By Julianne MacLean
Back in 1999 when I sold my first book to Harlequin, very few historical romance authors were writing novels as part of a series. Each contract I signed was a one-book deal, but I soon discovered that building a devoted readership with one standalone book every twelve months was a steep uphill climb.
Later, when I moved to Avon, the success of romance authors like Jo Beverley, Julia Quinn and Stephanie Laurens had made it clear that readers love returning to the same characters and story worlds—even in historical romance—and they also love to anticipate the next installment in a continuing series.
Lesson learned: If you want to grow your readership, you have to not only hook them in, but keep them coming back for more. A strong, connected series helps you achieve this.
And so I began to write series books with Avon and St. Martin’s Press. Most of them were trilogies, however, and I bounced around from the late-Victorian period to the Scottish Highlands and then moved on to the Regency period.
Looking back on it, I probably would have been better off to stick with one longer series and continue to build on that readership. I didn’t know then what I know now: that if you drop the ball too soon – to try something new – the game ends. You might have to start over, almost from scratch, because not all of your readers will follow you to your new series if you write something completely different. Readers can even feel disappointed, angry or deceived when their favorite author changes their style of storytelling (especially if it’s not clear in your packaging that you’ve switched gears).
So what can we learn from this? And how can we make the most of a series and keep the momentum going?
- Obviously, the first order of business is to write a great book.
If you’ve accomplished that, you’ll have a built-in audience chomping at the bit to purchase your next novel, especially if it promises the same marvelous reading experience as the last, and a return to the same story world.
- Take advantage of your readers’ appetite for more. Hook them in with a teaser at the end of your novel which lets them know there’s more to come.
Here are some effective ways to do this: Include an excerpt for the next book. If you don’t have that written yet, at least give your readers some hint of what’s coming next. I do this with a reader letter that, at the very least, lets them know who the main character is going to be. I also embed the book cover as a “Coming Soon” element in the back matter. A pre-order link to the next book is effective if you can manage it. Kobo makes this possible by allowing you to create a pre-order page without uploading the completed book file, so this is something you can do months in advance if you are sure you can meet your deadlines.
The goal is to close the sale on the next book when they’re still in the throes of the happy sigh at the end of your novel.
- Don’t fall into the trap of believing that the overall success of your series will always ride on the success of Book 1.
In other words, don’t rest on your laurels. Every book is as important as the first one, because you never know when a reader is going to enter your series for the first time. They may try your newest book because of something in the product description that appeals to them. Or perhaps they just liked the cover. If they enjoy it, they may then go back and start at the beginning—so again, be sure to always include your complete booklist and purchase links at the end of every book, and never, ever let yourself write a dud. Don’t fail your readers. They will only keep coming back so many times before they throw in the towel.
Also consider these first-time readers as you write each new installment. Don’t assume all readers have started at the beginning. Don’t leave them feeling confused or lost. Make sure every novel can stand on its own and deliver a satisfying reading experience.
- Ensure continuity in your cover art.
This is a key issue and you should definitely aim for a strong visual connection in terms of the fonts and style of artwork. A graphic such as a ribbon, badge or logo can be helpful to make your series recognizable. This helps establish your brand and makes you, as an author, familiar to readers in a visual way as each new book is released.
- Make it crystal clear on the online retailer pages that your book is part of a series.
Thankfully, most retailers have come a long way in making it easy for readers to discover other books in a series, so be sure to take advantage of every opportunity to include that information in your product descriptions. I provide a list that says: “Be sure to read the other books in this series.” I then list the books in order. Kobo also has a field devoted to the identification of your series in their Kobo Writing Life platform. It ensures that your books are grouped together and searchable by series name. Check out this example from my Color of Heaven series. Readers love this, and I love it, too!
- If you are an indie author, use pricing strategies as promotions to attract new readers.
Making the first book free is a surefire way to get readers to try you out, risk free. But it doesn’t have to end there. You can also discount the other books for short-term sales on a regular basis. The more books you have in the series, the more often you can do this by rotating a discounted book each month. If you push hard to promote that sale, you will enjoy spillover sales to the other books in the series. (Some readers go ahead and purchase the other books even before they’ve had a chance to read the one they bought on sale.) Imagine the financial reward of putting one book on sale for 99 cents, and seeing 12 other full-priced books reap the benefit of that sale. Series books = spillover sales = happy author!
- Release each title on a consistent schedule…if you can.
It’s true that the faster you bring out a new book, the faster you build your readership, but not all authors can write a book every 60 days—nor should you try if it’s going to threaten the quality of your work. If that’s the case, focus on consistency, not frequency. If it’s once every six month or once a year, that’s fine. Just don’t leave your readers hanging forever with no idea if you will ever write another book. Bonus tip: If you set firm deadlines for yourself and commit to a pre-order page with a retailer, it helps to keep you from procrastinating.
At the end of the day, as an independent author, there are no rules or limits around what you can do with a series. You can write books revolving around the same lead character, like Jack Reacher or Harry Potter, or your connecting thread can be a location like a small town, or a family with lots of brothers and sisters and cousins, like Bella Andre’s Sullivan Series or Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons. How about basing a series on a group of people who work in the same profession, like firefighters or health care workers? Or you can do what I’ve done—base your series on a theme. In my Color of Heaven Series, all the books are about real-life magic—like destiny, or soul mates who find each other in miraculous ways, or near-death experiences. All the books have the same structure and teach similar life lessons.
If, however, you need to write more than one series in different genres or settings to keep your creative juices flowing, that’s fine, too. I write both contemporaries and historicals because sometimes I just need a change. Your muse is vitally important! If you’re bored with what you’re writing, your readers will get bored, too.
If your series is performing well and consistently thrilling readers, you can continue it as long as you want to. With each new book, your sales will grow—and with multiple books in the same series, it’s like compounding interest. The overall revenue will grow exponentially, and not to put too fine a point on it, but again – growing revenue = happy author!
Julianne MacLean is a USA Today bestselling author who has sold more than 1.3 million books in North America, and her novels have also been translated into Spanish, German, Portugese, French, Japanese, Turkish, Russian, Dutch, and others. Her twenty historical romance novels include the bestselling Highlander Trilogy with St. Martin’s Press and her popular Pembroke Palace Series with Avon/Harper Collins.
Julianne’s latest book in the Color of Heaven series, The Color of the Season, is released on November 11, 2014 (and YES, as she suggests in Tip #2 you CAN pre-order it)