Writing a standalone with series potential – the magic words every agent wants to hear

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

Writing a standalone with series potential – the magic words every agent wants to hear

Just got back from the Surrey International Writing Conference where I pitched my novel series successfully to three agents. Sounds great, right?

Well, yes, it is, but there’s a big but. BUT, the agents have all basically made it clear that they want me to send them a standalone book “with series potential.” Not a series.

Turns out that I’ve made an embarrassing and pretty common “newbie” error: basically, writing a series of books that’s not composed of standalone novels. Who would ever think that would be a mistake? Well, in today’s publishing world, it is.

I talked with about five agents at the conference and they all said the same thing: if you haven’t published a book before, then the agent cannot sell your series. It’s too much of a risk, and publishers won’t take that risk. What they can sell, and ideally want to sell, is a standalone novel with series potential. Then, if the book sells well, they will buy the following books.

What is a standalone with series potential?

There are two kinds of novel series:

  1. A single story arc told over more than one book (think Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings).
  2. A single story arc told over one book, with the following books in the series having the same characters, but not the same conflict (think Agatha Christie and Harry Potter).

In order to make sense of the reasons why a debut author can’t sell a series of the first variety, we need to understand more about how the publishing industry works. Luckily, I was at panels and workshops, blue pencils and pitch sessions at the conference, with agents from Inklings, Little Brown, Donald Maas, and editors from Bloomsbury and Amazon imprints, and many more. All of these people gave me different perspectives on why things are the way they are. So, I’m going to share all of that with you.

How the publishing industry works

First, imagine yourself in a room full of people: editors, marketing directors, publicity directors, publishing management, assistants and interns. You’re in an Editorial Meeting at your average publishing house. In this meeting, the group will decide which manuscripts are worth pursuing, and which are not. Everyone has come to the table with an opinion.

There’s tension–who is going to win, and who is going to lose? What manuscripts will be passed up, and what manuscripts will possibly go on to be published? Imagine that many of the people in that room have been furiously reading the manuscripts on the table, and each of them has been looking for reasons to turn them down. Many of the people in that room have their eyes on certain manuscripts and want their favourite to ‘win.’

Each manuscript on the table is being represented by someone in the room, most likely an editor. The editor has prepared a pitch–they’ve got it honed. That pitch probably came, at least in part, from the agent who submitted the manuscript to them. The agent and the editor might have worked on that pitch together. That pitch might actually have come from the author who wrote the book, and who pitched it to the agent, so in fact, that editor is giving that author’s pitch.

She gives her pitch, blowing their minds with the logline, the succinct plot summary, the comparison titles and market placement. When she’s finished, she waits for the criticism to start flying. All the reasons why the book is too big a risk. That editor LOVES this manuscript, but she has to convince the marketing department, the management, and the other editors in the room who all want their own manuscripts to move forward.

Don’t give them a reason to say NO!

And that’s where you, the debut author must not give them a single reason to pass on your manuscript. Wordcount too high? Pass. Genre identity crisis? Pass. Been done a million times–no unique twist? Pass. Weak opening pages? Pass. Series by a debut author? Pass.

And your story, which might be absolutely amazing, gets turned down even though the editor believes in it wholeheartedly. Publishing isn’t just about good writing. It’s also about good numbers. And that is just a fact of life.

The agents I met explained that a debut author (one who has not published anything) is a big risk for a publisher. Yes, they’ve written a novel, but the publisher doesn’t know if the market wants this book. How do they take that risk? Well, they publish a ‘test’ piece. They publish a smaller wordcount novel, standalone, and they see how it’s received.

Keywords: standalone, solid genre identity, and smaller wordcount.

Wordcount, you ask? Why is that such a big deal?

Why is wordcount a big deal for debut authors?

There are cost tiers when it comes to books. Ever noticed that? Go into a bookstore and some paperback books cost $6.99 (usually the thinner romance books or cosy mysteries), but most cost $10.99 (a good Bourne thriller), and then there’s the odd, really fat paperback for $13.99 (think fantasy).

Well, that cost is based on the word count. The bigger the wordcount, the more risk for the publisher. Each extra page costs the publisher more money, so that cost gets passed on down to the reader.

And guess what!? The risk isn’t carried solely by the publisher. It’s also carried by the readers! Imagine you come across a book by an author you’ve never heard of before. You’re not sure… the cover looks good, the blurb is attractive, but then you get to the price and it’s a whopping $13.99! Well, that’s just enough to make you think twice. Is it worth the risk? Hmm… maybe not.

Ideally, for a publisher, an adult novel is 80,000 words. That is the dream. They can sell that book for $9.99, under ten bucks! Readers like that price point, and they like that thickness of book. Readers want to get their grubby little hands on thick books, but they don’t want to pay too much!

So, 80,000 words is the publisher’s dream for a debut author, or any author, basically. It’s long enough that the paperback looks meaty and attractive, but it’s short enough that if it’s a flop, then the publisher hasn’t wasted a lot of money printing extra pages that no one is going to read (or pay for).

Be a partner, not a burden: lower the risk!

I’m not going to get into genre identity and other things because I think you get my point: basically, the publishers have reasons for wanting things to be a certain way. It’s not because they’re critical little gatekeepers who just want to put you down and hold you down and make you do exactly what they want you to do.

It’s because publishing actual physical books comes with a lot of risk. They want to find authors who understand that risk, and are willing to be their partner in lowering the risk.

What do we do now?

For me, I’m not going to do anything now, but keep on writing.

I’m not going to say that you should write 80,000 word novels that fit perfectly into their genre, standalone and have series potential. I think you should write the book you want to write. But keep these things in mind.

Understand that, as a debut author, you carry more risk for publishers.

Perhaps the series I spent the last five years working on isn’t going to be my debut. Maybe when I’m finished with it, I’ll start working on a standalone that carries less risk. That’s probably what I’m going to do. Although, I happen to be planning to spend November on seeing if I can create a standalone from the series prequel that I wrote. I think it’s possible, so wish me luck!

Do you have any experience or thoughts about this? Please leave a comment!


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