Saturday, August 29, 2009

Series Potential? Seriously?

When writing queries for chapter books, is it a good idea to mention "series potential" or plans for subsequent books? I know mentioning sequels when querying MG or YA novels is generally frowned upon, but with chapter books, it seems series are very popular.
It's the same for books of all kinds. Series are very popular-- with readers, with publishers, with authors. Everybody likes a series, because it takes some of the tough decision-making out of reading / publishing / writing, and once they get going, series give you a pretty good return on your money / effort.

"Oh!" you say. "Well then why isn't everything a series?"

[Here we pause to let my readers consider this question for themselves.]



One possible answer is that the author didn't / doesn't want the book to be a series; he/she feels it's complete in itself and doesn't see a way to continue the story past what's already been said.

But the real answer is: not everything is popular enough to be a series. Sorry.

If Twilight had had a readership of 5,000, there would have been no New Moon, Eclipse or Breaking Dawn.


The reason editors don't want to hear about the author's thoughts on their book's series potential is for the same reason we don't want to hear about the author's thoughts on the possibility of getting their book on Oprah: AUTHORS HAVE NO CLUE.

More than that, experience has proven to most editors that the authors who are all excited about writing a series are either:

a) people who are under delusions of the millions of dollars there are to be made in children's books and who are uninterested in the quality of their writing in their pursuit of those dollars, or

b) people who are unhealthily obsessed with their creation and whose last interaction with reality was passing it in the street months ago, when they couldn't quite place where they knew reality from. It looked familiar... did its name start with an "R," maybe, or a "D"?


So we worry that if you've been spending a bunch of time over-enthusiastically plotting out the further adventures of your book, you haven't been spending a bunch of time making your first book the best book it can be.

Write the best book you can. The best book-- one book. If the editor sees the potential for great popularity and the beginnings of a series, she'll suggest the series to you.

UPDATE: Michael reminds me that some types of series (like his Animorphs) are pitched as a series, but as he also points out, that kind of writer can come up with a really catchy idea and churn out a hell of a lot of consistent prose over an extended amount of time (54 books in 5 years, for instance). As I've reminded him, that's not most writers.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good advice, EA. Never mention a desire to write sequels/series. Check.

However, chapter books do seem to lend themselves to series, long lasting series, more so than MG or YA. How many MG and YA novels have dozens of sequels? I can't think of any.

So, I'm a bit surprised you chose to reference "Twilight", a YA novel, when the OP asked about chapter books. Perhaps it would have been more helpful to talk about "Ivy and Bean" or "Judy Moody"?

Besides, if I'm not mistaken, "Twilight" did NOT have a readership of 5,000 before the publisher contracted for the other novels. Didn't her agent work out a three-book deal from the start (with the 4th contracted later?).

I'm so tired of hearing about "Twilight". Agents and editors continue to say, "Never mention 'Twilight'. Period." And yet every single one of you mentions the damned book. Even in responses to questions that have nothing to do with YA...

Anyay, chapter books are hardly ever discussed in your blog, or other blogs. PBs, MGs, and YAs are the more popular topics of discussion. Are editors even interested in receiving chapter books? Is there still room for debut authors?

Michael Reynolds said...

Wrong. Sorry, but you're just plain wrong.

As self-serving background info, my series, either alone or in partnership with my wife:

Ocean City/Making Waves
Boyfriends-Girlfriends/Making Out
Summer/Tan Lines
Barf-O-Rama
Christy
Silver Creek Riders
Animorphs
Everworld
Remnants
Gone
(coming soon) The Magnificent 12
(coming eventually) Animorphs 2.0
(coming possibly) Mad Alice

Each of the above was conceived and pitched as a series.

A series is not a sequel. It's not even a series of sequels. It's a thing unto itself.

Not to say you can't write a book without contemplating a series and nevertheless manage to make the transition. But the smart writer looking to go series should be planning ahead.

I don't mean that you should have the whole plot worked out. But you should build a series structure and you should have assembled all the things you're going to need. Think of it as packing for a vacation as opposed to packing for ten years on a desert island.

Granted some editors don't get that series are not just lucky sequels. But others do.

The problem is not that a series writer will pull punches on book #1, it's that writing series is a different job than writing stand-alones. ANIMORPHS was 14 books, roughly 2,000 pages a year. The writer who can do that, or who can write the 3,600 pages over 6 years that will eventually comprise the GONE series is a different person than the writer who writes a book a year or a book every few years. Stephanie Meyers and Louis Sachar are different creatures doing different jobs.

-- Michael Grant

Lost Wanderer said...

Thank you for this very timely post (for me). I have a second book in mind for my current WIP, but this just sort of reminded me to focus on current WIP and to make sure that's satisfying enough for itself.

Even though I don't write children's books, it's still good post, and good advice.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Ok, Michael, but you know there are very few of you, right?

Michael Reynolds said...

EA:

There are very few people who can write books period. We both know that 95% of people who say they want to be writers will never publish. And of those who cross that threshold, 95% won't make a living at it.

Yes, you're absolutely right: series hacks are few in number. But I never had any interest in writing single title stand-alones. We're a sub-species, distinct from other writers, and if we're dumb enough to try to do it, I'm not sure we should be singled out for discouragement.

Maybe the notion that new writers shouldn't try for series explains why dozens of editors passed on Harry Potter. Keep an open mind, maybe that next submission is from a man or woman who can only write in series and not in stand-alone.

-- MIchael Grant

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

My first book is not a stand alone. The story is not complete. Book one does not resolve. I forgot to mention this in my query, and the publisher figured it out only after requesting my full. Soon they were contacting me, wanting to know if there was a sequel. I felt stupid for not mentioning it earlier.

My publisher contracted for book 1 with new contracts to be drawn up for subsequent books. Yes, books, because now I've gone from a sequel to a series of five books.

So my experience has been, make it clear what you see happening with the book. But I guess that doesn't work for everyone, so you're taking a chance either way.

Anonymous said...

Michael makes a good point about the difference between series and sequels.

There aren't really MG or YA series; not in the sense that are with CBs. With CB series, you can read them out of order. Each book is a stand alone. That's what I think of when I hear the word "series".

In MG and YA, each book builds on the one preceding it. You can't read Breaking Dawn wihtout reading the first three; you'd miss too much important information.

Anonymous said...

This is a greatly informative blog that I enjoy reading most times.

However the last couple of posts remind of what many teachers jokingly say: My job would be so much easier if I didn't have any students.

Lisa Mantchev said...

I respectfully disagree over this-a-way (started to type up an answer here, but knew it would be far too long.)

http://lisamantchev.livejournal.com/324539.html

Anonymous said...

Michael:

Would you post on your damn blog every now and then? Stalking you in the comments sections of other, innocent blogs, is starting to make me feel creepy.

Your number 1-11 fan. (I'm a 'serial' stalker.)

Brian Anderson said...

I'm the author of a chapter book series, The Adventures of Commander Zack Proton, sold out of the slush pile to Aladdin as a three-book deal in 2005 when I was a completely unpublished writer (without even a magazine article to my name).

ZP was envisioned as a series from the start. I set up a premise that would continue to provide fodder for new stories for as long as I wanted to keep writing them, and tried to populate my fictional universe with as many wacky characters as I could as quickly as possible. Although the books are vaguely sequential, the second and third books did not build on the first book in sequel fashion, but built instead on the larger idea that formed the basis for the first book.

I never used the word "series" in my cover letter, but I only submitted to publishers who published chapter book series, and the ending of the first book was an obvious springboard into the next story.

Alas, the series died a quiet death after those first three books, but that hasn't stopped me from continuing to do school visits and other promotions. I have also finished the first manuscript for a new chapter book series. It must be an addiction of some sort, I don't know. With enough luck and persistence, this new series may some day leave me as impoverished as the first.

TLH said...

Ugh... I typed a comment here, but it was way too long. You can find it here: http://bloodcrossed.blogspot.com/2009/08/twilight.html

nw said...

I agree that a chapter book series (e.g., the Magic Treehouse books) is different from a chapter book with sequels (e.g., Clementine). I think the question was a reasonable one, and it would be nice to address it with specific reference to chapter books. I was surprised, for instance, to find out that the first title in the Bailey School Kids series was originally acquired by Scholastic as a stand-alone. I'd be curious which series books started out as a single title, as a series pitched by the author, or as an idea generated in-house. I'd also be curious to hear about chapter books that did not have sequels or come as part of a series. Haven't come across too many!

Anonymous said...

I know the quality of the writing is the most important thing. I know we must write self contained stories and I realize we do not query about plans for a series.
Agents and editors take a risk every time they sign up a new author. Most of us do not know the full extent of the business. It's all about making money and if we as authors come off with these large plans I guess it scares away the businessmen cause they see us as risks who only live in our little worlds.
I wonder, however, if this post is a dream killer.

From the very beginning I've seen my book idea as a series. I see the characters growing and learning throughout the books and I see the readers enjoying their stories.

A writer should write because they have a dream or passion that drives them. Writers should write because they love to share stories. Writers should write because they want to lift or entertain others.

As a first time author I wonder if this post applies to me. I have plans for a series. I don’t query them. I’m not stupid, but I do have them. Maybe I’m "unhealthily obsessed”. Maybe I have lost touch with reality?

I have a playlist of themed music to get me in the mood for writing. I read books similar to my topic because I want to make sure I'm not copying other authors. I have pics of my characters for my screen saver. I joke about the muse that drives me is my main character.
So yes. I'm obsessed.

Have I lost my connection with reality? I work a 40 work week. I focus on my job and work very hard. I come home and help with the kids homework unless they're finished. Then I do dishes, help my gorgeous wife with dinner and enjoy a meal with the family. I watch TV or movies with them and then read my son a bed time story (and no, it's NOT my novel) then walk the dogs for a block or more. I close off the night with quality time with my wife, and then go to bed to wake up at 4:30 am to start all over again. I pay my house mortgage, car payment and other bills. I meet with my kids teachers to make sure they are doing well.

OK, so even though I act normal, I'm obsessed with my story because of the reasons above. I'm lost because I happen to love my characters and see so much in their future.

Rowling was obsessed because she had plans. Shan, Meyers, Hunter, so many others must've been obsessed too then. After all, in their first books they had seeds planted for future books. Did they have notes, too?

I know the first book may never sell. I realize it may die on its feet. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't dream of a series. I shouldn't have a bigger plan.

Writing this novel has made me a better writer. I’ve learned so much and continue to try and improve my skills. I do plan to write other things. Just because I have planed for a series doesn't mean I'm deluded or out of focus with reality. We write to share and entertain. Some of us have stories that are much bigger than a stand alone. We write and think of our stand alone because we know the real world may never want our stuff, but we still plan.

A. said...

EA:

I asked the question, and I appreciate your answer. Thank you.

I'm very serious about being a published children's book writer. I'm doing my research, attending workshops and conferences, and reading regularly and widely.

I assure you that I'm not delusional, and certainly not writing with hopes to be rich and famous. I am aware that I will probably never be able to live off of my writing alone. That's why I spent all those years in law school.

I only asked the question because chapter book series seem to be a different animal than MG/YA books with sequels. As one of the anons pointed out earlier, CB series books all stand alone, and can be read in any order. Also, the most popular chapter books seem to be in a series. Since chapter books aren't discussed as frequently as MG and YA, I thought I'd ask the question.

Again, thank you for your response. I'm still not entirely sure what to include in my queries, but I'll think carefully about how to word my intentions (and will not, under any circumstances, use the phrase "series potential").

anotheranon said...

Anonymous @12:26 said:

"I'm so tired of hearing about "Twilight". Agents and editors continue to say, "Never mention 'Twilight'. Period." And yet every single one of you mentions the damned book. Even in responses to questions that have nothing to do with YA...

Amen to that.

I have no clue about EA's response here. Chapter books ARE done as a series, so of course a writer would want to consider this when creating the characters.

Is there ONE majic treehouse, ONE junie B june ?

Anonymous said...

Animorphs was written by a bunch of writers. My friend wrote several of them. Only the first ones were written by the originator (I believe), but the plot outlines were done by that author (sorry, forgot who it was).

stacy said...

Chapter books *are* different than YA and MG, which makes me wonder, EA, if you've ever worked with chapter books, given that your answer references Twilight, which I found odd. (I also found the reaction in the comments odd, too, but that's not topical.)

As Michael Reynolds pointed out in the comments, series books are different from standalones with sequels. Series books are often written by multiple authors, concepted in-house, and produced by packagers. Not all, but many. Series books are great for new readers and reluctant readers: they build confidence and fluency in reading, and readers can come back to their favorite characters again and again.

I think this, on the readers' side of things, is why chapter books tend to be series: chapter book readers are just transitioning from learning how to parse letters and words to being able to comprehend full stories. They *like* series. They come back to Junie B. Jones or Judy Moody not only because they have a large shelf presence (which helps--the bigger the Magic Treehouse section gets, the more readers it attracts) but because they like the characters and want to go on yet another adventure with them.

From the publishing side of things, the chapter book market is all about shelf presence, which is why the most successful chapter books tend to be series (unless you're counting Mercy Watson, which had a Newbery Award-winning author's name on it, and I'm not sure how well those sold, anyway). They're skinny little books that tend to get shelved spine-out.

Which is why it's so hard to break into chapter books, and why so many chapter book series get canceled relatively soon into their life--if they don't get a foothold via word of mouth (there are a lot fewer proponents of chapter books than middle grade and YA novels, I think), then they're never going to get to the point where shelf presence alone sells the series perpetually (which increases word of mouth because you've got more readers, etc.--it's all circular).

Starting a new chapter book series by an unknown author isn't usually lucrative for a publisher, either--the price point is so low ($3.95, $4.95) that chapter book series don't really start making much money until sales are relatively high.

So, it's a tough market. That would be as much reason to discourage most chapter book writers as comparing it to Twilight, but it feels more relevant to me. Certainly, if you've got a good story, don't let that stop you. But it's good to be aware of the market realities.

Literaticat said...

Well but whoa there. Some books just AREN'T one book. Like, the whole story, in order to be told correctly, is in two or three or however many parts. Usually SF/F stories, but still.

Some stories are ripe for a sequel. They don't HAVE to have one, but the world building is awesome, the characters are awesome, the potential is there.

Some stories are character based (your Ramonas or Clementines, for example) - so the series potential is obvious, this loveable character can keep having adventures.

An author being aware that the potential is there for more stories is not a problem.

The PROBLEM is when the author is so wedded to the idea of more stories that they don't write anything ELSE.

Here's what makes my heart sink:

"In addition to the attached manuscript, I've written BOOK OF THE SOULSLAYER: VOLUME 2 and am halfway through VOLUME 3" or "This is a 40-book series!"

Like really? Even if volume one is terrific - what if nobody buys it? Then who will want the other volumes?

My suggestion is always, if you think there is series potential, write ONE great book, have a couple of ideas of a possible book 2, preferably a companion book rather than a direct sequel (but don't write it! Just an idea or synopsis at most! So if I fall in love with it and send it to an editor who falls in love with it, we can potentially do a multi-book deal!) -- then write something completely different for your next project.

Michael Reynolds said...

Anonymous:

Of the 54 regular Animorphs titles the first 24 were written by my wife and me. The last two as well. The side series, Animorphs Chronicles and Megamorphs were all written by us.

The books between #24 and #52 were ghosted, usually from our outlines. Many were massively rewritten by us, others barely touched.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy this blog and have learned a lot from EA and for that, I am grateful. However, I do have agree that this post was off the mark and, as Anonymous 10:45 PM said, a bit of a dream killer.

I am an adult now but have never forgotten the magic that books brought me as a child. When I write, I re-live that magic. My favorite books were series… I loved not having to say good-bye to Narnia, or Green Knowe, or the Clock family after finishing just one book. And when I write now, I think in terms of a series. It's just how my creative process works, and I go with it. Isn't that what most artists do… they follow their instincts?

I don't think I live in a fantasy land or am out of touch with reality. I work two jobs and take care of one of my aging parents… and probably the other one soon. I pay my bills, try to save a little, and spend time with my loving spouse. I have my feet firmly planted in this world, even if I do like to create other ones.

Anonymous 10:45 PM, I suspect I'm a lot like you: I write because I love to write and hope that my stories might somehow bring the same enjoyment to a child that my favorite books brought me. Will they ever get published? Who knows. Should I let cynicism and a defeatist attitude get in the way of doing something I love? Not on your life.

ae said...

I agree with Literaticat.

If you feel compelled to continue your story (if you think there is a possibility it can, and you love it and really want to, and have ideas) then go ahead.

But don't invest all of you energies on this one thing at the expense of other projects you have tickling your armpits.

James A. Ritchie said...

I've read through a lot of slush piles, and the problem, I think, is that most who try writing anything, whether chapter books, adult sagas, etc., simply have no talent for it.

When manuscript after manuscript after manuscript is just bloody awful, yet each arrives with grandiose plans for a series, it gets incredibly difficult to take anything seriously.

But a great manuscript stands out so starkly that it doesn't matter what the writer has to say, which means raving about a series is unnecessary. Popularity is what makes a series, and good books coming from good writers will be given a chance.

Bad books by bad writers will not.

Two and three book deals happen, but even many of these fail because they do not prove as popular with readers as the publisher hoped. Likewise, most books of any kind fail, and a series will not happen with a failed book.

It's just so unnecessary to go on about a series at all. If what you write is any good, if it proves popular with readers, the series will happen. If it's bad, or if readers simply do not like it, no furthur books will be published.

Anonymous said...

(re: some of the comments above)

But since when is Ramona considered a chapter book? It isn't. It's a MG.

We seem to have a great difference in terminology here. Chapter books are Junie B. June, Magic Treehouse, etc.. where you'd be pretty much stupid to not consider that you need more than one book to compete in the marketplace. The entire objective is to give a child a sense of accomplishment by reading a whole "book" on their own. The very basis behind chapter books is that they will read one after the other, and they are modestly priced and only in softcover for this very reason.

Don't you people work in publishing?!?

Literaticat said...

Re: anon 9:04 - Cool your jets, I was talking about why EA was off the mark about series in general not just one kind of series.

Michael Reynolds said...

James:

I've read through a lot of slush piles, and the problem, I think, is that most who try writing anything, whether chapter books, adult sagas, etc., simply have no talent for it.

That is certainly true.

Popularity is what makes a series, and good books coming from good writers will be given a chance.

That is not true.

By this logic there would never be any such thing as a yearly series. Since it's likely to be months before you know whether BOOK THE FIRST is a hit. Then the deal still has to be done, and the book has to be written and rushed to market.

The rule of thumb with a series is that BOOK THE THIRD is the pivot, the point at which a series will either take off or die. You need the first two to gather steam to launch the third.

In the case of my current series, GONE, the publisher (Harper) bought six books. Two are out, I have one in the can, and I should be writing the 4th right now rather than hanging out here.

The 1st book did middling business. A year later the paper came out along with the hard of book #2. Both then popped briefly onto the NYT list. If we have a hit the 3rd book will stay on the list for a few weeks and bring the other two along with it. Then subsequent books will continue to build.

If not, then not.

But given that GONE books run 600 pages, and given that I am already writing a second series, there's no practical way we could all just wait around and see what happens. Instead we gamble. If it works, we're all set to profit. If it flops we apologize to Rupert for wasting his money and try something else.

But here's the attraction of series: three years from now a kid stumbles upon the 5th book of the series. He likes it. What does he do then? He buys the entire series and reads it front to back. And waits with bated breath for #6.

Uncle Rupert sells six books when he might otherwise only have sold one.

-- Michael Grant

Diana Peterfreund said...

I agree with Literaticat, and disagree with EA, wheter she's talking about chapter books, MG, YA, or adult.

I've sold all my books, adult and YA, in two series now, as having "series potential." that all I said when I queried them to my agent, and all my agent said when pitching them to a prospective publisher. The publisher could then decide whether they wanted to buy it like that (my first contract specified that the second book they offered was to be part of the series), or whether they would only offer for one book in my proposed series, and that it would have to be capable of standing alone.

Publisher's get the choice, and there's a HUGE difference between an offhand mention of "it has series potential" and saying that you are now querying the second/third/twelfth book of a proposed 14 book series that you have totally finished and sitting there on your hard drive whenever they want to see it please.

THAT'S where the clueless comes in.

Kristi Holl said...

I've sold several series that were pitched as series, but that was only after having a track record. It's nice, actually, NOT to have to pitch a whole series. Sometimes you just don't like a character enough to "live" with her for years.
Kristi Holl

Writer's First Aid blog

Kristi Holl said...

I've sold several series that were pitched as series, but that was only after having a track record. It's nice, actually, NOT to have to pitch a whole series. Sometimes you just don't like a character enough to "live" with her for years.
Kristi Holl

Writer's First Aid blog

illumine said...

EA:

I'd like to add a (c) to your (a) and (b).

(c) The author likes reading (and therefore writing) serialized novels in which characters grow and learn over a longer story arc than can be achieved in a single novel, like creating a TV series instead of a movie. If the author wants a well thought out series with a definable arc and a satisfying conclusion, then obviously the author needs to plan for that from the beginning.

We are not all money-grubbing hacks with psychological illnesses.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a good idea for unpublished writers to focus on a series if they haven't sold the first book.

It will increase your odds if you write different books until one fo them hits, THEN go for a series out of THAT one.

If you were a furniture builder, and you built a chair that no one wanted to buy, would you then turn around and build 3 more chairs just like it, but in a different color or whatever?!

That's insanity. Literally, doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

You'll know you're on the right track when, as the post mentions, you are INVITED to do a series. Until then, keep writing new stuff.

ae said...

I am starting my third pb book in a series as author/illustrator. Have no idea if pubs will buy it but the concept is strong and it is manifesting itself on both manuscript pages and a few illos in utero. And it continues and flows.

I can't be deterred by 'no don't do that' opinions. As they say, when it speaks to you it won't shut up.

Word verification: Plega -- noun plural -- Pleg (singular) -- An obstacle. The ants were plega causing the boys to stop building their sand castles.