Series and Multiple Simultaneous Releases
For Dan Z, who commented:
Advice on managing/planning a series. For example, if you know from the get go that your story is too big for just one book (or just one set of characters or what have you) is it better to write out the entire series, in essence building up a backlog, and then publish each volume individually on a regular schedule? or perhaps release them in pairs or other multiples? or to forego the entire idea of a backlog and publish the whole series en masse? or to dial that back a bit publish each story as it gets finished, whenever that happens to be?
It Depends. On what? Well, first and foremost, on your writing speed and skills. Second, on your experience level as a writer. Third, on the planned length of series, which ties into fourth, the marketing tactics you planned.
—The Writing Segment —
Writing speed and experience are tied together: if this is your first book, you may not know how long it’s going to take for you to write the second one, much less the next 6. This was one major stumbling block for many authors in trad pub: after taking years to craft their first book and put it through the query process, it got picked up and did well, so the publisher turned around and said “We’ll take two more in the series.” Now the author, who may have taken 5 years to gather ideas and get the first book written in its final form, suddenly has less than a year to come up with and write the second book. It’s not as good, because the author didn’t have the skill set for pulling ideas together and writing to deadline, nor the practice at writing sequels.
The advice to overcome this used to be to keep writing the next book and the next, so you had many out in slush piles at the same time. These days, the advice is different.
New Author Option 1: When you have the first one done, start writing the second while the first one is out to beta readers. If it is working, then write that sequel! What you learn by writing the second book will really help with editing the first one, so leave that until you’ve finished the second. Now is the time to learn the skills of formatting, covers, and blurb, but most importantly, keep writing the second book! Once you have two written, then you can edit both while writing the third. Then, you can decide whether to:
A. Publish each book in 30-day intervals,
B. Publish each book in 60 or 90-day intervals,
C. Publish Book 1 & 2 simultaneously, then Book 3 within 30 days
D. Publish Books 1-3 simultaneously, followed by Book 4 within 30 – 90 days.
To make the best choice, proceed on to the marketing techniques portion of this article.
New Author Option 2: When you have the first one done, start writing the second while the first one is out to beta readers. If it’s not working, or you end up switching to other things, you might give it a couple months. After a couple months, especially if it’s clear that the grand plan of writing the series-of-twelve really isn’t going to work right now, pull out the original book and use the distance that time has helped you gain to struggle through the learning curve of editing your first book. (A different skillset than writing!) Then publish the first one, because it’s better to have it out there, delighting readers, than sitting on a hard drive waiting for months or years or eternity for its sequel to join it.
Experienced Author: If you have 5 books out and have your process fairly well down, and have decided you want to break into a new genre or series, then this may be a great idea. You not only know you can do this, you also know how long it’s going to take you, and can plan the marketing accordingly. Don’t, however, do this on an existing series.
— The Marketing Segment —
Why do I keep mentioning 30, 60, and 90 days? Because those, along with the one-year mark, are important cutoffs in your book’s visibility. The first 30 days your book is out, you have the chance on being on the Hot New Releases list – a list that required far fewer sales to make and stay than the bestseller list. As a new author, especially if you don’t a have a following due to blog, forum, or other group, your primary challenge is being visible enough that people who have never heard of you will find you and give you a try. (This is also a major challenge for established authors, but it’s a different playing field. Your first 100 sales will be the hardest sales you ever make; The 101st will be far easier than the 1st.)
Amazon has a multiplier to the visibility that specifically promotes new books – after 30 days, it decreases, leading to “the 30-day cliff”, as in “my sales just fell off a cliff.” However, there are multiple cliffs at 30, 60, and 90 days, and another at 12 months. Savvy authors on a fast release schedule will therefore schedule releases so the day one book drops out of the Hot New Releases, the next one is launched and can take advantage of that multiplier. After all, every book is a potential entry point to a series, and if Book 3 catches a potential reader’s eye, they’re likely to go to Book 1 and start reading.
Newer authors may not have the skill and experience to be able to write quickly enough to meet multiple 30-day releases, or to get everything together quickly enough for their next release in 30 days. If so, all is not lost – just reschedule to get out within 60 days, or 90, to catch some of the same boost.
Reader Behaviour & Releases: Netflix has revealed a wonderful amount of human behaviour in storytelling to those of us who create for a living. For the first time, we can really see that people like to binge-watch* shows they’ve discovered and fallen in love with… and that when they run into something they like, they prefer to go back to the beginning of the entire show, or at least the prior season, and watch it all the way through. Furthermore, if the plots are complex and tangled, and they know a new season is coming out involving the same characters, they’ll often rewatch the last season or last few episodes.
What does this have to do with book release schedules? Everything! We’re in the entertainment business, not the book business. This means when people find you, and like you, they want to binge-read your series, so especially if you have a 4+ book series, the more you have available when they find you, then more they’ll tear through before they run out of material, they disengage, or something else takes higher priority.
Readers also have a finite attention span, and are far more likely to remember the book they read last week over the one they read three months ago. They’re more likely to remember you as an author they like if they’ve enjoyed three of your books instead of just one. So, once you have readers it’s a good thing to give them more to read right away, and more coming out soon, so they will get in a habit of looking for new stuff by you, and remember your name.
Here are two authors who experimented with multiple releases at once to break past the “Is the series worth investing in? Will they actually continue?” that the midlist death spiral trained into readers, as well as having the next book right there for readers to immediately get.
The Liliana Nirvana Technique
Lindsay Buroker’s Secret Pen Name Experiment
Some notes from other authors who’ve tried multiple-simultaneous-release, with less stellar returns:
1. This turns your release into one-shot. If you release 4 books separately, even at 30-day intervals to keep something eligible for the hot new releases list and take advantage of the release visibility boost, you have four releases to learn about and fine-tune your titles, covers, blurbs, release promotions, availability in paper, as well as proofreading and formatting. So you need to be on top of your game, in order to avoid massively dampening the effects of your single launch.
2. This is expensive. If you’ve published several prior books and have your A-game when it comes to covers, proofreading, et. al., then you can drive the costs pretty far down, but you’re still doing 4-5 sets of cover art & design, and any editorial you pay for, as well as the promotional slots at the email lists / banner ads / AMS ads / any other promotion… all at once, without prior sales to feed it.
3. It is far harder to sit on 3-4 books than it looks. Most authors overestimate their production speed and their reservoir of patience when it comes to producing but not releasing… and the sustained production speed post-release. (The 4 down and 1 in the hole technique needs the 5th to be almost done. It does not work nearly as well on two down, and the third out in three months, the fourth out about a year later.)
4. Sitting on the books means that you don’t get reader feedback (other than beta readers) to help improve your writing. While I’d never recommend taking every single review on Amazon as the revealed gospel direct from the mouth of G-d, if you get running themes in your reviews, it means that readers are consistently seeing something. Peter had reviews noting that his protagonist in his very first book was too good to be true, and the writing (which was British English, not American) was stilted. (That’s British for you, to American ears.) He’s used that feedback to improve both the character and his writing as a whole.
5. Promotion to get people aware of the books is critical, since you don’t have time to grow word of mouth. (Unless you already have a blog or other following. But if you have said following, why make them wait?) When it comes to one author doing KDP Select, another doing permafree, someone else going wide… remember the two examples I showed you are several years old, and individual promotional techniques have changed in effectiveness since them. Work according to the market you have, not the market they had back then.
6. Preorders are a mixed bag. Some people have found they work great, especially when you’re in the high numbers of a long-running series, to make sure people order right away and don’t forget you after they ran out of books to read. Most people have found they completely destroy release date rankings boost and stickiness of visibility, because the sales apply when the book is ordered, not when it’s released. (On Amazon. Itunes, last I checked, still does release-date rankings per file shipped.) Most authors go with a maximum 4-5 day preorder that lets them have a URL ready for all the promo sites they can get, lets them get everything uploaded and double-checked, but doesn’t spread pre-sales out over a month or more.
7. Sales will still reflect the size of the niche. Weird West is a tiny niche genre, while urban fantasy is large. So if you’re writing about ranching radioactive spiders in the wild west while fighting indians and zombies, and having shootouts with mad inventors in the streets at high noon… that actually sounds pretty darned awesome, and let me know about it, but in the meantime, don’t expect to sell as many books as Jim Butcher.
8. Keywords – try staggering your keywords. If you have more keywords for the series than the 7 slots per book, don’t use the same keywords for every book! Overlap is great, but if you’re putting out 4 books, you have 28 keyword slots – and each book can act as a draw into the series.
In summary, multiple releases can be an extremely flashy way to break into a genre, and can work very well – but they come at the cost of the sales lost while you didn’t have the books out, and the risk of only having one launch to get all your blurbs, cover art, promotional lineup, and so on right.
Anyone tried this? What did you find worked well, and what didn’t? How about staggered quick-succession releases, every 30,60, or 90 days?
*A note on binge-watching: this is defined by netflix as watching 2-6 episodes of the same show in one sitting. In broader cultural context, it’s defined as watching all available episodes in a show as time allows, until either the viewer runs out of content, drops the show, or a higher-priority show/activity displaces it.