The Law of Diminishing Returns

Distinguished Author Guy

Distinguished Author Guy

Before actually publishing myself, I always assumed that when an author turned their hand from a series I loved, quite often to something I would never especially care for, it was because they were behaving like those actors on television shows that, having achieved a certain amount of success, began to believe they were destined for greater things–completely abandoning the hand that fed them.

The problem in my case is that, while my first book seemed to find some real fans, as soon as I finished my second book, which was also the second book in the series, I realized it was a better book. To really drive the point home, the reviewers that have read both books make a point of saying the second book is better. Obviously, this is a problem as only people who liked the first book would ever be likely to read the second (and the third is even more problematic).

In line with this, I’ve sold fewer copies of the second book than the first, despite it being the better book.

What could I do?

It being an ebook (and print-on-demand), I have had the luxury of making any number of improvements to the first book. Like a huge skyscraper, however, there are limits on the changes I can make without tearing the whole thing down and building a new one that sits on the same site.

For example, if I were starting it now I would do the industry standard of showing the hero in the present for a time, then drop back several years for a chapter or two that show how the protagonist became the person he is, or developed some of the relationships that figure in the later story. Instead, I initially tried to show him go from zero to hero (more in the Belgariad style than in the animated Hercules style). That was a problem because anything resembling a movie style montage scene in a book tends to look like “telling-not-showing” to the reader. I eventually hacked all that out but it’s really kind of late to go back and change the entire structure of the book.

It’s a conundrum. It certainly encouraged me to shrink the planned series from five books to four. Since I don’t require the revenue to live on (like nearly all writers, I do have a “real” job) I may eventually try another somewhat shorter series. The difference being I would write all three books in advance of publication of the first.

John D. MacDonald did this when he rolled out the first three books of his Travis McGee series. He believed, apparently correctly, that it would give the new series a big boost and get readers more invested in the series right at the outset.

If I did this it would ensure they were all of relatively similar quality and, timed properly, sales of the subsequent books could be boosted by people still being fresh from the first. I know I’m much more likely to finish a series if I can read them at my rate, rather than wait years in between.

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