Writing Your Series, Part 3

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Writing Your Series, Part 3

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I promised to talk some more about how to write a series of books.

When you put out the first novel in your series, you’re trying to get two things—a large number of sales, and a high velocity. In other words, the booksellers are always looking for something that’s “hot.”

There are a couple of ways to become hot. One is to have a large number of sales. Maybe you’re one of those authors who gets great word-of-mouth advertising. So your sales grow slowly over the course of a year. Elizabeth Moon was that way. When her first books came out, they sold slowly but steadily for a couple of years, until finally Jim Baen noticed that she was getting an incredible 95 percent sell-through. In other words, he was shipping books, but none were coming back. That was a sure sign that he needed to print more copies of Elizabeth’s books.

So you can have broad sales over time without attracting a lot of attention. However, if you achieve a lot of sales quickly, if you get a high “velocity” of sales, then you’ll gain attention faster. So that’s the second way that we define “hot.”

Stephenie Meyer sold something like 18 percent of all books in the US one year. Compared to her, no one’s hot. Even Dan Brown was running a pretty distant second.

When Stephenie Meyer wrote her first novel, she enjoyed pretty good sales. Her second novel shot off and began selling very quickly, so fast that newspapers picked up articles sent out by her publicist that noted that she was growing at twice the rate that J.K. Rowling had with her Harry Potter series. Sure, Stephenie had only sold half a million copies of her second book at the time, but she’d done it so quickly that one could realistically compare her to Rowling, who was the world’s wealthiest author by that time.

Because of her high velocity, Stephenie was able to top the New York Times bestseller list rather quickly, with only three books in her series.

The same can be true of you. Perhaps you’re writing Westerns. If your books take off and begin selling quickly as compared to other books in your genre, that can work wonders for you. You won’t go out and sell ten million copies of your book right off. Instead, you have to just sell a lot of copies fast enough and long enough so that the major chains begin taking you seriously.

There are lots of factors that can of course affect your sales velocity.

1) A good cover can do tremendous things for you. One author that I know was having terrible sales on her novels until, with her sixth book, she got a great cover. The book sold so well that she soon hit the New York Times bestseller list, and eventually reached a point where her contracts paid her advances of two million dollars each.

2) Publicity plays a major factor. All you really have to do is get your book picked by Oprah’s book club, or make an appearance on Good Morning America, or have a major motion picture made of your book, and you’re on easy street. There are lots of little things that can help get you publicity. If President Obama’s daughter happens to carry your book to school, it might get you some recognition.

3) The easiest way to sell books is to get them displayed well in the front of bookstores, or in those little stands that go in the front of grocery stores. A couple of years ago I did a signing at a Barnes and Noble and came to find that I only had a few odd books available to sell. The store manager apologized and said, “We thought we’d try to boost interest in the signing by putting a bunch of books out for people to look at. I had six hundred copies of your books in paperback, and we put them all on a table, and we sold all of them in about three days. You know, they sold so well, I should talk to corporate and tell them to do it nation-wide.” Of course corporate didn’t do it. The tables near the front of the store are reserved for hardbacks. There’s a much larger profit margin on them than on paperbacks.

Years ago, when I wrote Star Wars: the Courtship of Princess Leia, I saw how well a book can sell when it gets placed at the very front of a store. When the book came out, a friend called me to tell me that she’d seen it in a display at the front of a Smith’s grocery store. I drove to the store to take a look, but by the time that I got there twenty-five minutes later, the books were all gone, and the display had been taken down. So I went home, only to get a second call from another friend—only to find that the books were gone by the time I reached that store. A few minutes later, a third friend called, and I raced to a store to find a display in place. I mentioned at the checkout stand that I was grateful to finally see one of my displays, and she said, “Oh, that’s the third one we’ve put up in the past hour.”

Of course, getting your books displayed at the front of a store isn’t as easy as it might sound. Usually, publishers pay for that write in what we call “cooperative advertising.” In short, the publisher pays an extra couple of bucks for each book that the bookstore sells in such ads. If your publisher isn’t willing to pay for the space, it will be given to someone who will.

In short, how well you sell will be tied in great part to your publisher’s efforts. If your publisher is willing only to print ten thousand books, then there won’t be any big displays at the front of major bookstores. Your publisher must be willing to print perhaps a hundred thousand copies of a book in order to even have enough copies to merit a display in a prime location in the store.

The publisher will only print hundreds of thousands of copies if the stores show some willingness to take them by placing advanced orders. In making that decision, the bookstore buyers will look at things like the cover art, your advance reviews, the publisher’s publicity schedule, the size of the author’s audience (as shown by past sales, blogs, or notoriety), and so on.

In short, it takes a lot of work for a publisher to prepare the market for a bestseller, and a lot of time, commitment, and money.

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Westercon and Fantasycon are happening in July in Salt Lake City. I will be at both.

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