No, this is not about Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg MMA-fighting one another in some kind of Douchebag Octagon, though I am certainly sending my prayers to an unforgiving universe that both of them kick each other at the exact same time and in that moment they each explode in a rain of money that catches on the wind and is spread to the four corners of the earth, finding the hands of the needy and not the mitts of the rich.
This is about a conversation that kicked off on Bluesky (god I really want to capitalize the S in BlueSky) by author pals like CL Polk, Max Gladstone, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Elizabeth Bear, Ryan Van Loan, and ultimately perhaps by Delilah S. Dawson, who lamented about those books of ours that have fallen to obscurity despite being loved by us, their wayward creators. (I’ll offer briefly my own lamentation: I wish more people read Atlanta Burns. I really liked that one. Anyway.)
I thought I’d offer some brief thoughts on why I’m largely only going to write standalones from here on out, despite really loving the big meaty toothy goodness of writing a series. This is not meant to be a commandment to you, or marching orders of any kind. It’s just my thinking. Why Em Em Vee.
a) Writing a series is depressing. It just is. By the time you’re writing books two and three (or beyond), you’ve seen the diminishing returns, the reduced support, the general “farty slow leak of the balloon as it orbits the room” vibe. And that’s a bummer. This is not the most important reason, but also, in many ways, it absolutely is.
b) Publishers, in my experience, have a rule that sequels/series releases do not get the same level of support as the initial book that leads that series. It was, I think, initially for publishers a way to “buy in” for a number of books that they can then — in theory, not in practice — coast on. Like, oh yay, we supported the first book, that energy will cascade through the next releases. This isn’t true, of course, and I’d argue they should support the later releases more than the earliest one, because you cannot Magical Thinking your way into discoverability or momentum. But generally that’s the rule: they don’t support the followup releases the same, if at all.
c) Every standalone has a new shot at ancillary rights like film/TV, foreign, or other weirder ones (comics, game, etc.). Sequels/series releases, not so much. If you’ve already sold film/TV to the first, you can’t resell on subsequent releases. Foreign sales will not come for later releases if they haven’t bought into the first. That’s not to say there couldn’t be a build-up from series releases. There could be, for international rights! But in practice, not often.
d) Every standalone is a new shot at discoverability. Discoverability remains, in my mind, one of the greatest challenges for writers. It’s just hard to get seen. It’s hard even as a seasoned writer to tell people, hey I have a book out. The Internet is noise, and increasingly messy and loud (and worthless in its integrity of information). With a series, generally that first book is the one that gets the attention — media reviews, trade reviews, that sort of thing. Followups are just less likely to ping that radar. But every standalone has a shot at finding reach. Not to say it’ll get it, but it does have a relatively equal shot at the goal. But it feels troubling when you release, say, Book Three of a Thing, and people say, “oh I didn’t know there was a Book Two.” That is definitely scream-into-a-pillow time.
e) If that first book really doesn’t work, you’re committed to the series anyway. And if you’re not in love with the series, you’re still committed to three books. And that can be… three or more years of your life. A series can be a ditch you drop your tire into and can’t quite drive out of until a good ways down the road. Which can be frustrating and difficult.
f) Paper prices are becoming a problem. (God, don’t say that sentence out loud five times. You’ll squirt blood out of your nose.) And series tend to be big(ger) books and the commitment to them early might be a peril later on if paper prices persist as a problem. Okay now I’m just leaning into it. Sorry. (Also here let me ring the bell I’ve been ringing again and again: bring back the mmpb, publishers and bookstores. Please. Pulp paper, easy to cram in a pocket, nice to throw at scalliwag children.)
g) A small point — and all of this, again, is very much anecdotal, aka “artisanal data” — but if you start big with a series, people tend to be readers of a series and not as much readers of an author. Every new series after seems like you need to do a cold start on the machine. And they never love the new series like they liked the old series.
None of this is hard and fast, and if what you’re writing is a series in its heart, it’s a fucking series. And series can also be great fun and, if they land well, economic momentum builders for you, the author. They have advantage — a solid readership can grow out of that.
But I find them tricky and sort of sad to write, and at this point I’m not intending to write any — sequels, maybe, if a book does really well and there’s a story reason to write a followup. So, you have both narrative purpose and sales numbers there to support more. But even then: I’d hesitate. Because new things are shiny and for better or worse, everyone likes the shiny.
(As a sidenote: Some of this is also why I do not want to write licensed intellectual property for others. While it’s nice to ride the marketing train put out by a Big Brand, you don’t own that shit and all that stuff is just going to compete with your original work on shelves. Bookstores will make a choice to carry those releases ahead of your own original work, and you can’t sell that shit for foreign, for film or TV, nada. Though again: YMMV!)
Anyway, preorder Black River Orchard! I made apples evil! I’m a monster!