Series vs Standalone: Cage Match

From Chuck Wendig:

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.

Link to the rest at terribleminds

12 thoughts on “Series vs Standalone: Cage Match”

  1. “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.”

    Mr. Wendig, have you ever considered the possibility that this is a “you” problem? You should consider talking to people like Larry Correia, John Ringo, or Timothy Zahn, who are generally able to maintain reader interest over the course of a trilogy, and ask how they manage it.

    • Piers Anthony.
      45 years and 47 books. Pays the bills.
      In between he gets to write whatever strikes his fancy, series and standalone, and he has enough of a name they all sell.

      ’nuff said.

      • Not to mention that someone may read Jest Right (#43), love it, and then (budget permitting) pick up everything from A Spell for Chameleon through Apoca Lips.

        (Although sales might be a bit spotty if he can’t get the act together on ebook publication. The series has somewhat large and inexplicable gaps in it – as I found out when working on reducing my paper burden. Most likely tradpubs being idiots, but I would think the Ogre could bash a few heads?)

        • Alas, BALLENTINE competence is but a fraction of what it was when he started the series.
          I haven’t kept up with the series so I only go as far as vol 33 (his target audience got younger by the year–he’s gone from kid friendly adult fantasy to adult friendly kid fantasy which is in fact an underserved market) but at 47 volumes he is moving into a third generation of readers and still selling.

          An achievement unto itself: L. Frank Baum only made it to 14.

  2. Yeah, sounds like the trad pub cycle that they order to net, based on prev. sales, don’t improve percentage, and via this standardized sabotage, death spiral the series thsemselves if it’s not the Chosen Bestselling series of the hour.

    Aka, the problem is why haven’t you just gone indie yet for your series, dude?

    • Yes, I was also confused by that line about publishers. Why does he care what they think or do?

      But he’s also Chuck Wendig, which means a lot of would-be readers hate him. I never picked up his book after that wibble-wobble Star Wars fiasco. So he might need those publishers because on his own he might be a hard sell. There’s a downside to deliberately disrespecting your audience.

      • Thing is, while I never read the book I thought he got unfairly ragged on for that particular line–that description of how a TIE fighter flies actually kind of fit.

        The fact he managed to make himself obnoxious enough on Twitter to get fired, however, is definitely an indicator of major jerkery.

  3. Not sure there’s a right or wrong here. I have about 6 series in which everything sells every month. And I’m building my audience via these series. I also write plenty of standalones and sold hundreds of thousands of them. But the steady money makers are the series books. When someone asks, When’s the new Moonlight coming out, I’ll usually find myself replying, A new title came out last month. Said reader might respond, I know, I read it already and gave it to Aunt Gladys to read. That’s when I know it’s time to write another Moonlight PI Novel or novella.

  4. Also, why is this a question? Series vs. standalone. Some stories require multiple books, other stories can happen in just one. Sometimes publishers break up a story because it can’t physically be printed as one book.

    The only interesting thing here is that apparently Elon and Mark Zuckerberg may have seen this Epic Rap Battle and said, “So what if we did that for real? But, like, with weapons.”

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