Reader Questions: How do you Pitch the Multi-Volume Series to Publishers?

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.

14 Responses to “Reader Questions: How do you Pitch the Multi-Volume Series to Publishers?”

  1. Seleneon 15 Feb 2008 at 2:36 am

    Here are some takes on this issue by various agents:

    Kristin Nelson

    Nathan Bransford here and here.

    The famous Miss Snark

    And this somewhat related post by Jennifer Jackson.

    For synopses, I heartily recommend reading Miss Snark’s Synopsis crapometer, where you can see a great many synopses and her comments to them.

    Selene

  2. Anyaon 15 Feb 2008 at 1:40 pm

    But what if an author has a completed fantasy trilogy that is really one story — like Carol’s Lighthouse Duet is really one story? It wouldn’t make any sense pitching the first novel, would it?

    Anyway, I plan to tell the agent in the query (last paragraph) the word count of the trilogy (350,000) and that I mean “trilogy” in the same sense as, say, Lord of the Rings is a trilogy. Otherwise, it would be a great waste of the agent’s and my time, if the agent reads the manuscript of the first novel and only then realizes it was only Act 1 and nothing is resolved.

    Any advice?

  3. Kate Elliotton 15 Feb 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Anya, if you have a completed trilogy, you pitch it as a complete novel (to be published in three parts). You could do the same if you had a complete multi (4 or 5 or 6 etc) volume novel, IF it was complete at the time of presenting it to agents or editors.

    Anyway, if you’ve already written the entire thing, that’s excellent! Also, it means the publisher won’t have any deadline worries for the trilogy if they pick it up (beyond revisions).

  4. Kate Elliotton 15 Feb 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Selene,

    thanks.

  5. Laura E. Reeveon 15 Feb 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Thank you, Kate, for addressing this question — for which I have no answers. I do, however, have anecdotal data from my own experience.

    I think that editors first have to fall in love with the characters and world in a stand-alone project; once that happens, they get more excited if it has the potential for being a series.

    My agent tried to sell a stand-alone fantasy of mine in 2004 that was also the beginning of a series (I had drafts/plans for 2 follow-on books). It received good comments, but it just wasn’t right for anyone at that time. In 2007, she started submitting my first science fiction novel. I wrote it as stand-alone and this time, I was NOT thinking about a series. Only toward the very end of editing and polishing, I thought “maybe I should have some wiggle room for carrying on this story.” Surprise! As my very first contract, I got a 3-book deal from Ace/Roc! The contract specified that all the books be based upon that character and world.

    Note that in the beginning, I had no idea this world/character had the potential to start a series. So I think the lesson here was: “Pitch a good stand-alone project, but stay flexible and don’t write yourself into a corner.”

  6. Carol Bergon 15 Feb 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Anya,

    A couple of things – I wouldn’t write 350,000 words anywhere within reading distance of an agent or editor. Much better to pitch Book 1: …much excellent stuff… approx 150K, Book 2:…clearly excellent stuff… approx 150K… and so forth. If the story is strong enough, they’ll see the importance of taking the three. They DO still like series, but they are very jumpy about word count. Chain bookstores are squeezing publishers to make books shorter (note this is not readers squeezing the publishers.)

    As for the Lighthouse books, I pitched a standalone. It got complicated and I had to go back and say…two books. That was tetchy. Pitch the three together.

    For the series I just sold, — whoopees here — I wrote a five page synopsis of the first book, and progressively vaguer, one pagers for second and third.

    What Laura described works, too. That’s what I did with Transformation. I wrote it as a standalone and only at the end did I come to see the continuing story ready to unfold. The reason this can work is not that editors want standalones or that they sell easier, but that they want a strong, rich story. Starting out to write a trilogy, just because fantasies are often trilogies can lead to bloat or spreading a plot idea too thin. You want a “fat narrative” as Kate says.

    And yes, leave yourself wiggle room in worldbuilding when writing a series or potential series lead-off. If you overspecify every detail before you’ve written the follow-on books, you may find yourself needing a religious ritual that uses fire or a new limitation of magic to close off an alternative for a beleaguered hero.

    For those writing synopses, you might want to look at Pam McCutcheon’s book Writing the Fiction Synopsis. I know a lot of people who have gotten great insights from it.

    Carol

  7. Kate Elliotton 15 Feb 2008 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks, Laura and Carol. Excellent stuff.

    Anya, to clarify, the benefit of having a complete trilogy is that you present it as a complete trilogy (which is what I meant by presenting it as a complete novel) — that is, it’s finished already. So it “stands alone” as it were, but you present it to the publisher in its constituent parts, as Carol said. Publishers like trilogies, really, they do. And they like series.

    Also, the benefit of having all volumes complete in first draft (were the books to be picked up, you’d likely have to revise, of course) comes with publishing schedule. Forex, Naomi Novik was asked to complete the first three books of her Napoleonic dragons series so they could be released in quick succession and establish her name and the series right out front. That’s a strategy publishers are taking more frequently these days.

  8. Kate Elliotton 15 Feb 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Also, I crossposted this post on my livejournal

    http://kateelliott.livejournal.com/60566.html

    and there is some excellent discussion going on, if you’re interested.

  9. Anyaon 16 Feb 2008 at 5:18 am

    Thanks Carol and Kate for your fantastic advice.

    OK, so I should pitch the trilogy, but only mention the word count of the first part (=110,000)?

    Or should I name the word count for the three parts separately, like: The three parts are: *title1* (110,000), *title2* (110,000), *title3* (130,000).

    P.S. It’s the tenth or so draft. And I have been cutting and tightening with a vengeance. It used to be 400,000 words! But there’s no way I can cut it down to one book. I just have to hope that some people in the publishing business share my love for trilogies, and that I’ll be able to find them.

    Ah, who needs suspense novels? There’s enough suspense in real life. ;o)

  10. Carol Bergon 16 Feb 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Anya,

    I would structure the query something like this:

    The Blah-thing Series Title

    [a couple of sentence blurb about the series perhaps]

    Book 1, The First Book Title, takes John Hero…
    [a couple of well written, fascinating ideas, including some kind of closure - even if it is "the fellowship starts out on the road to Mordor"...] (Complete, 110K words).

    Book 2, The Second Title, finds Jasmine Heroine…
    [a couple of well written fascinating good ideas, including
    how this volume fits with volume 1 - time gaps, story arcs, etc. and some sense of closure] (Complete, 110K words)

    In Book 3, The Third Title, John and Jasmine….
    [give the great payoff] (Complete, 130K words)

    This subordinates the word count to the fascinating ideas, which is how it should be. But these word counts are golden for these days, even if they (and you) know they’ll change with editing. Editors really do love series.

    But then, this is just what I would do.

    In any case: Read editor/agent submission guidelines thoroughly and adhere to them for each query and submission.

    If the guidelines say send a two-page synopsis, do a two-page synopsis for the first book, and 1-2 pagers for the follow-on books. As you have them written, you don’t have to be as vague as those of us proposing books we haven’t written yet. Put the word count after each individual synopsis, rather than in the cover letter.

    If you are writing traditional fantasy (like what Kate and I write), be aware: Both my editor and my agent say that first time author sales in traditional fantasy (as opposed to urban/contemporary/crossover romantic dark fantasy) are very tough these days – but it happens (you know who they are!) You just have to make your submission as clean as possible, giving your particular target as little reason as possible to reject you without actually reading your work. Be honest, aboveboard, and smart. And keep writing!!!

    Good luck,
    Carol

  11. Anyaon 21 Feb 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Wow, thanks Carol! That’s a terrific idea.

    So I have four paragraphs for the plot summary of a trilogy. Ha. I wrote a one-paragraph (12-sentence) plot summary for the whole thing, because many agents say on their web pages: one paragraph only! Of course, they also say: one book per query only. But I realize now that I definitely should NOT have one paragraph on the trilogy, or the agent won’t have any idea of what to expect from the first book.

    Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to explain to a naive first-time author why the number 350k should appear no where in her query. ;o)

    Cheers,

    Anya

  12. shannonon 07 Mar 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Regarding Miss Snark, she used to have competitions for writing a great Hook. Hook, versus Synopsis. As useful as her advice is, it does leave me somewhat confused as to whether, with fantasy, you should go for a short, snappy hook or a lengthier, more involved synopsis.

    Is there a definite way to go here?

  13. Kate Elliotton 17 Apr 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Shannon,

    sorry for the belated response.

    Unfortunately I don’t have an answer to your question. There’s no harm in having both a short snappy hook (the elevator pitch–a quick and interesting description of your book short enough to be delivered between floors if you were caught in an elevator with an editor or agent who wanted to hear about your novel) and a synopsis, which is more useful to helping people decide whether to see the complete novel.

    The most important thing to have, of course, is that complete novel.

  14. Olivia Jordanon 25 Jun 2013 at 7:05 pm

    THANK YOU everyone for some very useful information as well as your enthusiasm and optimism. I have just completed my first trilogy which started as one novel but then kept growing. I thought about a trilogy but wasn’t sure how much editing I would have to do in order to make the first two books end with a cliffhanger for the reader. I took a chance and took one third of the total word count and then two thirds of the total word count. WOW! It must have been divine intervention because I could not have asked for a better way for my first two books to end and keep the reader hungry for the third book. Thanks again and wish me luck!

    Olivia Jordan
    Rhoades to Bridges

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