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Self Publishing a Book Series: What You Need to Know

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.

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A question came up in my self published author Facebook Group about branding a nonfiction book series. Branding is just one of the challenges of creating a continuing or related group of books for either fiction or nonfiction.

Here are the issues you need to consider when self publishing a book series.

Planning and Writing the Series

Though authors may be encouraged to do a followup to a successful one-off book, a book series ideally begins before you even start writing the first book.

For fiction, that means that you need to be thinking about the continuing plot line and characters that will span the series. That can be overwhelming to develop right at the start. New authors may especially have difficulty with this because they have no experience with market acceptance of their initial book. In fact, they may not have much book writing experience either. But it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about it and avoid pouring every ounce of creative energy into one epic opus.

The other problem is that after the first book in a series, authors may lose interest and focus, and any succeeding books lack the quality of the initial work. This is what I call the sequel problem which is so prevalent in movies. The first installment is a unique and wonderful success. Then the sequels can be retreads or weak efforts compared to the original. In addition to losing focus, authors can lose their audience, too.

How Many Books Should Be in the Series?

This is a tough question. It really depends on how far the plot line can go for fiction without losing energy. For nonfiction, it can depend on how deep the topic goes and its continued relevance.

How Timing and Trends Affect Book Series

Depending on how prolific of an author you are, timing may also affect the success of a series. By the time you get to even the second or third book, reader trends and tastes could have completely shifted to something else. Being a reader, in addition to an author, can help you monitor new releases and trends in your genre or topic.

Nonfiction books that discuss technical or newsworthy topics can require revised editions to reflect changing market needs. For example, computer software training books might need a new edition in the series every time a new release of the software is issued. In this case, it’s not so much a question of how many books, but how long the topic will be relevant. Going back to the computer training example, books on building a blog or web pages from scratch with HTML code might still have some value. But today, flexible CMS (content management systems) and open source platforms such as WordPress are more likely to have interest.

Your Next Book Can Promote Your Previous Books

The good news with series, particularly for fiction, is that succeeding books can help promote your previous books.

What’s tricky about this is that follow-up books have to be enough of a standalone book so readers understand what is happening, but raise enough curiosity to get readers to check out the earlier entries. This is also why series can be challenging for less talented and experienced authors.

Branding a Book Series

We can all look to mega book series such as Harry Potter to see a well-intentioned example of consistent branding. The Harry Potter logo and overall aesthetics are the same from book to book. This is no different than the mega brands that people easily recognize: Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola, etc.

Keeping consistent fonts, layouts, and aesthetics may require the help of a graphic design pro who can create a template for future series’ entries. This could be a bit of an investment. Also, using the same designer for the entire series can help keep all elements and style consistent.

Be upfront with your designer that you intend your book design work to be part of a continuing series. Freelance graphic designers may not be offering their services for as long as you write your series. Make sure to clarify in your design contract that this is work for hire, that you own the work, and that you will be using it without royalties or limitations in the future.

Have your initial designer create a branding package that you own and can share with any succeeding designers you hire. That package would include fonts (if created especially for you), logos, layouts, and other design elements in multiple electronic formats (low and high resolution JPEG, PNG, Adobe Illustrator vector .ai files, and PDF).

Realize, though, that even if your established branding package is used, each succeeding designer’s work can look a little different. Communicate your expectations clearly with any new design talent you hire.

If you’re doing it yourself, you may choose to use the same layout when creating your book covers with Kindle Direct Publishing’s Cover Creator tool. For my Kindle eBook series on self publishing, I used the exact same Cover Creator layout and just changed the colors for each edition.

Should You Tell Readers Your First Book Is Part of a Series?

So the big question is should you tell your book buyers that the initial book is the start of a series? I would suggest not.

Even though you’re mentally planning for future series installments, you won’t know how the initial book will be received. If sales are not to your expectations, you may decide to scrap future editions. You might resurrect the series at some point in the future if the initial book is a slow growing success. But you don’t want to set up expectations for your readers that you can’t or won’t want to fulfill. And you don't want to feel obligated to invest in it just to avoid looking like you've failed.

Realize, too, that multiple books means multiple and/or continuing marketing investments of time or advertising spend.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne

Comments

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 29, 2020:

Excellent! Thanks for sharing your additional thoughts. Have a great weekend!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 28, 2020:

Heidi

That's right, but Mark points out that he started with a lot less ($5 a day) and takes the time to help other authors on the way.

I've used a lot of his free material and that works quite well too.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 28, 2020:

I am aware of Mark Dawson and his popular self publishing training. In addition to reader magnets and the like, his extraordinary book sales success also can be attributed to advertising. According to a Forbes 2015 article about him, he said what works best for him for getting new readers is Facebook advertising, reported as $370/day in the article. Selling books and book series is a multi-pronged marketing effort.

I wish you the very best for your series. Please let me know how how all this goes. I'll be anxious to hear.

Thanks again for sharing your experience and insight! Have a wonderful day!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 26, 2020:

Heidi

What youre saying is true, people can use the 'look inside' feature, and that too is a great tool.

The idea of a free 'reader magnet' is to try and engage those who haven't heard of the writer to at least have a look at their books.

Being totally honest about it, I'm following a Mentor on this who has built a successful writing career.

The idea is to offer the book for people to sign up for the newsletter, follow them up as they read the book and hopefully get them to consider buying the series.

Yes, a lot will sign up, get the freebie and leave, but some will enjoy the book and its them you want, but make sure you're giving the vest value for money you can.

If you're interested to research for an article then here's the site I use

https://selfpublishingformula.com/

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 26, 2020:

Lawrence, I'll be anxious to hear how that strategy works.

I've never found the sample book/chapter strategy helpful in building an email list. I think part of the problem is that now people can go to Amazon and use the Look Inside feature to see if they're interested in the book. The other thing that I noticed when I did it is that people subscribe to get the freebie, then unsubscribe.

This topic warrants further discussion. I might do a separate post just on that. Thanks for the inspiration!

Good luck with this program! So appreciate your support!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 25, 2020:

Heidi

Thanks for the reply, the reason for putting the prequel out as a free book is to try and build a mailing list.

I've uploaded it to a site called 'StoryOrigin' that allows people to download for free, but tells them by doing so they'll go onto a mailing list (mine, and the list is run by Mailerlite) where I'll send yhem updates on my latest releases and promos.

The basic idea is that by using a list like this you build up a list of fans/followers and hopefully increase sales while not pressuring them to buy.

Its a tool that many self-published authors use.

Hope that clarifies my thinking.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on August 25, 2020:

Lawrence, never mind you rambling! I appreciate everyone who takes the mind to think about the topic and comment.

I think following up quickly after a cliffhanger is probably good advice. On the TV shows that end the season with a cliffhanger, the audience knows it will be resolved or answered in the new season which starts in a few months.

Curious why you're putting out the prequel as a free book. If you charged for the others in the series, why not for the prequel. Hey, Star Wars made millions that way.

Anyway, good luck with all these book series projects that you have going on. Appreciate your thoughtful comments. Have a great day!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 24, 2020:

Heidi

I think I got into writing a series almost by default, I wrote my first book and thought I was done but people wanted to know what happens next?

One thing I would add, is if you are ending on a cliffhanger, then you'll need to write the next REALLY QUICK!

Cliffhangers don't really work that well, unless you have the follow up really quickly and its exceptionally well written.

What you can do is leave a few threads loose at the end thst you can pick up on in the next book, I found this works well for me.

I've just written a prequel that I'll be putting out asa free book, and I'm working on another book but have a story arc that might go to three more.

Hope you don't mind me rambling in this comment.

Lawrence

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2020:

Hi Pamela! Because I write nonfiction, I cannot even imagine the mental work that planning a fiction series would take. Yikes! It gives me a headache thinking about it.

But, yes, I think all authors would love to have a Harry Potter success. ;)

Thanks so much for adding to the conversation! Have a terrific week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2020:

Peggy, I do think that many first-time authors do think of their books as standalone masterpieces. But there are a few that think they're going to be J.K. Rowling! ;)

Thanks for adding that point to the conversation! Have a lovely week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2020:

Flourish, I love how you put it as "something that your audience demands of you." That's how it should be! Otherwise it's the series no one wanted.

Keeping your sequel/series plans private does allow you to pivot in response to demand (or the lack of it).

Thanks so much for adding that punch line to the conversation! Have a beautiful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2020:

Liz, I'm glad you were able to pick up a book mid-series, enjoy it, and then move on to other points in the series. That author is talented indeed! The biggest problem with series is that many authors write assuming knowledge of prior installments.

Thanks for sharing your positive experience with reading a book series! Have a wonderful week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 27, 2020:

Bill, I knew you had the Shadow series. Since I've been following you since the early days of the series, I know you've thought about it as a series from the start. As with any of our books, I think we always feel we could have done things differently. But, oh well, at least we can see how far we've come.

We just got through some brutal 90+ days here in Chicago and are welcoming the low to mid 80s. But we'll have fall before we know it.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing! Have a wonderful week!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 27, 2020:

I would assume planning a fictional book series would take a lot of thought ahead of time as you suggested. All of your suggestions sound very reasonable. I wish I did have a "Harry Potter" type of idea in my head as that is sure an example of great success.

This is another very good article, Heidi!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 27, 2020:

First-time book authors probably do not think of that first book as being part of a series. Your advice, as always, gives authors something to consider.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 26, 2020:

Excellent advice! I sure would not tell them it’s a series until after that book is pretty much DONE. Too many chances to mess up and disappoint folks. Plus, like you said, give yourself room to change your mind if needed. A sequel is better to be something that your audience demands of you.

Liz Westwood from UK on July 26, 2020:

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking article. It puts me in mind of a series I know that charts the history of a family and its various members and associates through dramas spanning many years and historical world events. I picked up a book part way through the series and am gradually finding and reading others before and after it. I am sure that the writer must have had a broad outline of a plot spanning several books when he started the project.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 26, 2020:

Good info as always, my friend.

I've enjoyed writing my Shadow series. It's been fun developing the characters, and it's been fun building on the story line. Would I do some things differently if I started it now? Of course, but hindsight is so boring, you know? lol

90's today and tomorrow...just shoot me now! Now I'm complaining that it's too hot. There is no pleasing some people.

Happy Sunday!

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