Okay. You’ve been writing this fabulous series. You’ve been pouring your mind and heart and soul and energy and effort into this series. You’ve created these rich characters whom you’ve gotten to know, just as your readers have gotten to know them. You’ve put these beloved characters through their paces, challenging them in every book in the series. You love them, and your readers love them.
In short: You love your series and you love writing it. And then the bad news comes from your publisher: They’re discontinuing your series. For whatever reason, the publisher is declining to publish future entries in the series. Maybe sales didn’t meet expectations. Maybe the series has grown tired. Maybe the series bucks current publishing protocols—and not in a good way. Maybe the publisher is shuttering the imprint, or the publisher itself has been bought out or shut down.
Whatever the reason, you’re heartbroken. Your readers are heartbroken. It sucks. Everyone is always asking you when the next book will come out because they can’t wait to read it, and now there will be no more books.
That’s when you think, “Aha! I can find a new publisher. Or I can self-publish.”
Not so fast. Let’s take a strategic look at the options you have as an author—and which will be best for you as a career author.
Why was your series canceled?
This is the question you must ask yourself, and you must answer it honestly. Often, it’s simply due to poor sales. Or declining sales, in the case of a long-running series. In which case, the series may have run its course. Yes, you can try to find another publisher or self-publish, but unless you can better those sales, you are simply continuing a poor sales record. Which will not help you if your goal is to continue to be traditionally published as well.
If your publisher closed down your imprint or filed bankruptcy, that is down to bad luck. But odds are that as that publisher struggled to survive, cuts were made that adversely affected your sales. So you are faced with the challenge of overcoming that poor sales record, too.
It could also be that your series was canceled because it’s now considered old-fashioned. Or because it’s an idea that has run its course. Or because it somehow flies in the face of changing publishing sensibilities, such as #OwnVoices or #MeToo. In which case, even if you self-publish, you may be opening yourself up to bad reviews and press that could haunt not only the series but any other books you may write in the future as well.
It also could be that your series is too quiet, or not high-concept enough, to break out. Conventional wisdom is that a series is most likely to break out by the fifth book, and if it hasn’t broken out by then, it won’t. So by continuing to publish, you would in effect be beating a dead horse.
Note: There are authors writing long-running series who’ve broken out later on, but, again, those are series that defy the odds.
Find another publisher.
This may be a good option, provided the new publisher has the resources and the determination to publish your series well. That is, to do a better job in terms of sales and marketing and reviews and awards than your previous publisher did. The last thing you need is to stack another poor sales record for your series on top of the first poor sales record.
That said, there are publishers who pick up existing series and do a good job with them. But they are few and far between.
This, too, is a dangerous road. If your goal is to be traditionally published, self-publishing is always risky. Many writers decide that they want to self-publish and continue publishing new books in their series because they love writing them, and because they love the characters, and because readers are waiting for them. That may all very well be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do in terms of your career as a writer.
Self-publishing is a difficult row to hoe. The average self-published book sells 212 copies. This will not help you in your career as a writer. Because, at the risk of repeating myself, piling a poor sales record on top of bad is a very short-sighted strategy.
What you need to do is decide if you are actually ready and willing and able to do all of the work that self-publishing requires. This means you take on all the responsibilities of cover, layout, editing, everything.
And then there’s the marketing and the promotion. If you did not enjoy that part of the process while you were traditionally published, you’re not going to like it any better when you’re self-published. You’d be setting yourself up to fail.
That said, some people are very good at it. I have a client who had a Big Five traditional publisher for her series for many years. When that publisher let her go, her series was immediately picked up by another, smaller publisher. She didn’t like the way that smaller publisher operated, and so she turned to self-publishing. She did it right: She uses the same illustrator for the new covers and she is very good at promoting and selling her books herself. That smaller publisher still wants her back and she refuses because she can do it better and more happily on her own. But this author is one in a million.
What about the backlist?
If you do continue your series with another publisher or by self-publishing, don’t forget your backlist titles (that is, the series books already published by your original publisher).
Here are the things you should consider, with a shout-out to the fab Dana Isaacson: Will your former publisher keep them in print and available, or do you need to get the rights back? Then what? Do you try and get another publisher to take them on? The publisher must be sure all the production costs are worth it. Or you may decide to repackage and self-publish all these titles, if you are up to it.
Managing your backlist takes time and effort (and maybe serious money) that may or may not be worth it. Time and effort that might be better spent writing something new.
Write something new.
There is an old saw in traditional publishing that the only way to overcome a poor sales record is to Change your name and write romance. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Which is more true than we’d like to admit.
Regardless, if you want to be published by a traditional publisher, your best bet is to write something new. Put your series aside, mourn it, honor it, celebrate it. But walk away from it for now. You can always bring it back later when you’ve made a huge splash in traditional publishing and they’re begging to publish anything you’ve ever written.
There are countless stories of authors whose series were canceled who went on to write other series and/or stand-alones whose original series were republished later to great success, because the authors had broken out in a big way with their new series and/or stand-alones.
I even know a writer whose series was discontinued and years later, Hallmark turned it into one of its mystery movie series. The author is now an executive producer on the show.
Your series may very well find a new life later on down the road. But first, you have to find a new life as an author.
How different is different?
The most strategic move you can make is to write something new. Maybe something in a different genre or a different sub-genre. Something that can succeed in the marketplace the way your series could not.
For best results, write something high-concept. High-concept trumps everything else. It’s what everyone is looking for these days, book publishers as well as film producers. If you don’t know what high-concept is, find out.
And don’t panic at the thought of high-concept. You are not a one-trick pony. You are not a One Series Wonder. You have more than one good idea.
Write something new, succeed at that, and then you can take another look at your canceled series. With a little distance, you may see that the series is best put to rest. Or you may see how you could write the next entry in the series and have it break out in a way that the previous entries did not.
You’re in it for the long haul.
If you really are a career writer, then you’re going to have ups and downs, as you would in any career. As you do in life.
The secret is to keep writing. Keep challenging yourself. Let the series go for now. You can always come back to it. But for now, write something new, something your agent can sell, something that can break out in today’s tough marketplace.
Because you’re a good writer. You’ve proven that with the success of your series. You wrote a series, you got it traditionally published, and if you think all that hard work has gone to naught, it has not.
It was just Act One of your writing career.
On to Act Two.
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