If you want to write a young adult series, then chances are you love book series where you get to fuse with the character and journey with them through three, maybe four, and in some cases, many, many more books. But is it wise to plan all ten books in your epic fantasy and query an agent with the promise of spin-offs? Series are the lifeblood of young adult, but a savvy author has to be wise on how you approach getting your series published in today’s market.
Going the Traditional Route
If you have your eyes set on traditional publishing, then you might want to pull back on pitching a three or four book series. There was a time when publishing was handing out three book deals to debut authors on the regular back in the heyday of vampire and dystopian novels, but times have changed a bit. Publishing got stuck with big losses after they had shelled out huge advances for multi-book deals for series that never took off. Thus, they became risk averse—with good reason—and now hesitate to purchase more than two books from an unknown author. Mary Kole’s advice in her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit echoes this sentiment: “A first book is a big investment, as the author is an unknown. The title could either sink (statistically more likely) or swim. A series represents an even bigger investment—and possible risk.” If you follow deal announcements on either Publisher’s Marketplace or Publisher’s Weekly, it’s far more common to see duologies being announced for debut, and even seasoned authors.
I Hear You, but What About XYZ New York Times Series With a Three Book Spin-off?
While it might be tempting to hear this advice and then try to counter with, “But Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles has over thirty books in this series. Why wouldn’t <insert Big 5 publisher’s name here> want my fifteen book and counting thriller series?” Well, for starters, Cassandra Clare has been a bestselling author for fifteen years and counting, so she has a rabid fanbase ready to buy up every book set in the Shadowhunter world.
Believe it or not, even current NYT best-selling authors of successful book series didn’t necessarily start with a three book deal. Jennifer Lynn Barnes, the author of The Inheritance Games series, didn’t know if there would be a second book. “I had a slightly different ending for a standalone book than a series. I didn’t add the last twist in the book until the last minute, when I knew I would get to write a book two,” Barnes explained in an article for Writermag.com. “Then for book two, I had the list of things that weren’t resolved in book one—the balls that were still up in the air.” The Inheritance Games now has three books published, a fourth on the way, and an entire spin-off series planned. Her strategy of making book one a standalone, but having plans for a different ending in case she got to write more after the success of the first book, is a great way to approach writing a series if you are going the traditional route. And this advice goes for both debut and seasoned authors. Barnes had published over 20 novels before The Inheritance Games.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still sell a three or four book series to a commercial publisher as a debut author, but those opportunities are more the exception than the rule. The best bet, if you want to go the more traditional route, is to approach an agent with your standalone book that could have additional books in the series, or with a duology.
If You Are Self-Publishing, the Series is Queen
The advice on planning a standalone or duology goes out the window when you are self-publishing. This is because, in the self-publishing world, series are your bread and butter. Not only that, but authors who self-publish will often give the first book in the series away for free as a loss leader to hopefully get readers hooked to buy the rest of their books. This is the strategy that Sarra Cannon, highly successful indie author of the Beautitful Demons series, uses and recommends. Cannon now teaches aspiring and seasoned writers what she’s learned in her more than a decade of success as an author on her website Heart Breathings. Indie authors target binge readers, so the more books you release, and the faster you release the books, the better. Not only should you plan and write a series if you are going the self-publishing route, but you should also plan to release them quickly. There is a strategy to this, and you can learn everything you need to know to get started by checking out Elana M. Johnson’s book Writing and Releasing Rapidly.
So What’s the Verdict?
The answer is, it depends on a whole host of factors, but a starting point for your decision-making should be whether you want to go the traditional or self-publishing route. And even then, there will always be exceptions to the rule. There are successful self-published authors who write standalone books, and there are debut authors who sign a multi-book series contract right out of the gate. As with anything in life, it’s wise to understand the pros and cons of the approach you choose to take and then, in the end, you can eschew whatever advice is out there and go for what you believe is the very best vision for the story you want to tell.
With the book series that I co-authored, The Everbeach series, the vision was always for four books with each of our main characters getting their own storyline. And with the advice of our agent, we went ahead and pitched it as a four-book series. However, book one could have always been a standalone, or it could have easily been transformed into a duology. The options were there for the publisher’s choosing. And in the end, we ultimately signed a four-book deal. It wasn’t easy, and we had our fair share of publishing rejections. But we stayed true to our vision, and it paid off in the long run. But we knew the publishing landscape and we were absolutely prepared to write this series however our publisher saw fit (one book, two books, or the four-book dream).
So, I leave you with this: understand the industry, make the best choice you can given the publishing route you choose and always stay true to the heart of your story. Be prepared for multiple outcomes, but never stop believing in your vision. Just be willing to be flexible, seek the advice of experts, and enjoy the ride. Publishing isn’t an easy career, but it’s worth it if your passions are books and writing, so you have to find your joy in the journey.
Dominique Richardson is a Lebanese-Jamaican author and CPA who now uses her number crunching excel skills to plot her stories and do good for the young adult community in Tampa Bay. She is the Executive Director of YA by the Bay, a 501c3 young adult book festival coming to Tampa, FL in October 2023. She spends her free time passing on her love of unicorns to her twin boys, running in the Florida heat, and drinking all the coffee. Raised between Jamaica and the United States, her biracial heritage finds a home in her books. She now lives in Tampa, Florida with her family. Dominique is the coauthor of Red as Blood, Book 1 in the Everbeach Series (Spring 2023).
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