Big successes in the publishing industry come in threes…or fours, fives, and sixes.
Serialisation is a key factor in developing brands and launching star authors such as JK Rowling and George RR Martin. Publishing a series means each successive book accumulates a larger readership (propagated by word-of-mouth publicity) which makes retailers feel more secure stocking titles with successful predecessors and makes it easier for authors to gain readership for new projects. Challenges and opportunities abound in marketing, writing, and gaining readership for series.
Marketing for a series often begins before the first title is published, and creating a sense of coherency between titles through name branding and cover design is an additional challenge for both authors and publishers. Moira McPartlin, author of the stand-alone novel The Incomers, has recently changed trajectory by writing a young adult series for Saraband Books (The Sun Song Trilogy; the first novel, Ways of the Doomed was launched in June, 2015).
"There has been a difference in marketing myself as an author," McPartlin says. "When writing a series, it is important to prove that the concepts and ideas will sustain, which is why my publisher and I chose the trilogy title and the book titles for the series before book number one was published." For The Sun Song Trilogy, the cover image (a DNA helix overlaid with a Celtic knot is a brand tool) will "continue throughout [the series] with possibilities for other Celtic knot designs to be included," says McPartlin.
Writing a series has pros and cons for the authors, and is quite different from writing a stand-alone (see inset). With The Sun Song Trilogy, McPartlin had to consider the plot for all three novels. She says, "Writing the second book in the series is more difficult. It is a balance between giving background information for readers new to the trilogy and small reminders for those who had read book number one. It is also important to keep the continuity of characters from one book to the next; for this purpose I will build a full character profile for each character no matter what part they play in the plot and maintain a chronology of events and social structure for the Sun Song world."
Writing a series is not for all authors and is not always required for success, however. Stand-alone books do not tie authors to a single genre, setting, or cast of characters, giving them more freedom to explore new avenues of writing and not be pressured by the publisher to write the book's successor. Many authors reject the idea of being branded by a single series, and instead choose to brand themselves in different ways. For example, author Stephen King is known for his numerous stand-alone novels and short stories which have had enormous success both as books and as movie/TV adaptations.
Series offer more opportunities to build a following because readers have more time to grow attached to the world and characters. Plus, successive publications help gain a series more branding awareness.
"Every writer hopes that with each new book they add to their portfolio their readership will grow, and it is always gratifying to hear that readers enjoy your work," McPartlin says. "With Sun Song I want to make each book stand-alone but also leave the reader wanting more of the characters and the Sun Song world. Ways of the Doomed has been published for a week or two and early indications show readers are wanting more."
Although not all titles or authors are suited to creating a series, the many benefits make the planned series an incredibly useful tool when it comes to selling books. Publishers have the chance to strike gold with a book series, and the key is knowing when to give readers what they want: more, more, more.
Jenny Hamrick is a publishing postgraduate student at the University of Stirling and an editorial and marketing intern at Saraband Books. She is currently working on her dissertation about current industry practices for book classification and categorisation, and whether there are viable alternatives to existing systems.