Publishers are trying the Netflix model. It’s so clear now that people prefer to consume film and television series in watching binges, and there’s always been such a vocal subset of the book-buying market that waits to buy a series until the last volume is published, that we’re going to see some experiments with releasing sequels six, or even three, months apart, rather than the traditionally preferred year.

I wonder what acquiring editors will be advising newbie authors to do now. Back in the late Cretaceous Period, when I had just finished my first novel, all the editors at writing conferences and fan conventions were unanimous: don’t bother working on the second volume of your series until the first volume sells. The rationale then was that editors could fix problems in the first novel, and then they’d stay fixed for the whole series, because all the sequels would be undertaken under editorial guidance, whereas if the author was already on volume five and there were problems that threaded through the whole series, it would be much harder to fix. Also, in the editors’ experience, authors were harder to work with when they were several volumes’ worth of committed to something the editors felt to be a flaw in the work.

Some will say that self-publishing is the solution to this problem, and that no writer of series should ever have been deterred. Although there’s a case to be made for that view, a good editor can help a writer find the best, truest version of a book — a version that’s a revision pass or two beyond where the writer stopped when s/he thought it was ready to submit for publication.

The first two short stories I sold taught me this lesson the hard way. John O’Neill put me through three strenuous rounds of deep structural revision on “The War of the Wheat-Berry Year,” which was above and beyond the call of duty for him. There was no guarantee until the third try was in that he would buy the story at all. His every suggestion made the story stronger, and the process laid the groundwork for a cordial working relationship that continues at Black Gate¬†some eight years later. The second short story I sold, “New Jersey’s Top Ghost Tours Reviewed and Rated,” was accepted exactly as I submitted it at what was then one of the top short fiction markets in the genre. I felt thrilled, vindicated, endorsed, all of that. When the story went up on the website, I discovered a couple of jarring sentence-level infelicities that had escaped me, ones that I think would stand out for most readers. Every time I think about that story, I flinch about those two sentences, and I wish there had been a step in the process in which both the editor and I could have looked the story over one last time for improvements. Which editor would I rather work with now?

And which kind of editor would I rather have as a partner in preparing a novel for the big time?¬†Easy choice. I’d pick the collegial perfectionist over the laissez-faire congratulator any day.

Would it help my Big Book now if I could admit that the second volume in the series is 75% complete in working draft?

Does this new development in the publishing business clinch the question of whether to polish the Big Book at its current length or to split it into two shorter volumes? In the market of eight years ago, it would have meant automatic rejection to submit a first volume with an admission that one sequel was done and the next one nearly so. Now, that could be an advantage.

Or — hell, why not? — I could look at the four-act and five-act structures of Big Book I and Big Book II as places to split each of them into novellas. That would put me at four volumes finished, ready for release at three month intervals, while I knocked out revisions to the five acts of Book II one at a time. Easy peasy. Except that nothing’s that easy, and the Big Book never gets that lucky. And, despite the fact that I’ve had a surprisingly easily time selling novellas, it doesn’t seem possible that the big publishing houses will embrace novella-length series installments.

I wish there were someone I could ask whose answer I could trust implicitly. Ain’t no such person. We’re all stumbling in the dark together into the future of books.


Sarah Avery

October 2016

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