Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 16: Finishing the Series


When I opened the Runelords series, I knew that I didn’t want one of those endless book series that just kept stringing the reader along—something like Tarzan 28, or Sherlock Holmes 15.  I mean, there are characters that I love, but I just can’t stay interested in a character after he has grown through his major conflicts.

With my own first fantasy series, I had hoped to write three or four books, and when I reached book four, I felt “done.”  Writing it was pretty easy.  I sailed through it without any significant problems, and I’ve had readers tell me that it was “as perfect as the end of a series could be.”

But I have to admit that I felt frustrated that I wasn’t able to grow the series larger than I did.  My first book sold well in hardcover, and the second sold just as many copies, as did third and the fourth.  In fact, all of the books sold within a few hundred copies of each other, so hardcover sales were remarkably steady.

But paperback sales went pretty wild, I discovered.  When book two came out, I had authors from all around the country tell me that they saw the books in stacks everywhere—from Florida to Texas, from Washington to Chicago.  We sold over a million copies.

But I couldn’t seem to push the hardcover sales higher.  People who were buying in hardcover, who were collecting the books, kept buying in hardcover for their collections, but people who were buying the paperbacks weren’t moving to hardback.

I think that I know why: basically, there wasn’t much that they could do.  The old hardbacks went out of print a few months after release, and so when a new fan discovered the books, there just wasn’t an easy way to go back and upgrade to hardcovers.

Now, with some authors, the publishers will keep the hardcovers in print just for this purpose.  For example, Robert Jordan’s books were kept in hardcover during the entire course of the series, so that when a new fan bought book 1, it was easy to upgrade, to become a collector of the series.  So when the series ended, roughly 90 percent of the sales made were made in hardcover.  That’s the exact opposite from what most authors get.

So if you really want to have a series that makes you a lot of money, you want to keep your books in hardcover as long as possible.

I’ve seen some authors who have managed to make a big profit in part because the publisher really got behind a release.  For example, years ago, my old friend Marion Zimmer Bradley put out The Mists of Avalon, which stayed in trade paperback and sold more than a million copies in that format.  Neal Stephenson did the same with Snow Crash.

The point here is that when you’re writing, you don’t want to just have your books become huge hits in paperback or as cheap e-books.  Part of your goal is to have the books become so beloved, that people want to own them in hardcover.  As Tracy Hickman puts it, “All of those books on a reader’s bookshelves are just souvenirs left from inner journeys taken,” and when a reader loves a story enough so that they want to own a hardcover collection, or a framed cover illustration, or a t-shirt, then you’re going to make more money on your property.

But readers can’t collect those things if they aren’t available.

I did try some dramatic tactics in order to make the series go big, despite the fact that I wasn’t being pushed as a super-lead author.  I did some game design and tried to push a game, but never was able to get a major gaming company to do anything significant with the book.  By 2002 I was working in Hollywood and managed to raise millions of dollars to get a movie made based on the first Runelords novel.  We had it set to be distributed by Warner Brothers and had promises of over fifty million from film distributors around the world, but the deal fell apart when one of our partners went under.

So the series became a moderate success, not the hit that I was hoping for.  Did I make any money?  Sure.  With my foreign sales and domestic sales, I’d made over a million dollars, and made more money selling movie rights and so on.  But it wasn’t the kind of monster hit that an author could retire on.

In short, it became a learning experience.  In fact, it became a lot of learning experiences.  I learned about the writing industry, the videogame industry, and the film industry.  I learned about the obstacles to success that I hadn’t known existed, and I learned some of the workarounds.  I’m a graduate from the school of hard knocks.

Along the way, for example, I learned how to properly do a book signing.  In 1999, while working on my series, I wrote a standalone novel called A Very Strange Trip, based upon a screenplay by L. Ron Hubbard, and afterward I did a book signing where I broke the Guinness record for the world’s largest book signing.  Until then, my signings had been pretty standard affairs, where as an author I had gone into the bookstores, sat down at a little table, and just waited for the book shoppers to come to me.  I hadn’t realized that there were whole strategies for choosing the store, serving the customers, and turning a book signing into a major event.  I didn’t realize that you could use simple little book signings as a platform for launching a career. (I created a guide for how to properly host book signings and drive readers to them in Million Dollar Book Signings, available from Wordfire Press.)

What would I do differently?  Ah, that’s a question.  As a new author, I made a lot of mistakes—as will any new author.  I’ll talk about that more in my next installment.


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