes your pinkie toes tingle. Sending a revision to a literary agent is an unquenchable compulsion.

But there are lots of questions involved. Will the agent take it? Will it make you look bad? Will even submitting a revision request to an agent guarantee a speedy rejection?

Here’s the thing, and I can’t say it enough: there are only a finite number of agents in the world (or, only a finite number worth working with… The point, remember, is to get a good agent, not just any agent…). You’ve spent all this time writing a book and you can only show it to those agents once, unless they ask to see a revision down the line. Why wouldn’t you take the absolute maximum time you can to make sure this book is polished and perfect?

Because you’re human and you’re impatient and you want to get feedback from publishing professionals on it now now now. It’s okay. I understand this urge. I’ve sent out manuscripts to agents only to do a huge revision. I’ve sent that dreaded “Actually, can you look at this instead?” e-mail.

Making Your Request to the Literary Agent

So if you find yourself in this situation — having rushed out a manuscript that wasn’t ready and sending a revision to a literary agent– you are in the same boat as many, many other writers. It happens. Agents know it happens. So when you e-mail us and ask to submit another draft, it is likely we’ll say “Sure, send it in,” unless we’re already reading your manuscript. If we are, we still might still say “Sure, send it in,” but only if we like what we’re reading so far. Or we might reject you, because some agents have no tolerance for this. At this point, it’s up to you whether you want the risk.

The fact that writers pull the trigger too early is no secret in agenting circles. Besides, there are precious few debut manuscripts (if any) that go out on submission to editors without some revision. Whether you do that revision for an agent before or after signing their contract, you will do some revision. So, agents know that a manuscript is a malleable thing.

If You’re Going to Send a Revision to a Literary Agent…

It doesn’t exactly impress us that you submit a manuscript and have a brand new draft the next week, but it happens. Just make sure the second draft you submit is really, really, really good. Otherwise, you will lose points in the competence and professionalism departments. I repeat: if you plan on sending a revision to a literary agent, take your time, for the sake of all that is holy. Don’t just rush through this draft, too! Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results…

I will say it once, I will say it a thousand times: patience is a virtue, my dears. You’ve got a list of agents. You’ve got a manuscript that represents your tears, blood and late-night tiramisu binges. That stack of words and paper better be your damn best piece of work before ever the twain shall meet. Don’t be That Guy who’s submitting a revision request to an agent. Dig?

Are you revising and revising only to figure out that you don’t know what you’re doing? It’s okay. Make your next revision your best revision yet with me as your manuscript editor. I’ll give you feedback to not only inform your next revision, but your entire approach to fiction writing.