Thinking Ahead

As an editor who works extensively in commercial fiction, I often find myself giving advice to authors about not only the book at hand, but the books to come. If you have written one in what you project is a series, you have to be aware of how a publisher thinks.

A traditional term in publishing circles is “building an author’s platform.” What does that mean? The term comes from the marketing department. If a publisher buys your first novel, they already have a pretty good idea of how many copies of that book they want to distribute nationwide. So that initial distribution is your initial platform: X number of copies sold. For a second book, the publisher assumes that a percentage of the readers who bought the first book will buy the second. On top of that, you will gain additional readers. That’s because you now have two books on the bookshelf. As a former manager of a bookstore, I can assure you that the presence of more than one novel by the same author strongly encourages sales.

In other words, your platform will expand with the second book, with the third book, and so on. That is why so many books by an author feature the same protagonist. Readers want to read the next Jack Reacher book by Lee Childs, just for one example. His latest book is building on the platform started back with the first Jack Reacher book. By the way, those authors who want to publish independently should also take this multiple-book strategy to heart.

When writing one book, an author usually has at least a hazy notion of other books she’d like to write. She may have sketched out the plot, or the main characters she’d like to feature. Before that process goes too far, she should ask herself: would I be interested in converting this idea so that it features the heroine of my present manuscript? If you are writing a literary novel, the answer is most likely no. If the novel has a strong plot component, though, you need to consider why you need to switch the driver of that plot. You may not be writing a mystery or a sci fi series. Yet if you like your main character now, what moral notions are you violating to stick with her?

Exercise: This post in no way is suggesting that books in a series be linked plot-wise. Book 1 should have a beginning, middle, and a definite end, even if the story is part of a trilogy. If a reader starts reading Book 2 and it feels like the same story as Book 1, that book is going back up on the shelf. The challenge of writing a series is creating distinctive plots for each book. What remains the same, luckily, is the core cast of characters that you’ve grown to know so well.

“Writers are the lunatic fringe of publishing.”
—Judith Rossner

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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