Kate Elliott February 14th, 2008
Reader Adam S queries:
Most publishers I’ve seen ask for a portion of the novel you’re hoping to have published and a synopsis of the story. So where does the multi-volume novel fit into the picture? The publisher isn’t buying all the books right away, just the first (in case the first doesn’t sell well), so the synopsis should be only the first story, right? Do they need detail about where the entire story is heading? Because other than the last scene in the series and a few locations and events along the way, I don’t know what happens between the end of the first book and the end of the last book. How did you handle this with the Crown of Stars series?
First of all, the publishing world has altered significantly since I sold the first book in the Crown of Stars series. The winds of change have howled through, and the paperback rack in the front of the store looks markedly different than it did five years ago much less than it did in 1995 when I sold the partially-written King’s Dragon (then with the working title of Dragon’s Heart) to DAW Books.
I believe I may have sold the Crown of Stars series as a potential trilogy on the basis of a five page synopsis. Which I doubt, after multiple computer changes, I even possess any longer. Nor would that synopsis bear much relationship to the books as they were finally written, although certain plot elements would stand out as unchanged. However, I was able to do that because I already had a track record with DAW Books, having published four Novels of the Jaran with them. In addition, I made the deal for Crown of Stars in the wake of signing a contract to collaborate with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson on The Golden Key, also for DAW Books.
In this case we’re talking about a multi-volume series by a new author, in today’s market.
It’s an entirely different kettle of worms now. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance are hot. Young Adult remains very strong. Second world fantasy in a series still sells, and I am pretty sure can sell well, and publishers are still looking for new voices, but it isn’t as wild as it might have been ten years ago as people scrambled to find the next Robert Jordan. Laurel K Hamilton is the new Jordan in terms of marketing strength and coat-tails, if one must use that analogy.
Also–and this is important–I’m neither a publisher or an agent. Publishers and agents will have different perspectives than mine, so anything I say must be understood as filtered through my limited understanding and experience and my own biases. Booksellers will have a valuable perspective on this also; seek out their opinions, if you can.
In general, however, and in a simplistic form, this is what I would say:
1) publishers like series.
A strong series generates reader loyalty. There is absolutely nothing wrong with standalone novels, but in marketing terms a standalone novel is a new sell every time even though there may be other compelling angles (reader investment in a particular writer, forex). A series is a known quantity, a story-line or characters or world the reader is already invested in.
I don’t say this to suggest you should write a series over a standalone novel (publishers like standalone novels, too). Or that standalone novels are morally superior to series. Me, personally, I read both with equal pleasure (as long as I like what I’m reading).
2) Think about how you want to structure the volumes and the story within each volume.
You can write a true multi-volume novel (or trilogy) in which each volume is incomplete, a part of a larger whole (think Crown of Stars), or you can write installments in which each individual novel stands more or less alone with some form of a complete plot which is resolved by the end of the book while also advancing a larger overall plot (the earlier Harry Potter books are examples of this method).
To market to market to buy a fat pig?
Have a complete first novel.
In these days where you want a strong follow-up close upon your first publication (no big gaps between books), I personally think you’re better off with a second novel in hand as well, but it isn’t required.
If you have a complete first novel, I suppose you should include a synopsis of that novel, but you absolutely (I think–more knowledgeable folk may know better) must include a synopsis of the rest of the larger story 1) to show that you know where you’re going with this and 2) so the publisher can see you have a colorful journey and a firm destination in mind and larger plot on which they will judge how well the material will hold up to being extended over multiple volumes (you want a fat narrative not a thin one).
If, for instance, your plot consists mostly of “and then there was another encounter” – you’ll have more trouble selling a publisher on the idea of a multi-volume novel. If your plot shows significant chance of twisting turning layering and depth, they’ll be more interested. I’m not actually sure how detailed the synopsis needs to be. I have written few synopses, all of which were pretty sketchy, and even then I’ve never followed those outlines. But you must show you have a long, large plot in mind that can sustain multiple volumes. That doesn’t necessarily mean a detailed 50 page outline; a sketchier outline can show off the big plot questions as well, but you have to be sure to highlight the Bigness and Epic-ness of your plot if you’re going sketchy.
Your strongest selling point remains a well written and exciting first volume, that shows off your capabilities. Show them two well written and exciting volumes, and it’s likely an even better sell because they’ll see volume one isn’t a fluke or the result of ten years of painstaking labor that suggests volume two won’t follow for another ten years.
Beyond that? I’m not sure there is more to do except to start sending material to publishers. Again, as much as the market has seen an explosion in urban fantasy, there are still plenty of new secondary world fantasy writers breaking in and getting a great deal of attention. The market is open. Good luck.
Meanwhile, if any of you all out there have specific insights into the synopsis, I’d love to see your comments here or as posts in your own spaces (if you do that, please flag them here–thanks!) because it’s not a subject I can really say much about on as I am a notoriously poor synopsis/outline writer.