The nuts and bolts of indie oeuvre consistency

Most artists, and writers are no exception, start out by copying. They’re writing based on what they love to read, watch, and listen to. So their early work is a little inconsistent, and sounds a lot like the writers they admire, as they slowly find their own voice. This is normal. (sometime, read early Prachett vs. The Night Watch or Thud. It’s like seeing da Vinci’s earliest paintings vs. his masterworks.)

As they grow, they also want to explore, and try a lot of different mediums. Painters try ink, acrylic, or move to sculpting. A dancer may move from ballet to tribal bellydance to firespinning. Writers may veer from science fiction to fantasy to westerns, to poetry. This, too, is normal.

However, unlike painters who can produce 30 works a year, writers’ learning and growth curve is more drawn out by the slower speed of their production, and this process often works at cross-purposes from the intent of making a full-time living.

So, a few notes on the problems at either end of the consistency spectrum:

1.) No genre is safe from me!

That’s cool. However, recognize that without a consistent body of work in one genre, it will be hard to promote your works and get read-through on others, much less attract and maintain a fan base. Without a fan base, it’s hard to have consistent sales. Even if you do have a fan base, you’ll lose a large percentage going from one sub-genre to another sub-genre, and a large number of your casual readers and fan base if you switch genres.

Does this mean you should stick to only one subgenre? Not at all. It does mean, though, that you should expect low(er) sales every time you switch genres, as well as the obvious sales drops from going from #6 in a series to #1 in a new series. Keep writing! As you build a body of work in each genre, you’ll begin to build fans in that genre, and some will slowly start to cross-pollinate and become fans of all your things.

Almost every writer eventually tries a different genre, though under trad pub rules they often had to hide it under a pen name. Career writers often end up all over the spectrum, after a decade or two. Keep your expectations in line with reality, and keep writing!

2.) Everything I write is in this one giant shared world / series, but my sales have dropped off on new releases at #6 in the series, and not recovered.

Okay. You have a couple options.

First, you can go back and eye #5 and #6 with an editor’s gimlet eye, or even use Sarah’s novel diagramming to break them down. Two major reasons sales drop are:
i.) The first low-selling book does not fulfill the promises to the reader / give the reader what they wanted. We see this a lot in sequel movies, where the writers/producers/directors/actors completely fail to understand what made the first movie beloved, throw it out, and double-down on the wrong stuff in the sequel. (For example, much as it pains me to admit it even exists, the Highlander sequel. Or The Crow: City of Angels. )
ii.) The prior book to the low-selling one didn’t fulfill promises to the reader / give them what they wanted. The rule of thumb is: the first few paragraphs sell the story to the reader, but the LAST chapter sells the next book to the reader. So if they didn’t make it to the ending, or didn’t like the ending, they’re not going to pick up the next one.

Can you fix it? Not necessarily. Sometimes you can do an edit and fix something, other times it’s part of the structure of a book, or the evolution of a series. (For example, Laurell K Hamilton lost most of the fans who picked up the Anita Blake series looking for detective-noir styled urban fantasy when the love triangle took center stage and the solving-murders became window dressing. On the other hand, the fans gained embraced that enthusiastically, so she didn’t lose overall sales.) Sometimes it’s moving from one main character to another, or from an action-packed book to a slower, more introspective style. But it’s good to examine both books, and see what you can learn. Then, keep writing!

Second, once armed with this knowledge, you can continue on with the series, swinging back to what your readers want. (Or, why the third movies are sometimes okay in a trilogy, even if the middle one bombed.) Sales may pick up again as word of mouth spreads. So keep writing!

Third, you may chose to end the series and spin off another one.

i.) Make sure you wrap up the series, not just abandon it. Readers got badly burned by trad pub’s ordering to net (also called the midlist death spiral), and now many will not read a series (especially a trilogy) unless it’s complete. Not only will you lose those potential sales, your series’ current fans will be very unhappy if it (and them) get abandoned. You might do one closing book wrapping it up instead of the 7 you had planned (like the Serenity movie after the cancellation of Firefly), but you want to wrap it up and leave all current and future fans of that series happy, and looking forward to your next project.

ii.) Nothing says you have to abandon your setting. What you’re doing is making a fresh entry point for readers, and not subject to them stopping on the prior books or getting series fatigue before they get to your current project. You can even have the main characters on the last series walking through as side characters, to tie the series together – but make sure in series name, cover branding, and descriptions they’re clearly seperate. Then keep writing!

ii.a) This is also a great time to experiment with new styles. For example, see the difference between C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen novels and her Merovingen Nights, even though they’re set in the same universe.

3.) I wrote a book in this genre I don’t read. It’s got amazing subversive twists they’ll never see coming! Why aren’t people buying it?

No, it’s not, and it doesn’t. Seriously, if you don’t read in the genre you’re writing, chances are extremely high that you’re missing the tropes, the emotional beats, and all the other things the readers love about that genre – to the point that it will either be extremely clunky, or not actually fit in the genre at all. If you don’t read romance, but declare that your western is a romance because the hero falls in lust and beds a lady… you may as well proclaim your house is a citrus fruit because you painted a piece of furniture tangerine-coloured. Same if you don’t read science fiction, but throw your bear-shifter alpha love triangle on a space ship, because they’re, um, aliens.

Meanwhile, your shocking twist has probably been done to death before; that’s why it’s not used now. See: “They were actually Adam and Eve!” (SF) or “The narrator/protagonist is actually a ghost!” (Horror) This is something you can only find out by reading widely in the genre.

Go spend a month reading through the beloved books in the genre. Not the “classics” as deemed by Liberal Arts professors, but the perennial best-sellers, the series that spawned massive followings, the hottest new books out there. Then, armed with that survey, go look up the books you read on tv tropes. Take a weekend, you’ll need it. Now, go back and read the books again. Break out their points in common, their highlights, their lowlights, what the readers want. If at any point you get thoroughly sick of this genre and don’t want to read anymore, go write something else. If you find you really appreciate and like the genre, then you’re likely ready to start your first attempt (not necessarily your first marketable book) in it.

4.) I’ve been writing this series for 4 years, and nobody’s picking up the early books anymore, even in promotions!

Change your covers and update your blurbs. In the early days of the indie market, the supply was low, demand was high, and many early adoptees were used to beta-testing software’s clunky looks. They’d read everything. We’re in a much more mature market now, where the general public has moved online. They expect slickly produced, professional-looking content indistinguishable from the brick and mortar bookstore.

Also, the fashion of cover art changes. You know this – look at your shelves, and if you pull out some books, you can instantly tell a ’70’s SF paperback from a 90’s one, and if you bought a series over several reprints, you can even see rebranded covers from one time to another. Prior to the ebook explosion, art directors counted on rebranding all covers in a series kept in print every 10 years at minimum, closer to 5 for some genres.

(In some cases, this makes for great branding: Peter’s cover for Brings The Lightning is a very old-fashioned western cover art & design. This signals to the readers that it’s an older style western, not a romance or blood-soaked profanity fest in western trappings, but something closer to L’amour’s style.)

Do not underestimate the power of the blurb, either: you have one image and the few words above the “see more” cut to grab a reader’s attention. If your blurb doesn’t grab the reader, they’re never going to get to your story to see how awesome it is. So periodically review your blurbs, and see if there’s a better way to catch the reader’s attention. (Usually, there is. Blurb writing, like novel writing, improves with practice.)


  1. This is a subject that I have been thinking about a lot lately. A year ago I wrapped up my first novel series. I wrote four books about the same set of characters, and at the end of the last one I realized that I had said all that I had to say in that universe. I tried different characters in the same shared world, but for me the world was so tied up with the arc of my main character that I couldn’t make it work. Everything felt like “Friday The 13th Part 24: Jason’s Second Cousin Leo!”

    So I wrote short stories for a while and now I am starting on a new series in a completely different cosmos. I couldn’t really say if I switched genres or not, since I tend not to fit neatly into any one genre, but I mix different elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy on this project than I did in the last one.

      1. Oh, yes – absolutely! Especially if run through a filter to look rather like a 19th century painting.
        Likely I’d do a slight addition to the text to incorporate a map of the trail they followed. Some of the readers have suggested that, to make the trail clearer to those who aren’t obsessive fans of the Oregon-California Trail.

          1. A bit of a long drive for me, Holly – and the thing is that I have to have the rights to use the photograph. If it is one that I have taken, or that someone like B. has taken and given me permission to use in exchange for a credit – that’s easy-peasy. With paying for rights … complicated. I don’t like complications. They take time away from writing.

  2. I’m going through my series, (too slowly!) updating the covers. New art, new fonts. There are a ton of wonderful new fonts available now. New blurbs, new tags, and while I’m at it, yet another typo/grammar/awkward edit of the master manuscript.

  3. The cover art idea is true. Google “Ensign Flandry Images.” The cover art for the 1960’s edition is dark, swirling, wearing a helmet. The cover art for the 1970’s version has a handsome guy standing next to a furry naked chick. Same story inside the covers, but guess which version sold millions of copies to teenaged boys like me?

  4. But what if the protagonists are the ghosts of Adam and Eve? Surely that hasn’t been done.

  5. In any series, there is a law of diminishing returns, you will always lose people as you move from one book to the next. It’s just the way it works. If you’re lucky you’ll hit a point where the ‘buy through’ of people who keep buying your book is over 90 percent, and it is still enough readers (sales) to keep writing it. But even then eventually it will fall off to no longer be worth it.
    This is why I no longer number books in a series, because if people think they have to read the previous books first, the sales of the more recent books will not happen. You want to have ‘multiple entry points’ to any long (more than four) series of books.
    I stopped numbering after book 5 and wrote the next two as effectively ‘stand alone’ books in the series. I don’t know if they’ll sell more copies than the previous books, however I do know they sold more than I expected to when I plotted the sell through numbers.
    As for sell through, what’s a good number? I honestly don’t know, I’ve heard people say that 50 or 60 percent is a good number, but I’ve had a higher percentage, so I shoot for 80 and higher.

    I’ve heard people say you should drop your first book in a series to 99 cents, or give it away for free. I’ve done both, run the numbers, and no, as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t work as a sales strategy (except for limited time promotions). You don’t gain sales and you don’t gain income. At least not in the genre I write. Remember, writing is a job, if a strategy isn’t making you money, you should drop it. And you should never try a strategy if you don’t have a way to tell if it is working for you. Tracking sales numbers and income are important.

    The only other thing I will say is you should always start your next series while the current one is doing well, and try to find out why people are really buying your books. Sometimes the reason you think they are, and the reason that they really are, are two very different things. Understanding the later can be very helpful in your future success.

    1. I’m not that customer. If I see an interesting new release, I back up and start from the beginning.

      I didn’t start Wine of the Gods until book 8 came out – and I read it eighth. I just discovered the new Directorate set(*) and devoured them in order (MOAR, please, Pam). Last week was absolutely destroyed by my discovery of The Kurtherian Gambit. He’s cranking them out at about one per month and I barely slept until I caught up (book 12). The Emperor’s Edge series worked the same way: Found book 5 (or so) and devoured the entire thing. (On genre, she’s a Romance writer, which is what intrigued me, but it didn’t seem very Romance-y to me, which probably indicates good genre-switch ability.)

      I like LONG series because I read fast (about half the Amazon estimate). Short stories usually annoy me because just as I get into them, they’re over.

      I know: Data is not the plural of anecdote. Just saying.

      (*) Semi-spoiler: I was very disappointed that the Nightwind situation didn’t result in massive destruction, although I do love the God of Just Desserts. (Does the tease make up for the semi-spoiler?)

      1. You read almost like I do, except I will happily start with number 8 and then go back.
        I don’t think most readers fit the ‘I have a day off, I need a couple dozen books to read’ model, though.
        And I’m trying to decide if that’s mr sizer or mrs izer.
        And what do you have against massive societal upheaval as a subset of destruction, anyway? Too slow?

        1. Mark R. Sizer. I’ve always hated the “mrs” initials, so I’m MR Sizer.

          what do you have against massive societal upheaval as a subset of destruction
          Interesting question… I guess I’m a bit schizophrenic on that. For a book, lost tempers and massive destruction are more immediately gratifying. For a series of books, the massive societal upheaval gives one much more to write/read about.

          Now that I think about it, that may be why The Kurtherian Gambit is pulling me along so fast: Each book has much mayhem; it’s only across the series that one sees the societal upheaval – and it is (more than a bit) glossed over.

    2. Maybe I’m unique, but if someone writes a multi-volume series and doesn’t number them I generally don’t buy any of them. I want to read them in the order produced but I’m too lazy to try to figure it out by checking publication dates.

      1. It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I just threw my hands up and split off a series book 28. Of course the old series is still going strong, and they will frequently cross up. I can just see the covers now. “Book 7 of The Directorate” flip a coin for over or under “Book 31 of the Wine of the Gods.” On the same cover.

        Just kill me now. I need to go write a MilSF full of exploding spaceships or something.

        1. Some series are more dependant on order than others. I love Donald Westlake’s “Dortmunder” series, and I think I’ve read most of them, but I am quite certain that I didn’t read them in anything close to their order of publication. There are some things that change from book to book (Tiny’s relationship to JC, for example, blossomed over the course of several books.) but in general the books are self-contained. One can enjoy any particular caper without reading the books before it, or even knowing that it is part of a series.

          Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” are much more dependant on reading the books in order. He does explain backstory as necessary, but I think the later books would lose a lot of their power if I hadn’t read the earlier ones. There is very much an overall series story arc, with clues spread out over multiple books.

          Then something like Roger Zelazny’s “Chronicles Of Amber” is much more like a single story told in multiple books. Yes, he always has a “previously on the Chronicles Of Amber” chapter in his later books, but the story progresses in a straight line from “Nine Princes In Amber” to “The Courts Of Chaos”. The second series is much the same, a long story told across multiple books. The two series are related, but not directly–different characters, same universe.

      2. They’re always listed in order on the page after the copyright notice.
        That’s the standard practice.
        And I’ve noticed that most authors who write series do not number them. At least not on the cover. On Amazon they get numbered when you put them in as part of a series.

  6. Brad Torgersen said in a previous post that writing novels was far from the most lucrative way of earning a living, so I’m curious as to why the number of books sold was focused on so much in this post. It seems to me that reader feedback would be much more important than sales numbers. If your readers are unhappy with the quality of your last book, I would think that they would make this fact perfectly clear to you.

    1. Because number of books sold is a purest and truest form of widespread feedback, directly from every consumer who decided that your story was (or wasn’t) worth spending their hard-earned cash on.

      Readers, in the main, don’t leave feedback. The standard rule of thumb for feedback is one review per 1000 sales – and it takes being engaged with your audience, calls to action, and/or fans to get higher than that, and even still it’s hard. So the most feedback you’re ever going to get from the vast majority of people who provide food on the table and roof overhead will only come from whether they bought the next book… or not.

      So what are you going to listen to? The aggregate opinion by readers on whether or not they were interested enough / invested enough to spend their entertainment money and time on your books? The tiny vocal minority on Amazon reviews? The even smaller number of fans who email or write? Two book reviewers? That Fan, the one with a massive amount of head canon who writes slash fic, who tries to corner you at a con and tell you how you’re developing the series all wrong because it doesn’t match the love triangle she imagined?

      …actually, I’d like to encourage authors to put on their publisher hat and read the reviews, or have a trusted friend do so, and average out what reviewers liked and hated. But most authors don’t have a thick enough skin to view their story as a product, or reviews as unsolicited market research, so I generally don’t. So sales it is, as those numbers truly represent, at the heart of it, the opinion of the masses.

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