As I indicated in my reply to Catie’s wonderful post from Thanksgiving Day, Series Vs. Stand-Alones, I believe that part of the answer to the question “What are editors and publishers looking for?” depends on what sort of book you’re writing. Actually, more to the point, it depends on what kind of series you’re writing.
I know that at some point I wrote a post that dealt with the differences between a true series and an extended story-arc. To be honest, I don’t remember when I wrote that post and in my lingering post-Thanksgiving-dinner torpor, I don’t have the energy or the inclination to go back through the MW archives and find the link. So, instead, let me offer a brief recap: A true series is a sequence of connected books with recurring characters, in which each narrative pretty much stands on its own but has ramifications for the next book (or for previous ones if the author goes back and writes a prequel or two). A perfect example of this would be the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher. Each book has its own mystery, its own plot, its own set of unique characters. But there are also recurring characters, chief among them Harry himself, Karrin Murphy, Bob the Skull. And the subplots that revolve around these recurring characters run like threads through all the books. There are other examples, for those of you who haven’t read Butcher’s books. I believe that Catie’s Joanne Walker books fit the definition, as do Faith’s Skinwalker novels.
An extended story arc, which is what many big-name fantasists write — George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan — is quite different. The phrase “extended story-arc” basically means that you’re telling one epic-length tale (usually with several related sub-plots) over the course of several books. Not only do characters recur in these volumes, but they are working toward the same basic goal throughout the sequence. Ironically, the extended story-arc became popular in fantasy writing after the publication of The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. I say ironically, because LOTR is not a true story arc. It was originally written and intended as a single work, but was split into three volumes for marketing reasons. For this reason, the three books don’t hold together well as single volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring has no satisfying ending; the Return of the King has no effective opening; and The Two Towers has neither. But while the severity of these problems is somewhat unique to LOTR, nearly all extended story-arcs suffer from similar issues to some small degree. Since the overarching conflict is not resolved until the final volume, making each book truly stand alone is difficult, although not impossible. On the other hand, because each volume is actually part of a single larger story, the books are far more interdependent, and many readers love this aspect of the form. Extended story-arcs are what I wrote with my first three series, and they have been a staple of fantasy for several decades.
Returning to the key point of Catie’s Thursday post, my take on the market right now is that extended story arcs are less viable than they used to be. Publishers are wary of them when they’re proposed by young authors, and they’re only slightly more receptive to them when they’re proposed by established writers. Why? Because they demand a contractual commitment of several books. If I go to a publisher with an idea for a four-book extended story-arc, that publisher knows that they have to buy all four books or none of them. There’s no middle ground. They can’t publish two of them and then stop if the books don’t sell well, at least not without really ticking off those readers who did buy the first two books. A true series, on the other hand, gives publishers far more leeway. I can still go to them with a proposal for four books, but this time the books each stand alone. The publisher can buy two books and see how they do before they commit to two more.
We often say here at MW that you need to write the book you’ve imagined, that you shouldn’t write solely to the market. If you have a three or four or five book extended story-arc burning a hole in your chest, by all means, write it. But if you can write a true series instead, that is going to be the more viable project from a commercial standpoint. Publishers are far less willing to contract four books at a time than they were a decade ago. That means less security for writers generally speaking. Yet it can also present opportunities. Conceiving a project that can be marketed one or two or three books at a time might well make you a safer bet for a publisher. And in these difficult times, that might be exactly the advantage you need to break through.
David B. Coe