Musings, Part 3: Diminishing Returns

Okay, so there’s big gap between my last post and this. Lots has been happening in the real world (i.e. politics) that made all this seem insignificant, and so I retreated into my writing life. This was good for my productivity, both writing and reading, though I did spend too much time on Reddit when the urge to discuss all the things took hold.

Now I have a few ideas again, and some news to build up to (perhaps), I’ll try to resurrect this once more. There’s been a bit of random traffic ’round here recently, so it’s a shame they had nothing new to read (or maybe not?). Anyway, as I always like to challenge conventional wisdom, largely because I seem to have unconventional predilections, this next subject seemed a good idea at the time…

In this last whimsical screed, I ponder the diminishing returns of series writing. Possibly with diminishing returns of my own…

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, many more people read a book one than a book two, and the sales keep declining with each volume (though probably not as dramatically). Sure, if you can hook readers into a long series, you’ve got guaranteed fans and sales for as long as you can make it last, but you also close yourself off to new readers. By writing short series or standalones, surely you have multiple entry points for that big first-book spike, while still having the chance of recruiting fans of your writing who want to pick up another book.

The difference is, instead of one book doing all of the recruitment work, you have several, widening your net. Of course, the compulsion to read another of your books may not be as great, and many fantasy fans prefer and expect traditional series, so you may miss out on those. Still, Book One in a series is usually the first one written, and maybe not your best. Why waste your improving skill on book four, five or six when only those already sold on your writing will read them?

15575

Entry- and exit-point?

Assuming your first book, whether series or not, sells X copies because you make it shiny and attractive. X people read it and half like it (enough to keep reading, anyway), half don’t (maybe more?). When Book Two comes out, you then have X/2 sales, maximum. But, with a new standalone, you have X/2 fans of your writing, PLUS however many new people you can attract to a new story about different things that may interest them more. This seems better to me, in a back-of-the-envelope way.

What I may be not accounting for is the boost for Book One when each subsequent book comes out, as people are reminded that you are for real (because, hey, you have a series out there!), and convinced to start your saga. And the drop off between Book Two and Book Three is probably much smaller, if you don’t screw it up. Endings can divide audiences, but at that point, at least they’ve bought the book.

the_goblin_emperor_cover

The lesser-spotted standalone.

Still, it seems a compelling argument to me, though I’m obviously a voice in the wilderness here. Long series with a single entry point might close off their potential audience, but they do reward their loyal fans. Fantasy fans are used to this, too, so you may be disappointing the series-addicts by not following the traditional model. The prevailing self-publishing models are often heavily series-centric, dangling the free first book out there hoping to hook readers for the long haul. I do wonder what the conversion rate really is, and what you do if you are an indie who doesn’t write series?

Obviously, a lot of it depends on the author and what they like to write. Some authors out there spend whole careers on a single world, usually writing several series that tie together into one long chronology, leading to endless fan debates about where to start. Others finish one series and jump into something completely different – often another sub-genre or genre. A precious few never write two books about the same characters and locations.

Me, I love standalones and rarely finish series, though I’m also partial to worlds explored from different perspectives in sequels, as long as each one stands on its own. So, unsurprisingly, that’s what I’m currently working on

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