Series (and Parallel): When Books Get Out of Hand – Alma Boykin
Tap tap. Squeeeeel. Sorry. Someone left this thing turned up to eleven.
Anyway, since Sarah is a wee bit busy, I volunteered to write a little thing about books in a series. I’m the newbie, having only done this since late 2012 and been indie the whole way. I never planned to write three series of books and short stories. I did intend to release the Cat Among Dragons stories (which is why the first six books are collections), but got ambushed by several novels in the process. The Colplatschki books just growed, as they say out here, expanding from one book to three to four to eight to ten and probably 11 before 2016 becomes 2017. Something similar happened with the Alexi stories. How did this happen, and what do you do when you end up with a herd of books you need to sell?
As has happened with Amanda Green and a few others, too much material led to second, third, and fourth books. Elizabeth of Starland (originally titled Mayhem on a Mule) was about a third of the way to becoming a book when I realized that the story had expanded a great deal and would cover far more in-book time than I’d originally planned. This left me with two options: go big or go sequel. I could tell Elizabeth’s story in one massive tome, with all the problems and advantages that entailed. Or I could let the book be the length it wanted to be and just write another one (or two) to finish the story. The advantages with a tome included pitching it to a publisher, because fat books seem to be the only ones on the shelves, having all the details wrapped up by the time the reader gets to the end, and only needing one cover/formatting/blurb and so on. And all the cool authors write fat books.
The story refused to cooperate. I do not enjoy tomes, and as much fun as I’ve made of Clavell, GRRM, Larry C., Robert Jordan, Mitchner, and other Writers of Huge Books over the years, I could not see Elizabeth’s story fitting into that mold. So she got three books and that was to be the end of it. I hear Sarah, Amanda, and a few other people giggling, because as strong a character as Elizabeth proved to be, and as long a life as her real world counterpart had, there would be one more massive adventure: Elizabeth and Empire. And thus endeth the series.
Except . . . the world of Colplatschki kept kicking out stories as I found more tales to steal from history. The one story that has no grounding in an actual historical person is Fountains of Mercy, about the founding events that led to Vindobona becoming one of the bastions of civilization on Solana/ ColPlatXI/Colplatschki.
The Alexi stories also began as a one-off, in this case a short story in a sub-genre I’d generally avoided (urban fantasy). The reception for that one story was so warm, in part because of the great cover art (more on this later), and the world so intriguing that three more stories followed. A fifth ambushed me this past spring and I wrote a much shorter 6th story for the omnibus edition. At that point, the ideas for what may turn out to be a novel began to germinate, so that will be a not-quite-series.
OK, you’ve got two or three or more books in a linked chain, either connected by characters or by location or something. Brandon Sanderson did a great job with this in his Mistborn world – the two, three-book sets are in the same world, but one is more fantasy and the other has a steampunk vibe, within the universe of the Mistborn’s magic laws. Sarah Hoyt has the Darkship series and the Earth Revolution books, which are officially part of the Darkship series but take place in parallel with Thena and Kit’s story. You have a series or two, possible different, possible loosely connected to each other. Now what do you do in terms of selling your treasures?
Are you going to advertise them as all part of one series? Yes? OK, do you want a “series look” to the covers and interiors or are you going to toss them out with the series number as the only hint that they are part of a group? I’ve done both. The Colplatschki books have two separate sub-series looks. All 7 thus far “in print” share similar fonts on the covers and include some kind of landscape element. The four Elizabeth novels all have art from her perspective, two with mule or horse ears, two from a commander’s-eye-view so to speak. The other three all feature heraldic devices used by the different protagonists.
The Cat books share similar fonts and general layout, but do not have a “series look.” Since they never had a series look to begin with, my cover guy and I opted not to try now. If I reissue all of them at some point and put the first books and story sets in print, then the covers will have a much greater continuity. Does the lack of visual recognition hurt sales? Probably, although not as much now as it would if these were print only. But you need to think about that as you are looking at selling a series.
As an aside, if you have books in a series that are not required in order for readers to make sense of things, you might make note of that on your web-page or sales copy. For example, the Elizabeth books are all linked. You can jump in at any point but there will be some confusion if you do not read #1. The other three books (Circuits and Crises, Blackbird, Peaks of Grace,) all stand alone, although the events of Circuits cause the mess that Blackbird attempts to resolve, and Blackbird hints at the Elizabeth books. The Cat books have become interlinked very tightly, but even so if a reader reads the first three and the story set that is number four, he can skip to A Cat at Bay without missing any critical information. Collections five and six (A Touch of Power and Between Flood and Flame) provide additional material but are not “without this you will be lost, doomed to wander” vital to understanding what follows. Ditto the Christmas stories and novellas like “Schree’s Rest.” The two not really prequel novels Hubris and Renaissance are not series critical. They do share similar cover ideas, though, because they are part of the same “how’d the Azdhagi end up like that?” answer.
If you got lost in the preceding paragraph, you are not alone. I have trouble keeping track of which bit of information is where in the Cat series. Do not do that to your readers. I fluffed up and need to go through and re-work things. And we have not even talked about the problem of internal series chronology . . .
I have a bit of a problem facing me with the upcoming Powers novels. They are an alt-history of WWI through the 1930s in Eastern Europe, but are set in the Cat Among Dragons universe. They feature non-human characters, so they are “secret history” as well as alt-history. Marketing is going to be more of a challenge because they fall farther between genres than most of my books do. They are also parallel to the Cat books, in that a reader knowing nothing about A Cat Among Dragons won’t be missing any critical information. (For those curious, they are about Helmut Eszterházy’s grandfather and include Joschka von Hohen-Drachenburg’s father-in-law).
If you are planning a series, I strongly encourage you to learn from my mistakes. Plan ahead if you want a series look, and think about how tightly locked to a template you can tolerate being (or your cover artist is willing to be). Think about how the series connects, and how you will market them. If you have two parallel series (or more, since the next three Colplatschki books take place on a different part of the planet but start only ten years or so after the end of Elizabeth and Empire) how are you going to sell them? Sarah’s Darkship books have series covers, and the sea cities books (A Few Good Men and Through Fire) have different series covers.
Tl;dr: Plan ahead if possible. Do not confuse readers. Make things clear for readers by how you number books and what the covers are like.