By Anthony W. Eichenlaub
Whether it’s the punch of a duology or the sprawling epic of several loosely connected trilogies, there’s no doubt that sci-fi and fantasy readers love the series. For an author, series can be amazing. Good sales on the first book can lead to good sales on the second, third or twentieth.
One of the greatest strengths of freelance authors over traditionally published authors is the ability to make their own decisions. Nowhere is this truer or more powerful than when a writer is considering writing a series.
Make the tough decisions
A traditionally published series lives and dies at the whim of the publisher, but according to Megan Ciana Doidge, author of many series including dowser and Archivist, many series do not attract public attention until the third volume. A traditional publisher may decide to kill off a potential series after seeing poor sales on Book 1, or, if the second book doesn’t resonate as well as the first, the third may never arrive, leaving readers upset about the unfortunate author. A freelance writer can decide ahead of time to complete the first three books, giving the series a chance to fully blossom.
Alternatively, a traditional contract may require a third book, even if the second does not sell. An author may be contractually obligated to write a book that few people will ever read.
Congratulations. As a freelance writer, you are the editor. You can decide to continue writing after observing each book’s sales after its release, or you can plan the final length of your series in advance. Author Blaze Ward says he knows where the ever-escalating stakes of a space opera series like The Chronicles of Jessica Keller will end before writing the first word, but his mission for the week Handsome Rob The series is built story by story as the series progresses. Each subsequent book extends the series but does not move to a known endpoint, meaning the decision to continue can be made after each installment. For your series, all of those tough decisions will be up to you. You can weigh your artistic vision, potential profits, and inspiration to decide whether or not to continue your series. If that first book doesn’t sell, you can still decide to publish the second.
Or not. It’s up to you.
But that’s not the end of a freelance writer’s freedom.
Fix a series after publication
You crunched the numbers. Readers who finish the second book in your series tend to read all the books thereafter. You expect a drop from first to second, but the numbers are terrible, and you know why:
The first book is not good.
You grew up as a writer, and now this book’s flaws are painfully obvious. The latest books in your series are fantastic. The reviews are excellent. People who go this far become your best fans. The problem is that most of them just don’t go that far.
A traditionally published author would likely be blocked. They could either work on a new series or, if their publisher allowed it, continue churning out books in hopes of overcoming the weak start with rave reviews for later entries.
A freelance writer has the power to fix a bad book 1. You can go in and edit a few things, send it through another round of edits, or even in extreme circumstances give it a complete rewrite. You can make the flawed first book a prequel or even scrap it entirely, promoting Book 2 to the top spot.
Sometimes a streak isn’t worth fixing. Either the numbers don’t add up to a potential investment of your time and resources, or your passion for the project is gone, and any extra work you do on it can’t do it justice. Ward’s philosophy is simply to write the next one better. The point here is that the choice is yours.
Start an experiment
There is incredible potential once your thinking breaks away from the traditional editing machine. As an author and editor, you have every right to experience how stories are told.
For example, since the first book in a series is the most important, why not write three? If, like many authors, you’ve spent a lot of time building the world, it might be a good idea to write each book from the perspective of a different character in the same world. Once all three books are released, see which set of characters resonate with readers. This book can become book 1. The others become books that can be offered as incentives to newsletter subscribers or patrons of Patreon.
They could even be used to start a new series once the first has found success, as a spin-off encourages readers to switch to the new series.
Alternatively, your experiment could explore the effectiveness of different lengths. Novels make for quick reading and quick release of your series’ episodes, but will your readers pay for the shorter format? You can experience the interplay of styles and subgenres. Every author’s readership is different, and before you know yours, you may need to do some testing. Important questions to answer are:
- Is the first book in the series selling?
- After reading the first book, do readers choose the second? The third?
- Do you like writing this?
This last question is the most important because when your show finally resonates with an audience, you will write it. plot. Will it still be interesting for you after ten books? Fifteen? Fifty?
There are countless ways for freelance writers to innovate the way they write series. Don’t let the structures established by traditional publishing get in the way of creating the best experience for your readers. If that means going back and tweaking your old work or planning a sprawling, complex series of semi-connected duologies, that’s fine. The power is yours.
Anthony W. Eichenlaub is the freelance author of the Old Code series of technothrillers, a series of novels about irresponsible scientists on a colony planet, and a series of cyberpunk westerns. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Everyday Sci-Fi, Small Blue Marble, and several anthologies. In his spare time, he enjoys woodworking, landscaping and long walks with his lazy dog.