Your Very First Book

Watching the projects come and go on Inkshares, I’ve noticed a number of projects being pushed as “Book One of a series”. Now, it’s only my opinion, but this seems like a very bad idea. Let me explain why.

Now, I understand that serial works are an established thing. Epic fantasy, in particular, thrives on serial works. And there’s definitely a sort of reader who likes multi-book serial works–you wouldn’t be shouting “Book One of a series” unless you considered it a selling point.

But the fact is, even if they love the multi-book serial format, no-one likes to be left hanging with an incomplete story. “Book One of a series” implies that there’s going to be larger and more significant story arc which isn’t going to be resolved at the end of this book. It implies that the reader is going to be left at the end with questions that will only be answered in subsequent books. In short, it implies that you’re getting an incomplete story.

When you pick up Book One of a traditionally published author, you’re okay with it being essentially incomplete, because you’re assured that there will in fact be a Book Two. Would you be so willing to pick it up if you didn’t have that assurance?

When an author sells a Book One to a traditional publisher, it is generally with the understanding that he is selling an entire series, and the publisher is on the hook for Books Two to Whatever. Remember that the publisher is running a business, and he’s taking a risk whenever he greenlights a book or a series. He’s always wondering, “what if this doesn’t sell?” Taking that into account, it seems to me that it’s generally a lot riskier to commit to a multi-book series than to a single stand-alone novel–especially when the author in question is an unknown, as you must be if it’s your first book. You have to convince him that the series as a whole will sell, and that you have the writing chops to pull it off.

It does happen, I’ll grant you that. But I suspect those cases are comparatively rare.

Not all serial works start out that way. If you look at the first Harry Potter book, you might notice that it is a complete novel unto itself. While you do get a bit of backstory about Voldemort and Harry’s parents, there’s no sense of this being something that will be continued or that needs to be addressed in later books. Even if Rowling had a seven-book arc in mind at the time, she doesn’t make it obvious. Book Two was a sequel, but still complete unto itself: at that point, it looked as though the series would consist entirely of self-contained episodes. It is only once she was established as an author, with Book Three, that we start seeing indications of an overarching plotline with issues that will only be addressed in later books. And Book Four is definitely in cliffhanger territory, the part where it becomes essential to follow through with later books in the series.

Dealing with a crowdsourced publisher like Inkshares makes this whole issue a bit stickier, because, at the moment, you can’t sell a series. Each book has to be individually funded. The risk of Book Two not making an appearance is that much greater, which means you need that much more faith from your backers … your hundreds of backers. Even if they’re all lovers of the multi-book series format, most have probably also wondered, “what if there isn’t a Book Two? Do I want to make the emotional investment on a story that might never be finished?”

So, my advice is to make sure that your first book is a complete, self-contained entity, even if you have plans for an overarching series plot. Make sure people know your book is a complete story. Don’t get too invested in continuing it, because things can go wrong: you might find yourself going elsewhere after that first book, and I seriously doubt if any publisher wants to start a relationship on Book Two with Book One already published by someone else.

For myself? The Peterkin franchise is indeed intended as a series. Following my own advice above, the first book is a complete, self-contained entity. Its story can survive even if there is never a sequel. And here’s the thing: in spite of the recurring characters, the next book isn’t a sequel at all, in the sense that it isn’t a continuation of anything. Its story will be complete even without the first book.

The current plan is for a series of self-contained episodes with a minimum of carry-over from one book to the next. If I have to go elsewhere, I can shop the second book as a stand-alone novel. Or I can file off the serial numbers, change the names, and shop it as a totally different animal.

Always be prepared to have to abandon your series. Remember, you can always write more.

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