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.)