Writing a Standalone with Series Potential – the magic words every agent wants to hear

Untitled by atomareaufruestung on Flickr

Just got back from the Surrey International Writing Conference where I pitched my novel series successfully to three agents. Sounds great, right?

Well, yes, it is, but there’s a big but. BUT, the agents have all basically made it clear that they want me to send them a standalone book “with series potential.” Not a series.

Turns out that I’ve made an embarrassing and pretty common “newbie” error: basically, writing a series of books that’s not composed of standalone novels. Who would ever think that would be a mistake? Well, in today’s publishing world, it is.

I talked with about five agents at the conference and they all said the same thing: if you haven’t published a book before, then the agent cannot sell your series. It’s too much of a risk, and publishers won’t take that risk. What they can sell, and ideally want to sell, is a standalone novel with series potential. Then, if the book sells well, they will buy the following books.

What is a standalone with series potential?

There are two kinds of novel series:

  1. A single story arc told over more than one book (think Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings).
  2. A single story arc told over one book, with the following books in the series having the same characters, but not the same conflict (think Agatha Christie and Harry Potter).

In order to make sense of the reasons why a debut author can’t sell a series of the first variety, we need to understand more about how the publishing industry works. Luckily, I was at panels and workshops, blue pencils and pitch sessions at the conference, with agents from Inklings, Little Brown, Donald Maas, and editors from Bloomsbury and Amazon imprints, and many more. All of these people gave me different perspectives on why things are the way they are. So, I’m going to share all of that with you.

How the publishing industry works

First, imagine yourself in a room full of people: editors, marketing directors, publicity directors, publishing management, assistants and interns. You’re in an Editorial Meeting at your average publishing house. In this meeting, the group will decide which manuscripts are worth pursuing, and which are not. Everyone has come to the table with an opinion.

There’s tension–who is going to win, and who is going to lose? What manuscripts will be passed up, and what manuscripts will possibly go on to be published? Imagine that many of the people in that room have been furiously reading the manuscripts on the table, and each of them has been looking for reasons to turn them down. Many of the people in that room have their eyes on certain manuscripts and want their favourite to ‘win.’

Each manuscript on the table is being represented by someone in the room, most likely an editor. The editor has prepared a pitch–they’ve got it honed. That pitch probably came, at least in part, from the agent who submitted the manuscript to them. The agent and the editor might have worked on that pitch together. That pitch might actually have come from the author who wrote the book, and who pitched it to the agent, so in fact, that editor is giving that author’s pitch.

She gives her pitch, blowing their minds with the logline, the succinct plot summary, the comparison titles and market placement. When she’s finished, she waits for the criticism to start flying. All the reasons why the book is too big a risk. That editor LOVES this manuscript, but she has to convince the marketing department, the management, and the other editors in the room who all want their own manuscripts to move forward.

Don’t give them a reason to say NO!

And that’s where you, the debut author must not give them a single reason to pass on your manuscript. Wordcount too high? Pass. Genre identity crisis? Pass. Been done a million times–no unique twist? Pass. Weak opening pages? Pass. Series by a debut author? Pass.

And your story, which might be absolutely amazing, gets turned down even though the editor believes in it wholeheartedly. Publishing isn’t just about good writing. It’s also about good numbers. And that is just a fact of life.

The agents I met explained that a debut author (one who has not published anything) is a big risk for a publisher. Yes, they’ve written a novel, but the publisher doesn’t know if the market wants this book. How do they take that risk? Well, they publish a ‘test’ piece. They publish a smaller wordcount novel, standalone, and they see how it’s received.

Keywords: standalone, solid genre identity, and smaller wordcount.

Wordcount, you ask? Why is that such a big deal?

Why is wordcount a big deal for debut authors?

There are cost tiers when it comes to books. Ever noticed that? Go into a bookstore and some paperback books cost $6.99 (usually the thinner romance books or cosy mysteries), but most cost $10.99 (a good Bourne thriller), and then there’s the odd, really fat paperback for $13.99 (think fantasy).

Well, that cost is based on the word count. The bigger the wordcount, the more risk for the publisher. Each extra page costs the publisher more money, so that cost gets passed on down to the reader.

And guess what!? The risk isn’t carried solely by the publisher. It’s also carried by the readers! Imagine you come across a book by an author you’ve never heard of before. You’re not sure… the cover looks good, the blurb is attractive, but then you get to the price and it’s a whopping $13.99! Well, that’s just enough to make you think twice. Is it worth the risk? Hmm… maybe not.

Ideally, for a publisher, an adult novel is 80,000 words. That is the dream. They can sell that book for $9.99, under ten bucks! Readers like that price point, and they like that thickness of book. Readers want to get their grubby little hands on thick books, but they don’t want to pay too much!

So, 80,000 words is the publisher’s dream for a debut author, or any author, basically. It’s long enough that the paperback looks meaty and attractive, but it’s short enough that if it’s a flop, then the publisher hasn’t wasted a lot of money printing extra pages that no one is going to read (or pay for).

Be a partner, not a burden: lower the risk!

I’m not going to get into genre identity and other things because I think you get my point: basically, the publishers have reasons for wanting things to be a certain way. It’s not because they’re critical little gatekeepers who just want to put you down and hold you down and make you do exactly what they want you to do.

It’s because publishing actual physical books comes with a lot of risk. They want to find authors who understand that risk, and are willing to be their partner in lowering the risk.

What do we do now?

For me, I’m not going to do anything now, but keep on writing.

I’m not going to say that you should write 80,000 word novels that fit perfectly into their genre, standalone and have series potential. I think you should write the book you want to write. But keep these things in mind.

Understand that, as a debut author, you carry more risk for publishers.

Perhaps the series I spent the last five years working on isn’t going to be my debut. Maybe when I’m finished with it, I’ll start working on a standalone that carries less risk. That’s probably what I’m going to do. Although, I happen to be planning to spend November on seeing if I can create a standalone from the series prequel that I wrote. I think it’s possible, so wish me luck!


Do you have any experience or thoughts about this? Please leave a comment!

Getting Involved in the Writing Community

Cold Outside by the Italian Voice, Flickr

Cold Outside by Italian Voice, Flickr

This article was written in 2010 and was updated in January, 2016. It covers the following:

  • My experience with the local Vancouver writing community
  • How online critiquing works
  • Pros of online critiquing
  • Cons of online critiquing
  • Tips for using an online critique group successfully

In October of 2010, I volunteered at two writing and reading festivals, the ViWF and the SiWC and they were very valuable and enjoyable experiences for me.   I met a lot of writers, local and international, and I even had the chance to have conversations and learn from several successful authors. Continue reading

Plot Design & Story Structure: Joseph Campbell vs Christopher Vogler

Joseph Campbell's Hero Cycle

Joseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle

In this article, I will discuss my process for developing plot and share  the incredible tools that I discovered to examine, critique and improve the plot of my novel. You might also want to download this Campbell & Vogler Plot Design Worksheet that will help you design your plot by examining if and how your story follows the hero’s journey.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler

The two writer’s classics, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, cover the various elements of plot and storytelling from two different perspectives. Campbell was an expert in comparative mythology. He looked at stories from around the world and found common themes and plots, and went on to develop theories to describe his discoveries. His views were based largely on inductive reasoning, and his writing is very academic and difficult to access for the average reader. Vogler, on the other hand, is a Hollywood script-writer. His work is based largely on the work of Campbell, although he altered it to fit the standard methods used in Hollywood movies and scriptwriting. His views are suppositions, or educated guesses, about what makes a (Hollywood) story successful, and his writing is very accessible for the average reader.

These two books have been invaluable to me as a writer and I highly recommend them for anyone who is struggling with plot.

Where I got stuck with my plot

I was wading through about 80,000 words of the first draft of my novel and was struggling to fill in key plot holes. I’m not a writer who writes from beginning to end; rather, I jump around and write whatever scene is pressing at me to be written. This is admittedly not the best way to go about it, but it’s my first novel, so I’m not exactly an expert on this yet. So I had all these islands of writing, and when it came time to start tying them all together into one continuous, flowing plot, I found I had a lot of gaps and a lot of questions: Continue reading

How the Inner Critic and Creative Anxiety Cause Writer’s Block

Writing blocks and the inner critic

In my writing group we shared our experiences with the inner critic and how it blocks our writing and creativity. In preparation for the meeting, I researched about this topic and found some books on this topic by Eric Maisel. In this essay I will present what Eric Maisel calls ‘creative anxiety and some methods for overcoming it that you might find helpful.

In the book Toxic Criticism, Maisel talks about the inner critic in Chapter 4, called ‘Silencing Self-Criticism’. He believes that the inner critic is formed when we internalize criticism from outside. He calls that the “moment of  translation”, which is the moment between the external message (or situation or experience) to the internal reaction. His main point in this section of the book is that it is our choice to go from an unfortunate external situation/fact to an internal toxic criticism. He gives three main reasons why we might do this, even thought it’s harmful to us and our creative practice: Continue reading

Create your own personal writing style guide

'Writing' by jjpacres on Flickr

Does your writing have style? 'Writing' by jjpacres on Flickr

In this post I’ll give you a free style guide template to work with, and I’ll cover the following:

  • What is a style guide?
  • Why create a personal style guide?
  • How to create a style guide.

In university we learn about style guides such as MLA and APA, which are so confusing that you practically need a guide to use them–especially if you take a psychology and a history class at the same time!  But style guides don’t have to be complicated or long–they can be as short as one page!

My first run-in with a simple, personalized style guide really delighted me, so I thought I would share this simple tool with you. Continue reading

3 Reasons to Write Accountable Content On Your Blog

Academics & Grumps, by Griffin Johnston on Flickr

Academics & Grumps, by Griffin Johnston on Flickr

This article is an update of my February 2011 article, It’s Time for Accountable Content on Blogs. Since then, I have learned three solid reasons to write accountable blog content:

  1. Your readers will trust you more
  2. Your site will rank higher in search engines
  3. You will make more money

In this article I’ll cover these 3 reasons why you should write accountable, *quality* content, as well as give you some criteria for what I think *quality* content is. Continue reading

A beautiful long sentence about long sentences – Long Sentence #2

Pico Iyer wrote a playful and eloquent article for the Los Angeles Times about his decision to write long sentences as a form of protest against our world’s obsession with speed. He explained that as a young journalist he had succumbed to the need for speed and crunched his writing into short soundbites, but as he matured in his writing and probably in life too, he discovered the glory of, and more importantly (to me), a powerful rationale for writing longer sentences. I’ve always wanted to find a solid defense for the long sentence, so that I could write on without inpunity, but had never come up with anything clever, and so it was a real pleasure for me to find this article.

Follows is the most beautiful, and one of the longest sentences in his article that gives a colourful, heartfelt explanation of his decision to write long sentences. Prepare to be amazed.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.

To learn more about Pico Iyer, see his website.

25 Reasons to Read William Gibson’s Neuromancer

For the writers (and readers) out there who have not read (or who have not finished reading) William Gibson’s Neuromancer

NEUROMANCER!  Well, I don’t want to come across as a book snob, but I do have to ask: How can you call yourself a well-read fictionado without having read Neuromancer?  (In classic Lily-style) I’m going to give you at least 25 reasons why Neuromancer is an amazing book, and a must-read for anyone delving into the finer points of fiction-writing (and reading). Continue reading

7 Types of Sentence Fragments and How to Use Them

This article is for beginner to advanced native and second-language English speakers and teachers. For a shortened version of this lesson, download my lesson, Advanced Sentences, and feel free to use or adapt it, without copyright.

This article contains the following sections, feel free to jump down to any of them:

  • The Importance of Grammar
  • Types of Sentences
  • What is a Sentence Fragment
  • The 7 Sentence Fragments
  • Examples of the 7 Sentence Fragments
  • Examples of Long Sentences Using Many Fragments
  • Sentence Fragment Lessons for English/ESL Teachers

The Importance of Grammar

Run! by Glenn~ on flickr

As an ESL teacher, I found that my own writing drastically improved once I started teaching grammar to my students–especially the 7 different types of sentence fragments. I had learned English grammar in high-school, but those classes were boring; I had more important things to concentrate on, such as the outfit I was wearing, or how dreamy Cory Haim was in License to Drive. When I started teaching grammar as an ESL teacher, I was actually re-teaching myself, and the most valuable aspect of grammar that I re-learned was the 7 sentence fragments.

Understanding how to use these fragments properly will help you:

  • Write sentences that are grammatically correct, because you will finally understand grammar
  • Write longer sentences
  • Write sentences that have different structures, which is important for rhythm and flow (the musical aspects of language)
  • Use commas properly, because you will finally know where to put them!

I am convinced that most writers–beginner and advanced–need more practice in understanding and using sentence fragments properly, and I hope this lesson will help you learn to write more eloquent and grammatically correct sentences.

Continue reading

It’s Time for Accountable Content on Blogs

Frustration, by Sybren A Stuvel

Frustration, by Sybren A Stuvel

Information Overload

We live in what is called the ‘information age’ and the world has been called the ‘Content Nation‘; people are now able to create content at rates that were truly unreachable even 20 years ago, and share that with people on the other side of the world.  It’s amazing–and very overwhelming.  Pete Cashmore (of Mashable) predicted that ‘content curation’–organization and sharing of the ‘best’ content online–would be one of the biggest web trends of 2010. Continue reading