Back when I first started writing, the prevailing wisdom among indie authors was that you should write a series of books rather than standalone novels, on the theory that you would hook readers with a first novel (which you could give away for free), then make most of your money on the rest of the series.
A lot has changed since then, but the basic wisdom of that idea holds, with some warnings.
It is true that almost every book I have sold in the last five years has been a sequel to The Staff of Moses. The series model definitely works, as long as you have a strong book at the beginning and structure your series in such a way that readers can drop in at any point without needing to read the others. It also helps to explore a variety of topics or locations throughout your series so that you can attract a wider spectrum of readers. I’ve also seen the inverse, where the standalone novels I have published have sold far fewer copies than the series, though I can’t definitively prove whether that is due to their standalone nature or the difference in genre.
But before you go out and write a new series, I have some warnings for you…
Practice and revise
Don’t have your very first novel be the start of a series, unless you’re ready to revise it over and over until it’s perfect. My first book was The Staff of Moses, a treasure hunting adventure that’s essentially a lesser version of Uncharted (fortunately I didn’t hear about the Uncharted games until a couple of years after I wrote it, or I would probably have given up on writing and just played Uncharted 1-3 repeatedly).
I’m still proud of The Staff of Moses. I sell it at conventions and on Amazon without any guilt. I think it is worth your time to read if you like treasure hunting adventure tales.
But it’s not perfect. I’ll save details for another article, but suffice it to say that the characterization is spotty, the pacing needs work, and the prose is a bit clunky in places.
Don’t do this to yourself. If you have any patience at all, write at least one full novel before you begin dedicating yourself to a series. You want the introduction to your work to be excellent so readers can’t help but read subsequent novels.
Have a plan
I wrote The Staff of Moses with a vague sense that…
…I would write multiple adventure novels starring the same character
…He would have to recover several connected magical relics
…I’d treat many (if not all) mythologies as real.
That’s about it. Problems began to emerge as early as the second book as I tried to decide why Oliver needed to capture all of these relics, who the overarching enemies of the series would be, and what consequences should carry forward from one book to the next. I managed to pull everything together fairly well by the end, but throughout writing the five books of the series I felt hemmed in by the rules I had established in book one. My protagonist was trapped with a “nice dude who occasionally murders people” personality, his connections to the relic hunting world were hampered by a reputation established early on, and he relied too much on a smartphone and vest full of gadgets. That’s just to name a few of the more notable problems I faced as a result of not planning ahead.
Take a lesson from my mistake and have at least a general plan of what you will do with your characters and world before you start a series. I’m not suggesting that you write out a Tolkien-esque “series bible” before you write your novels, because that is its own kind of trap, but at least know the broad rules and how you want your characters to change over the course of the next three to five novels.
In October I’ll be guiding you through my process of planning a series as I map out my next five to ten novels. While you’re waiting for that, take a couple of days to write a plan for a character who changes over the course of three to five novels. Think of what might cause those changes, and consider what important events in each novel could be built around that cause and effect relationship.