Most authors have heard the following advice: if you want to make it as a writer, you should write a lot of books, and if you really want success, you should write a series. It made sense to me from a writer’s point of view because if you write a lot of books, you’re easier to discover, and with a series, once you’ve created characters and situations, stories are easy provided you give the characters room to grow and change. Then people will keep reading about those characters, and they have more incentive to keep buying the books.
But it goes much deeper than that. I’ll get there in a roundabout fashion because when I finally had the epiphany moment and I saw the real why for both writer and reader, it really knocked things into focus for me. I mean, I got it, but I didn’t get it. It made sense intellectually, and I understood it, but now it’s like a flashing neon sign that I can’t believe I didn’t completely embrace from the start. If you already get it, this will reinforce it for you. If you don’t get it yet, by the end of this post, you will.
To get there, we’ll start with my experience as a bookseller seeing what readers bought because understanding those buying habits will give us insight into why the series books work so well to gather and keep readers. I used to run an online bookstore and most of our business was on eBay. We sold new and used books. Our focus was primarily on mass market paperbacks because we had an excellent source for inexpensive books by the truckload. We sold books as singles and in sets, and we made the most money on series books--especially in lots.
Not all series books are created equal, of course. Some series books wouldn’t sell very well for us. Often it was because there were too few books in the series, and more telling than that, sometimes it was something else. As an example, let me break down the action/adventure genre because so many action books are part of a series, and it’s easier to see why readers follow certain series more than others.
Look at Mack Bolan, the Executioner. There are more than 400 books in the main series. Originally created by Don Pendleton, the books have been ghosted by various authors for many years. What you have is Mack Bolan, a total badass killing machine who originally hunted down mafia types, and then after thirty-eight books expanded his war to international terrorists. But Mack Bolan is essentially a cardboard character. He’s a steel-jawed killer, and while he certainly qualifies as a vigilante, he doesn’t see himself that way and he never questions whether or not he’s right. He is always right and he always kills the bad guys. Readers responded to that, of course, and in the original books by Pendleton, the character was after revenge because the mafia had destroyed his family. With the ghosted novels, the stories are mostly interchangeable, though some are really good books on their own.
By way of comparison, let’s look at The Destroyer series created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir about an assassin in training who works for a secret organization known as CURE. The first two books were standard action fare, but with the third book, Chinese Puzzle, the authors decided to go their own way. The characters came to life, and the relationship between Remo and Chiun took center stage so they weren’t just student and master, but more like son and father. Humor and fantasy elements were injected into the series, and the art of Sinanju grew to become the sun source of all martial arts and the others are merely pale shadows. Remo wants nothing more than to have a normal life, but he can’t ever have that. Readers couldn’t get enough of them. In college, I read more than fifty of these books, and thoroughly enjoyed them.
As a bookseller, whenever Executioner novels came in, I knew they’d mostly collect dust. When Destroyer novels came in, I knew they’d sell. Especially in big lots.
For other examples of action, Executioner clones like The Penetrator never had much movement. Series books like Casca The Eternal Mercenary by Barry Sadler or the Ashes series by William W. Johnstone would always sell, and many of them commanded premium prices both as individual titles and in sets. It was all about the characters, of course. People needed to care about what happened to them.
Let’s move on to bestseller fiction.
The reason every thrift store has so many John Grisham, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, etc. books is because those books are printed in massive quantities. As singles, we never sold many of them unless they were either part of a series (especially the early books) or they were the new release. And if the author didn’t have a series, those books would just take up shelf space.
Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books sold in big lots at premium prices (for used titles online, premium means more than a buck each in sets, which is great if you’re getting the books for pennies apiece) they needed to be only Dirk Pitt books. Non-Pitt titles didn’t move.
With Nora Roberts, we could sell the MacGregor books in sets all day long. We also sold her trilogies in sets. But stand-alone titles didn’t sell well, so we had to do massive boxes of 80 books for $20 to get rid of them.
John Grisham didn’t have a series, so his books would sell primarily in lots of 20. We had to do those at $19.99 with free shipping and take offers of $15 to get them going (we listed in quantity because it gave us better visibility on eBay—one listing with 50 sets that we could always add to meant that as each set sold, we showed up higher in the search results, and were soon selling sets every day).
An author we couldn’t give away was Danielle Steel. We could sell massive lots of 80 books for $4.99 and add shipping, but even at that price they’d just sit there. No series books. She did write a couple of series for kids, but we never got those, while we got thousands of her other books.
Another truism was that if an author had only a few books, they wouldn’t sell well. If an author had a lot of books, we could usually at least sell them in lots. If an author wrote a popular series, we could sell the books in sets and make good money. An obvious example is James Patterson with the Alex Cross series, or the Maximum Ride series (which sold like crazy both new and used), or the Women’s Murder Club series. Mix the series and you kill the prices on lots. Add in stand alones, you kill the prices on lots. So while we’d include some Alex Cross books in the bigger sets, those were only included when we didn’t have enough to get a better price on an Alex Cross only set. People wanted one series or another, and they’d pay extra to get them all at once with none of the other books included. That was an eye-opener because people fell in love with a series more than just wanting more books by that author.
When each truckload arrived, we sorted by author and then broke them down to series where possible. We usually put up a few copies as singles to help get the other books moving or to make regular customers happy, but most of the books were done up in bundles by series. We spent a lot of hours on the Fantastic Fiction website doing research on authors and series. I was pleased when they put up a page with my books, too.
I’ll cruise through some other genres, but if you have TL:DR syndrome and want to skip ahead because you already get it, that’s fine. I’ll go all caps, italics, and bold when I finish a genre rundown so you can easily rejoin us.
Science Fiction and Fantasy were harder to get in complete sets because readers love the series books so much they won’t part with them. So we rarely got complete sets of Game of Thrones even though there were only four books in the series at the time. We sold them in new sets all the time, of course. Forgotten Realms trilogies always sold. The Drizzt series by R.A. Salvatore sold new at least twice a week and used when we could get them. Big lots of Xanth books by Piers Anthony. The Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The Lazarus Long series by Robert A. Heinlein. Roger Zelazny’s Amber books. Terry Goodkind with the Sword of Truth. Jim Butcher with the Dresden Files. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Patricia Briggs with the Mercy Thompson books. Once a series had at least four books, we could sell it. Fewer than four, unless it was a trilogy, it was hit or miss. Once a series had seven books, it was a guaranteed sale unless the author jumped away from the main characters in which case the series remained hit or miss. Lesson learned: choose a set of main characters and always stick with them. The main characters are the reason readers are buying those books.
Paranormal Romance. Wow. In that genre, readers would buy everything. Some authors sold better than others, of course, but we could always sell paranormals. Christine Feehan had her Carpathian series (the Dark books), Sherrilyn Kenyon with her Dark Hunter series, Kresley Cole with her Immortals After Dark series. J. R. Ward with the Black Dagger Brotherhood. It went on and on. Romance is the one genre where it was normal to move away from the main characters because people want their happily ever after ending, so the main characters get hitched and the next book can be about side characters who come to the forefront.
Historical Romance gave us authors like Stephanie Laurens with her Bastion Club and Cynster series. Diana Gabaldon with her Outlander series, which added time travel to the mix. Mary Balogh with her Bedwyn Family series among others. Sure, there were a few authors who sold well without series. Georgette Heyer is a good example. She did write a trilogy in the romance field, but her other series were in the mystery genre. That said, her books always sold.
Contemporary Romance gave us the Cedar Cove series by Debbie Macomber, and plenty of Nora Roberts trilogies (Nora also wrote historicals, and paranormals, and as J.D. Robb, she gave us the Eve Dallas In Death series, which sold like crazy).
We could sell Harlequin Romance novels broken out by lines, so all the Harlequin Presents or the Intrigues, or the Desires, or the Blaze (wow, the Blaze books sold fast and easy). We could also break them out by types, so the sheik books would sell. Or bundles of books with Billionaires. The older Harlequins didn’t sell well unless they were by popular authors, so Millionaires need not apply. As for author lots, Susan Mallery was our bestseller in this type of romance primarily because she wrote in series with her Desert Rogues, plus she went on to write other books like the Marcelli Sisters series.
Mystery/Suspense. Rex Stout with the Nero Wolfe series flew out as fast as we could get them. Lee Child with the Jack Reacher series always sold fast. Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child with the Pendergast series sold, while their stand-alones were hit and miss unless we did them in lots. Sue Grafton with the Kinsey Millhone series sold well in lots, but not for premium prices (possibly because many readers wanted Kinsey to move to the present day, but that’s just a theory because they’re good books). David Baldacci with the Sean King/Michelle Maxwell series sold well. Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot or with Miss Jane Marple. Kathy Reichs with the Temperance Brennan series. You get the idea.
Westerns. While Louis L’Amour always sold well, the difference in price by breaking out lots of just The Sacketts series was amazing. William W. Johnstone with his Mountain Man series was also a guaranteed sale. David Robbins with the Wilderness series always sold fast and easy. J.T. Edson’s Floating Outfit series sold well. The Wagons West series by Dana Fuller Ross (really James Reasoner for the most part, but there you go) would sell in sets easily. While we could sell series like The Trailsman, Edge, Lone Star, and others, they weren’t as strong or fast.
Horror. Anne Rice ruled with the Vampire Chronicles. Complete sets sold as fast as we could list them. Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series sold well. Dean Koontz with Odd Thomas, Stephen King with the Dark Tower (new sets sold at the rate of four or five per week, and remember those are full priced sets), William W. Johnstone with the Devil series about Sam Balon battling evil always sold. His other horror novels sold, too, of course, and many commanded higher prices.
Young Adult. L.J. Smith, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, etc. If it was a series, it sold. From Hunger Games to Harry Potter, it didn’t matter. YA series were always strong sellers. In most cases, these had fantasy elements, by the way. That said, older series like The Three Investigators were strong sellers when they turned up, too. And we could sell Sweet Valley High in big sets quickly, but smaller sets weren’t as popular.
IF YOU’VE SKIPPED AHEAD, HERE’S WHERE TO REJOIN US
The lesson, of course, is that if you want to be successful, a series is a great way to go. If you also want to write stand alone books, use Harlan Coben as a model. He wrote a few stand alones early (Play Dead and Miracle Cure) but they didn’t sell well, so he launched the Myron Bolitar series. He wrote seven Myron Bolitar books in a row. Doing so got him a devoted readership. They loved those books. They told their friends. Those friends saw seven books and shook their heads because they weren’t sure they wanted to spend that much time on one author. Coben’s next book was Tell No One, a stand alone thriller, and it launched him to the top of the bestseller list. At that point, a stand alone was the perfect choice: his long-time fans would buy the book because it’s a new Coben book, but the new readers, who weren’t sure about investing in a series yet, could try a single book. Coben delivered a terrific novel, and readers were hooked. Now he writes the occasional Bolitar book as well as all the stand alone novels he wants (my favorite is Gone for Good). This used to be called writing your breakout book.
So the real truth is that while I could intellectually understand that a series would draw in readers, I wasn’t feeling it until I looked at it from the point of view of the readers. I didn’t totally get the commitment readers have to series books until I really looked back at how books sold in our store, and thought about how I buy books, too. I love Joe R. Lansdale’s books, and I tend to buy and read them when I have time, but if it’s a Hap and Leonard novel, I make time immediately because I love those characters. There are Lansdale books I haven’t read yet, but I’ve read every Hap and Leonard book.
Readers invest emotionally in series characters. They want to visit those people over and over again because they’re like close friends. If you can let the characters grow and change over the course of the series the way Robert Crais does with the Elvis Cole books you’ll win readers. Even if the characters remain static the way Stephanie Plum does (or did—I admit I read only through book seven, and while I enjoyed them all, they kinda felt like the same book), readers will keep reading. Outside of the romance genre, you want to stick with one set of characters. Romance is different, so most authors go with a family or a community (a la Cedar Cove) and each character gets her own book. Outside of the romance genre, it’s tough to jump to other characters and keep a series going. Some authors can do that, but many readers want the same characters they already know and love. I’ve watched friends’ series slow in sales when they moved away from their initial main characters.
With stand alone titles, the reader might like or even love that book, but that doesn’t mean they’ll want to follow you to the next book where they have to meet new people. They had a relationship with the other people, and they want to continue that friendship.
In my case, I just got the rights back to five of my books, and I re-released them. Three of those are part of a series, and I released the brand new fourth book in the series when I reissued the others. The four Jonathan Shade novels are selling, and while they’re not burning up the charts at this point, they each sell multiple copies every day. I’m currently working on the fifth novel in the series. As for my other books, One-Way Ticket to Midnight doesn’t sell much. Quick Shots, my short story collection, is dead in the water. Night Marshal is a shared world series, and it sells, but not well. Pirates of the Outrigger rift is a 47North title, so I’m not in a position to give sales information on it, but I will say I’d happily sell them another novel.
As a general rule, readers like writers who write a lot of books, but readers love writers who give them a strong series with characters they can care about. So I’ll be writing more Jonathan Shade novels, and until the seventh book comes out, I won’t even think about writing another stand alone. As it happens, I love writing about Jonathan, Kelly, Esther, Brand and the rest, so I’d want to write the series whether or not they were selling. And yes, I know some authors don’t write series books and sell quite well, and one of my favorite writers is Kurt Vonnegut, who never wrote a series (though Kilgore Trout appears or is referenced in a number of books). So you can certainly make it writing stand alone books, and that’s great. But if you have a series in you, it’s probably easier to connect with readers on that path. If you make the readers happy and give them what they want, they’ll keep coming back to you.