Chip MacGregor

April 12, 2016

Ask the Agent: How can I do a novel series?


The month of April is set aside for “Ask the Agent” — your chance to finally ask that question you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent. In the comments section the other day, someone asked, “If you’re writing a series of three books, how do you find an agent and publisher that will take on all three if they only have the manuscript for the first one? Are there things they look for — outlines of the two remaining books, rough drafts, notes on where you’ll be going with the series?”

Okay… What is easier to sell, a car or a fleet of cars? Normally I try to sell ONE book, then, at some point, see if we can extend the deal. It’s daunting to have someone sit down across from me at a conference and announce they’ve created a twelve-book series (which has happened to me), since something like that is going to be nearly impossible to sell. So focus on one book, and make the manuscript as strong as possible.

Make sure you understand that a true “series” is one continuous story, told over the course of multiple titles. That’s tougher to get a publisher to commit to, since it means they’ll have to do all the books to tell the whole tale. It’s usually easier for a publisher to commit to doing several related titles — not one story told over multiple books, but multiple stories that share a setting and some characters.

Of course, no matter which direction you go, each book in the series has to have a satisfying ending. Each book has to feel complete, so a reader can pick it up and enjoy the novel, even if they never read the other, related books.

Another thing to understand that novel series go in and out of vogue. For a while, everybody wanted series, so it seemed like every negotiation I did included a discussion of how the author was going to continue these characters in other books. But at the moment, series fiction is out. I’ve recently had this discussion with multiple romance, thriller, Amish, and romantic suspense publishers, and they’ve all said they DON’T want a series; that the market has moved away from series fiction. (That’s not true with PI or Police Procedural novels or cozy mysteries, by the way. Mystery and suspense publishers still like to see a strong character whom we’ve come to love tackle a new crime in each book.) So you may find it a bit harder to land your series right now.

In terms of what you’ll need to do when talking series fiction with an agent or editor, you must have the first manuscript completed, and you will need short descriptions of the next couple of books. Give each of them a half page or so — enough that the editor can see you know where the story is going. Make sure to note how long it takes you to complete a novel (some writers need a month, others need a year), and what the rough word count will be. That should be enough to show them your vision for the series.

I would think this goes without saying, but recently I’ve had a couple writers approach me with a “series” that had books in different genres. That is, the first book was a suspense, but the second was a romance… Um… I had to politely tell the writers that was one of the dumbest ideas I’d ever heard. No publisher on earth is going to do a series in different genres, since, well, that isn’t actually a “series.” I don’t know what it is, actually, besides a lousy idea.

One last note: the more you have completed, the easier it is to get consideration from a publisher. So if you have the first two manuscripts completed in your series, it’s more likely to be considered than if you have one. Why? Because there is less risk to the publisher when a manuscript is completed. And, of course, if you’re a debut novelist, the only way you’re going to be considered for publication is if your first book is completed and polished. Nobody is buying novels on a synopsis and sample chapters anymore, unless you’re a rock star or have your own reality TV show. (And if you ARE a rock star or have your own reality TV show, call me.) 

Hope this helps. Would love to hear what other questions you have of a literary agent. Feel free to post questions in the comments section, and I’ll try to get to them this month.

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  • Barbara Salvatore says:

    This post was written for me! Thank you, Chip. Learned so much from you at the Nebraska Writers’ Guild events, and will now be sending you my full ‘Big Horse Woman’ Proposal Package and manuscript samples. Someone out there needs a ‘fleet.’ Ride On! Write on! So enjoy your posts.

  • John Howard Prin says:

    I found the advice about publishers’ reluctance to take on one continuous story told over the course of multiple titles new and unexpected. I’ve always assumed that a series was what many of them wanted. So, now that I realize it’s easier to interest a publisher in several related titles, I’m changing my strategy about the sequel that’s underway to my first book. That will mean restructuring some scenes and rethinking the plotline (but keeping the same main characters), yet I’m early enough in the drafting process to change course. I expect to adjust future sequels as well.

  • Tim Meneely says:

    You said, “a true “series” is one continuous story, told over the course of multiple titles.” So, “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” are series, but “Lord Peter Wimsey” or “Hercule Poirot” technically aren’t? Given that, and given my books fall in the latter category – related by location and developing characters but not one long story, should I avoid saying things such as “a draft of the second book in the series is complete”?

    Thanks for such a useful group of blog posts!

  • M. M. Splinter says:

    Thank you very much for your blog post. It was very informative and interesting to hear from an agent’s perspective. I am surprised only half page of summary would do for the other books when taking the series to an agent/publisher! I will definitely keep all of this in mind. Thanks again.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The publisher may ask for more information on books two and three later, MM, but usually in the early stages of pitching them, they just need a short description so that they know you’ve got a basic idea of where the story is headed.

  • Coach Brown says:

    Thanks Chip. Sounds like relevant advice. Sounds like, iof the first fails to get traction the sequel(s) likely won’t either.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It’s really tough for a sequel to find traction unless the first book did well. It happens occasionally, but that’s certainly the exception, Coach.

    • Coach Brown says:

      Guess that advice follows the old philosophy in coaching: Winning’s always gets easier after that first victory. Thanks.

  • Lisa Phillips says:

    Question: Could you ever envision a Christian fiction publisher taking on a book that was previously self-published? It’s been done in the general market, but not as yet in Christian publishing (as far as I’m aware).

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I”ve spoken to that on the blog recently, Lisa. It happens… but not frequently. “The Shack” was originally self-published, by the way, before being picked up by Hachette.

  • Chip, excellent advice. Since I’ve always written freestanding novels, tied together by a theme but not characters or location, I was interested to read earlier today, and again in your blog, that series fiction is going out of vogue. Just another example of the uselessness of “writing to the market.” Thanks for sharing good information.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good point, Richard. I think too often by the time authors have figured out the trend in the market, that trend has already been acknowledged and may be starting to fade.

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