Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

One Book or Two? Maybe Three?

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STATUS: I was “this close” to getting to everything on my TO DO list today.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? MY WAY by Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson

Last year, a fellow agent friend and I gave a workshop on doing a single-book contract versus a multi-book contract. I was a little surprised at how many writers showed up for it. Hey, maybe these would make a few good blog entries.

First Q: When is doing a single-book contract ideal and when is a multi-book contract best?

Answering this question takes into consideration a lot of different factors. Let’s start with the obvious. If you write genre fiction, it’s almost always to an author’s advantage to do a multi-book contract.

For example, if you write fantasy and the first book being sold is the first in an envisioned trilogy, well, it would be better to have the publisher commit to three books. That way the entire series has a shot of being published. It often takes several books for a series to pick up momentum. What’s important is the publisher commitment—even if in the end a series does well and it was “undersold” initially in terms of the advance.

More common case is that a series has to build over time with the subsequent books and then the books start to earn out. Besides, who wants to sell book 1 in a trilogy only to be left in a lurch if the publisher doesn’t pick up the other books? It’s not easy (read “nearly impossible) to sell books 2 & 3 to another house. If sales are sluggish, it’s really unlikely another house will pick it up.

For another genre such as romance, careers build best if an author can release books within 6 to 8 months from each other. That means really tight schedules/deadlines for the author to make that work so doing multi-book contracts make sense. It’s also best to do multi if the stories are “linked” (as in they stand alone but have characters that might have been introduced in first novel).

Is there an advantage or disadvantage for doing 2 books vs. 3 or 4? Sure. Lots of agents differ on their opinion of this so I can only speak for myself. In general for me, the number of books sold at one time depends on the author (how fast he/she can write), on the project (how many books envisioned) and whether I think the author was undervalued. What I mean by that is if the offer was initially too low for a 3 or 4 book deal or if I thought the monies should have been higher in the auction and I don’t want to lock the author in for too many books at the lower rate. Obviously, reverse is true. If the monies are good, then why not lock in for more books as the commitment is strong from the publisher.

As you can see, lots of factors at play. How does an agent know? We’ve been doing this long enough that we pretty much use our gut sense of what feels right as the offer unfolds. I’ve yet to be wrong.

I’ll talk about single-book contract tomorrow.

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15 Responses

  1. Stella Telleria said:

    When I query an agent should I mention that the book I’m selling is the first in a trilogy? Some writers tell me that I shouldn’t, but I’m not sure.

  2. Erinn said:

    Stella that’s an excellent question. I have a series, but I’m not sure if I should query the first book as a stand alone or query it as a series.

  3. Suzanne said:

    Stella and Erinn, what I’ve heard is that you should make the first book strong enough it can stand on its own, but has series potential. Then you query saying exactly that–written as a stand alone with series potential. Hope that helps!

    Thanks for the post, Kristin! I think as writers we tend to look very favorably on multi-book deals, and forget that the advance money needs to be a good sum for all those books. I guess that’s one more reason we need agents!

  4. Kathryn said:

    Yeah, Stella, I agree with Suzanne. Best to query the first book only. I’m always seeing agents mention this about bad queries.

  5. SariBelle said:

    For a first time author, is it best to stay away from series all together?

    The sort of series I’m referring to would be similar to The Inheritance Cycle or Lord of the Rings (an extreme example), where the story isn’t complete until the end of the last book, so the first book queried couldn’t be stand alone.

    I ask because I’m currently working on a book which I’m not sure I can fit into the fantasy guidelines of 110k words, and is looking more and more likely to span two full length novels. Is this going to cause a problem when I get to the query process?

  6. Anonymous said:

    “the first book queried couldn’t be stand alone”

    Each book needs to work as an individual unit, though. Star Wars, say, is a good example of a standalone film that very clearly would justify sequels if the demand is there. One of the ways it does that is by hinting at a bigger picture – the main one, though, is it works so darn well as an individual movie.

    So, rather than try to commit a publisher to ten books before, show them one brilliant one.

    Think of this from the readers’ point of view. If your story *really* doesn’t work until they finish book ten … well, are they going to stick around that long?

    Concentrate on the first book. Get that right and the sequels will look after themselves.

  7. Suze said:

    Draven

    Query/agent research is a snip 🙂 First visit queryshark (http://queryshark.blogspot.com/) and read the six years of query critiques. This will give you an idea of the dos and don’ts of query writing. Then read the blogs and websites of agents who represent the type of book you have written. Then you’re ready to write your own query, and submit your manuscript. Good luck!

  8. Tameson said:

    If you are a genre writer- specifically fantasy, what if you don’t have a series? I am in final edits to a story that I consider complete, stand alone. I am sure the characters still have adventures and trials, but I am very happy with where they end and have no further inspiration with them. Also, the novel is around 85k (in final edits, so might move a little from that but not much). Can I get such a short, stand alone fantasy book published?

  9. Marilynn Byerly said:

    Another point you may want to cover with the multibook contract are some of the contract land mines you want to avoid like having all of the royalties held until all of the author’s books in that contract have earned out.

  10. Claudine said:

    Kristin, how long on average does it take for editors to respond to you with an answer, one way or the other, after you’ve submitted a manuscript to them? Thanks very much!

  11. Some Screaming Fangirl said:

    Thanks for talking about this; my project happens to be a YA/urban fantasy series, so of course I’m looking at multi-books…it’ll be cool to know hos this works. You always talk about the right stuff. 🙂

  12. Gregory said:

    Hello,

    I’m the artist on a fantasy book series called EverWing. My partner (the author) MJ Grothoff and I have self published the first 2 books and are looking to get the 3rd book published with an actual publishing house. The total number of books in the first series is 8.
    Should we try to query just the 3rd book as a stand alone with series potential?

    Any suggestions would be much, much appreciated! 😉

    Thanks for your time!

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