In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,
I urge all beginning writers to think of stories that stand alone and not to require a series contract right off the bat. Depending on your sales performance, that one satisfying tale might be all you ever get with that house.
I know, I know, you might be compelled to pitch your novel to literary agents as a series.
Why shouldn’t you, after all, since series is truly where the money is when it comes to book publishing.
Unless you’re one of the really, really lucky ones who hit it big, stand alone novels can often struggle in terms of sales. And series, which readers clearly love, are often where authors make the big bucks.
Think back on the biggest publishing phenomenons of the past twenty years. Harry Potter. Twilight. The Hunger Games. Jack Reacher. Alex Cross. Outlander.
All series. All written by authors who have made millions and millions.
People working in the publishing industry are always looking for the next big series, and so it should be in the back of your mind to attempt a series of books sooner or later. I definitely have. I’ve written and self-published two trilogies earlier this decade. And I’ve written at least three books since that I definitely set up for sequels at the end.
My book currently agented and on submission to editors is being pitched as a stand alone, although the ending is written in a way where there definitely could be one, possibly two sequels. I’ve actually outlined two sequels to this middle grade book already and have clear ideas of where the story could go.
If you’re written the first installment of a series, you might be compelled in your query letters to say it’s the start of a trilogy, or the start of a five-book series, of whatever you think it may be.
Ultimately you’ll have more success, however, if you pitch your novel as a stand alone.
And going a step further, I would suggest you write the novel in a way that makes it so that it could continue into a second book but that it could also end in book one. Find a solid middle ground.
Because here’s the deal: pitching a series right off the bat can scare potential agents and/or editors away, and so what you should do instead is write the best book you can and let it stand on its own merits.
Agents might not take a chance on you if they feel that you’re only interested in writing a series and not a stand alone. Furthermore, that agent might take you on, but then an editor might only be interested in purchasing the first installment from you, and not any sequels. You might spend all this time setting things up for part two when your editors wants you to wrap things up at the end of part one!
Mary Kole is right in that you’ll be better off in the long run by capturing the magic of your story as best you can in the first installment, instead of putting yourself in a position where a series contract is required.
At the same time, you want to be ambitious in your novel writing career.
You want to sometimes think about writing a series. Be ambitious, and think big! But you also need to be smart about how you go about this process. You might imagine a seven-book series, but it’s probably best you keep that to yourself, at least for now.
If you put in your query letter that this is the first of seven books, you will struggle finding an agent, I guarantee you that. You might get lucky with one person who believes in you, especially if the writing is strong, but you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot like this ever.
Now you could write a sentence near the bottom of your query letter like this: [Title] would appeal to readers of [such and such] and could be the first of a series. I don’t think it hurts to vaguely point to the book potentially being the beginning of a series. Any agent might even like that there’s series potential.
It’s when you write a sentence like, [Title] is the first of a seven-book series, all six sequels of which I’ve heavily outlined, and I can send you those outlines if you’d like as well.
Do not do this! You might think you’re standing out from the crowd in a good way, but usually sentences like those stink of amateur writers.
When in doubt, don’t even mention a series, and let the agent fall in love with your book so much that he or she asks you later on, Could this be a series? Only then should you discuss your ideas for future books!
One other thing: do not, under any circumstances, write the sequels before you sell the first book!
If you’re self-publishing, go all out. Write twenty books of your series. Series are huge in the self-publishing world.
But if you’re querying your novel to literary agents, don’t waste your time in the following few weeks or months writing part two and part three.
You might think you’re saving time by writing book two now because you just know your first book’s going to sell later in a two-book deal where a sequel is going to be requested… but the editor or even the agent might not like the direction your second installment goes in, and all that work might have been for nothing.
If you’re aiming for traditional publishing and want your latest project to be a series, the best thing you can do is write a first book that could be a stand-alone but also has enough of an open ending that it could continue as well. And then take the time maybe to outline what books two and three could be. I’ve done that with my book on submission, and you can do that, too.
Just stay ambitious, think big, and be smart when it comes to the world of book publishing. You’ll be glad you did!