First let's sort out the difference between sequels and series. In a way, a book which has a sequel is a story divided into more than one part. Note, however, that the first part needs to contain a complete story, too - it's just that there are aspects which can be carried into the next story. The reader must feel at the end of the first that this story is complete, that what was set up as the main conflict or goal has been sufficiently achieved. And the trick for the writer is to leave enough ends open that a sequel is possible, even desirable, but not necessary.
For example, my The Highwayman's Curse, which is the sequel to The Highwayman's Footsteps, ends with our two heroes galloping off into the sunrise with this adventure complete but with the distinct possibility of another one to come. (Actually, there isn't, but I hadn't decided that then.)
A series, on the other hand, can be one of two things:
- A number of books about the same characters or the same setting or the same theme, but each stands fully on its own. Despite the implication of the word "series", books in a series like this can usually be read in any order, even though there will usually be some chronological threads. Crime novels featuring a particular detective are a series.
- Or several (more than two or three, usually) books in a sequence - in other words, several sequels. The Harry Potter books, for example, can rightly be called a series. They would be read in order and the whole series is the complete story.
Why do they love series? Because when a series works it can sell in large numbers and make author and publisher very happy. Readers become comfortable, know what they're going to get, and the marketing gets easier as the series goes on because you are building on existing loyalty.
And why are they wary of a proposed sequel? Because if the first one sells in mediocre numbers, the sequel is pretty much doomed. Even more so with the third. I know of too many very unhappy authors whose third has been cancelled because the first two didn't sell. I am quite sure that if I'd proposed a third book for my highwayman sequence it would have been rejected, because although the first two were critically acclaimed in fab places and the first was short-listed for things, they didn't sell well enough. If I'd been contracted for a trilogy - as easily might have happened if I'd asked - I'd have faced the third contract being cancelled, which would have been horrible.
There are a few other disadvantages of sequels, from the author's point of view:
- There are some tricky aspects to the actual writing, highlighted in last week's post.
- A sequel is much less often short-listed for awards.
- Most readers, on reading the sequel, will focus on saying whether they thought the first or second was better. Both those comments are very irritating.
- Make quite sure that your first book stands strongly on its own, so that a sequel is not a necessary part of the deal.
- Be very sure that you are not exaggerating in your own mind the sequel potential - many writers over-estimate the fascination of their idea. And do not exaggerate the potential in your covering letter.
- If you do believe there is sequel or series potential, mention this but don't ignore point one above.
- If you are specifically pitching a series, remember that a series requires big marketing to get it off the ground, so you need a publisher with those resources and skills. Make sure you're pitching to a publisher that has no competing series - publishers will happily commission single novels which are similar in style and theme to others on their list, because this strengthens the list, but they won't want two series that are too similar in target and content.
Let me take some of your comments and questions from the previous post:
I've got a sequel already in outline, and I'm strongly tempted to work on that while the first ms is doing the rounds. But what if the first book doesn't sell? Would an agent prefer to see another standalone? (I have other ideas that I could develop.) I'm keen to work on the sequel - I've done the world-building, and now I want to take these characters further. But am I being blinded by my own enthusiasm here? Should I put the sequel idea to one side and work on something else until I know I can sell the first book?My firm answer is: yes, put the sequel aside and work on something else for the moment. Wait for a response to the first before working on the sequel.
Then HelenO also said:
Plan your sequel by all means, but if a novel doesn't work as a standalone it may well be disadvantaged when it goes to publishers. [Spot on!]Helen V said:
As a fantasy writer where trilogies are almost mandatory I've been struggling with the idea of how to present my novel for publication. It is capable of being published as a stand alone but I've a story line which follows on into the next novel and for my own satisfaction I have started to write it. Whether this is a good decision or not remains to be seen.My answer: yes, I agree about fantasy lending itself very much to trilogies. If you have started to write a sequel, no problem, particularly as you are probably immersed in the world you've created, but it's good that your first one would stand alone if necessary. Emphasise that it does stand alone. Saying that you are already working on a possible sequel demonstrates commitment. (But I'd always recommend that writers were working on the next novel anyway, whether in sequence or stand-alone.)
Thomas Taylor said:
It's especially interesting for me as I begin to imagine a possible sequel, and wonder if I should be seeding the first book while I still can. I have a one book deal, but a 'set-up' that cries out for another story.Me: Congrats on the deal! And yes, I'd say seed away, without committing to anything.
There's a theme to these answers: don't commit. Be flexible. No problem with looking ahead but do not pin your hopes on the possibility of a sequel.
The highly commercial series idea, though - if you have one of those, I may have to kill you.