Writing a Series

(Today’s peek into my mailbox.)

Dear Rachelle,

I’ve been writing a series of novels, and have completed six books. My question is: How do I go about submitting a series? I have a query that describes the series an includes an excerpt from each book. Would this be the correct way to present the series? Or should I just send a query for the first book in the series?

Signed, Prolific


Dear Prolific,

Congratulations on finishing so many books. Definitely a great accomplishment!

Most professionals in the industry would advise you to write only the first book in the series, or maybe the first two, then perhaps leave the others in outline or synopsis stage. The problem is that if you don’t sell the first one, you may not be able to sell any of the others unless they can stand alone or somehow be separated from this series.

In any case, the answer to your question on how to present your series is to query the first book, and mention it’s the first in a planned series. I’d recommend you don’t say a series of “six” because the magic number is often three, and six may scare away some agents and editors. It might lead them to think you have unrealistic expectations and don’t understand how publishing works.

You need to sell the agent on one book. Sometimes a first-time author will get a contract for a three-book deal if the series is strong, so you definitely want to mention it’s a series, but the method is always the same: sell them on that first book.

If you find you’re not able to sell that one, maybe you can pick another in the series that’s stronger in plot or voice or interest; you can start trying to sell that one as the “first” in the series. I’ve had a couple of authors who got 3-book deals this way.

I highly recommend you stop writing this series, at least until you start getting some feedback on whether or not you’re in the ballpark of being saleable. It sounds like you’re on a roll, and you’re enjoying it, and I would assume your writing is getting better and better with each book. But you want to guard against two things: (1) Spending too much time on a series that you don’t know yet whether you can sell; and (2) Getting so comfortable with this set of characters and this storyline that you’re paralyzed when it comes to writing anything else. You may be too invested in this series.

I recommend you start querying, and meanwhile, work on a new book or series, something that doesn’t depend on all these other books selling. Hope that helps!

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. D.C. Spell on June 18, 2012 at 12:26 AM

    This puts my mind at ease! Yay! I’m working on my first manuscript still, but I’ve had this nagging fear in the back of my mind that I won’t be able to sell a single book as a debut author. I’ll just write the story that’s in me to write and not worry about making up more story to fill a series.

  2. Link Feast Vol. 5 | Reetta Raitanen's Blog on April 25, 2012 at 6:12 PM

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  3. prashant on April 12, 2010 at 5:18 AM

    >That's great. If those books can be read as stand alone novels, that's even better.
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  4. Chazley Dotson on April 5, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    >I had kind of a weird experience with sequels. I had an idea for a three-or-so-book-series, then wrote the first one, did an edit, and set it aside while I started working on the sequel. I wasn't far into it before I realized how badly the first book sucked, and I ended up doing a major rewrite, even cannibalizing some of the work from my sequel to complete the story of the first book. So the point of all this rambling, I guess, is that sequels have a way of putting the first book into perspective. I wonder if we could start using this as an editing tool even for books that we don't envision as carrying over into a series.

  5. Anonymous on April 5, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    >I have a related question for the collected wisdom here: When I sold my novel to a small press–one that had an option on it from my previous unrelated novel–my editor asked me to write a companion from the point of view of a secondary character. In the meantime, the editor passed away and shortly after my novel pubbed, the small press closed down.

    The novel has done very well critically and above expectations commercially, but it's hardly a best seller. In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out what to do with the companion, which I revised after my editor's death to make as stand-alone as I could. Should I look for another small press, or does this second in a series have a chance with a major house?

  6. Chantal Kirkland on April 5, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    >Wow. That's a lot of work for not having any 'pay-out'. I'd query one (when I finished the first) and start working on the next book only after I had an agent that loved the first. Just my thoughts, but that way I'm not too invested.

  7. Aimee LS on April 5, 2010 at 2:14 PM

    >Gatekeeper – LOL! The advice actually came from a couple of different agent blogs and essentially said "Don't tell me its the first in the series. If I like it, I'll ask you if there are more."

    The rationale was that if you haven't been able to sell one, you're looking unrealistic to suggest you could sell a series.

  8. T. Anne on April 5, 2010 at 1:17 PM

    >I've written two different series and have thought a lot about how to query them. They're not on the front burner of my game plan right now, but I found them a lot of fun to write. Thanks for the advice Rachelle. I hope you had a great chocolate filled Easter.

  9. Mira on April 5, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    >Claire – you're absolutely right! I'm sorry – I said that poorly. Not all romance is 'cookie cutter', of course, nor did I mean to imply that writing by a formula is easy. But it's a different type of writing. I apologize if my comment was offensive – it wasn't meant to be.

    In terms of the reality of the business, I think the business needs to take a very close look at itself and what it's asking writers, artists, to do.

    Asking someone not to write a series, when they have a series in them, will water down their work. And make it less financially viable, in the process.

    If you don't want to promise to publish series, okay. So, when you sign the writer, let them know if the first doesn't sell well, you won't publish the rest.

  10. Claire on April 5, 2010 at 12:41 PM

    >Sorry, Rachelle, I think I disagree – I think the writer should write what their muse wants them to write. Writing for publication takes the writer out of the creative source and risks backfiring and/or watering down.

    I do believe that writers should write what they love. But if you want to build a career as a published author, I think it's also important to understand the realities of the business.

    Unless you're writing cookie-cutter romance, or something of that nature. But true creativity – I think it's best to follow it where it leads….

    I'm sure you don't mean to disparage your fellow writers, but to say that novels that follow a certain formula don't require "true creativity" isn't very kind. Nor accurate. It takes a lot of creativity to write a novel, whatever the genre.

  11. Judith Engracia on April 5, 2010 at 11:04 AM

    >Helpful advice:)

  12. Mira on April 5, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    >This is a tricky one, and I see alot of folks telling people not to write series.

    Sorry, Rachelle, I think I disagree – I think the writer should write what their muse wants them to write. Writing for publication takes the writer out of the creative source and risks backfiring and/or watering down. Unless you're writing cookie-cutter romance, or something of that nature. But true creativity – I think it's best to follow it where it leads….

    Plotting and arc are better if you know the entire framework – foreshadowing, for example, is much better done when you see the entire story and not just a piece of it.

    So, I think if I were writing a series, I'd write the series.

    If that series doesn't sell, so be it. Write another book, and maybe when you're established, your series will sell.

    But write what you're meant to write.

  13. Laura Marcella on April 5, 2010 at 9:46 AM

    >This makes perfect sense. Why would a publisher buy six books or even three if the first book was weak? You want your first book in the series to be spectacular so the publisher will want more, and then your readers will want more, too.

    Great post!

  14. LynnRush on April 5, 2010 at 9:28 AM

    >Nicely said, Rachelle.

  15. clindsay on April 5, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    >Like Rachelle, I generally advise people to think in terms of 'one book'. Because ultimately, it is the acquiring editor who will decide if it's a series or not. I don't mind tell me that they have written a stand alone that can be expanded upon as a series. But that stand-alone really does need to be able to stand alone, without any loose threads at the end.

    And yes, I do get a little wigged out when someone writes to me and says "The first of seven in a series" because I know that writer had thought of nothing else, and probably has no other ideas at all should that series fail to get picked up.

  16. Gate Keeper on April 5, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    >Very well put, Rachel.

    @Aimee LS – I'd actually like to see the wording of the other agent's advice you mention, because I can't quite imagine any agent saying, "Don't even say, 'This is a stand-alone book but could be a series.'" It's okay to mention that this could be a series. If the agent loves what they read, they'll be quite happy that the author has more planned. We just don't want to hear numbers right away. It's like if you go on a first date and your date tells you how many kids they want to have; it's a little unnerving.

  17. Anonymous on April 5, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    >I always think it's best to write a 2nd or 3rd series book while the idea is fresh or it may take a while to get back into it. I like to think positively, that the 2nd or 3rd book could be the break-out book, and the first ones can always be revised later. Why not try? Though I agree six books are a bit overzealous…lol

  18. Sharon A. Lavy on April 5, 2010 at 8:32 AM

    >I like to read more than one story about characters I have learned to love.

    So this topic is especially interesting to me.

  19. Tracy on April 5, 2010 at 8:27 AM

    >I wrote a follow-up story to the ms that I'm subbing now, but I've put it away in a drawer for now. There will be no thoughts of pulling it out & beginning revisions, until I get an idea of the response from this one.

    As a reader, I like knowing when there is a good length series in front of me, because I like the first book there will be plenty more to come. As a publisher or an agent, I could see where I'd be weary to take on a client who'd invested so much time upfront on a single, all-encompassing project.

  20. Timothy Fish on April 5, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    >I went to an associational convention one time and met a woman who had written three books in a series and had self-published them through PublishAmerica. I didn’t purchase the books at the time, but I letter looked for them online. At the time, I had visions of publishing other people’s books and figured I could offer her a better deal than PublishAmerica. Within the search results I saw a webpage that mentioned her first book, saying that it was the first book in a series of ten. Every thought I had of offering to publish her next book vanished. I couldn’t see myself agreeing to publish seven books. That tunnel was just a little too long to see light at the end of it.

    Rachelle, I have a somewhat related question. In a series, there are usually characters that carry over from one book to the next, but what are your thoughts about characters moving over into books outside of the series? Does that make a publisher nervous if the series is published by another publisher?

    And while I’m asking questions, how important is it for books in a series to follow the same basic plot? How much can we get by with changing from one book to the next?

  21. Lisa Jordan on April 5, 2010 at 6:26 AM

    >Six books? That's great. If those books can be read as stand alone novels, that's even better.

    I'm at the same spot as Prolific…I'm writing a series, but at a standstill with the next books until I hear of interest with the first one.

  22. Krista Phillips on April 5, 2010 at 6:17 AM

    >LOVE this advice! I've always known to query one book at a time, but I've been debating back and forth whether or not to "finish" my book 2 and 3 of the series for a long time. While I debated, I wrote another book that I LOVE, and am in the process of writing another one. Now I have two DIFFERENT projects to query, that first book, and a stand-alone. Much better than having a completed 3-book series that may or may not ever sell. (Although, my fingers are itching to finish those other two books someday!!)

  23. Lynda Schab on April 5, 2010 at 4:47 AM

    >My agent advised me to write the first three chapters of the next book in the series so we have it to include with the first full ms, if and when it's requested. I've done that and like where the story is going, but have put it aside until we get some serious interest in that first book. Your advice seems to be in line with that approach. Do you find it to be true that it is often easier for a first-time novelist to get published with a series than a stand-alone?

  24. Aimee LS on April 5, 2010 at 3:00 AM

    >Rachelle – does this mean you outright disagree with another agent who might advise not mentioning a series at all for a first time author?

    I'm not trying to pit you against anyone, just gaging whether or not the previous advice I've read is personal preference as opposed to professional conduct.

  25. Anonymous on April 5, 2010 at 2:14 AM

    >First, congratulation on being such a prolific writer!

    Rachelle's advice is spot on. Query the first book. You can mention at the end of the query that it's the first book in a planned series.