Always Leave Them Wanting More: The Joy of Writing Series of Books - by Debbie Young

Celebrating the joy of Sherlock Holmes with BBC Radio Gloucestershire earlier this year  (Photo: Dominic Cotter)
A great way for authors to build readership and to enamour loyal fans is to write series of books about popular characters and settings. It's much easier to sell stories about familiar heroes and heroines than to persuade readers to try new ones. 

As the author of the first in a proposed series of seven Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, I have naturally been happy to learn of easy marketing tactics to sell series:

  • You can offer the first in the series at a reduced price to get the reader sufficiently hooked to buy the rest at full market price.
  • Even better, if you're marketing ebooks (and most indie authors, like me, will make the bulk of their sales in digital form), you can even offer the first in the series for free, because you have no production costs to cover once you've set up the digital file.  
  • Then there are the prequels you can use as mailing list magnets or special offer giveaways, and the seasonal specials. (I'm currently planning Murder in the Manger for my Christmas release.) 
  • You might even run to spin-off series about subsidiary characters. (I'm thinking of the back story of Great Auntie May, who has died before my first novel, Best Murder in Show, even begins.)

Acquiring the Habit

I sometimes refer to marketing series as "the drug-pusher's tactic", because all authors of series hope their readers will become addicted. 

But there's a downside too: you may end up enslaved to your readers, obliged to keep churning out stories about the same old characters, when you hunger to move on to new territory. After all, there are only so many books we can write in this life, no matter how many thousands of words a day we can set down. (And there are some authors out there who claim somestartlingly productive daily habits.)

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, weary of writing about Sherlock Holmes, with some relish pushed him over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland, in "The Final Problem". Baying fans enforced his return, however, and he carried on solving crimes for another twenty-five years.
  • M C Beaton, now in her eighties, is still contractually bound to write one new Hamish Macbeth novel and another Agatha Raisin one every single year, and there are plenty of readers who will automatically buy each new one as it comes out, or even preorder it prior to publication date, because they can't wait to return to their next fix of their favourite characters. 

Having fun with M C Beaton at the Nailsworth Festival a few years ago
Of course, it's early days yet for me, having published just the first book of my proposed series so far. I'm still at the honeymoon stage of loving my characters (hero and heroine are aspiring author Sophie Sayers and bookseller Hector Munro) and my setting (Wendlebury Barrow, a small Cotswold village similar to the one in which I live in real life). Every time I sit down to edit Trick or Murder?, the second in the series, I feel a warm rush of comfort like plunging into a hot bubble bath. 

The beginning of a journey with the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

One of my male readers told me he loves Sophie Sayers so much he wants to meet her. Female readers seem to fall in love with Hector Munro, and I confess I rather fancy him myself.

Early reviewers are already saying that they can't wait for the next one. A neighbour even told me I'm not allowed out of the house till book two's finished.

At this rate, my writing arm won't need much twisting to launch into books eight and nine and ten... 

But watch this space: you never know, a few years down the line I may be buying Sophie Sayers a one-way ticket to Switzerland...

Other Book Series That I Love Reading

Lucienne Boyce's Dan Foster historical mysteries, starting with Bloodie Bones
Celia Boyd's English Civil War "Reason From the Stars" series, starting with First Dry Rattle
Anita Davison's Flora Maguire historical mysteries, starting with Flora's Secret
David Ebsworth's Spanish Civil War mysteries, starting with The Assassin's Mark
Helena Halme's Anglo-Finnish romance, starting with The Englishman
JJ Marsh's Beatrice Stubbs detective series, starting with Behind Closed Doors
Rosalind Minett's WWII Relative Invasion series, starting with Intrusion
Alison Morton's Roma Nova alternative history series, starting with Inceptio
David Penny's Thomas Berrington historical mysteries, starting with The Red Hill
Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey classic detective stories, starting with Whose Body?

And here's the first of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Best Murder in Show

What's your favourite series of novels? Please feel free to make a recommendation via the comments box!

I'm hoping this will leave you wanting more...

For more information about Debbie Young, 
visit her website
follow her on Facebook
or track her on Twitter at @DebbieYoungBN.


Umberto Tosi said…
So true. Sophie Sayers sounds delightful. I look forward to reading "Best Murder in Show." Here across the pond, you could start a list with some of my private-eye series favorites - Chicago's Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski and Walter Mosley's hardboiled Ezekiel ("Easy") Rawlins. The list goes on, of course, but I especially like these two for the way they develop their detective protagonists progressively through each novel, though each is complete in itself. Paretsky and Mosley also are masters at weaving social, racial and cultural issues seamlessly into their urban mysteries, she playing on feminist themes while he explores America's racial history without ever straying from their suspenseful narratives. Good luck with your series!
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Umberto. I must add those to my reading pile. I've enjoyed some of Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski stories on the radio - they've been adapted by BBC Radio 4 starring Kathleen Turner - but haven't yet read the books. I agree, character development as the series goes along is always an asset, as is weaving other themes in alongside the core mystery. While my books aren't overtly political at all, and may seem superficially lighthearted, I'm trying to include strong themes about the value of community, friendship and tolerance of each other's differences - so although the Sophie Sayers series might appear to offer an escape into a safe little bubble of rural idyll, it's actually very relevant to the current political state of the world as well.
Anita Davison said…
I loved the first Sophie Sayers story and also cannot wait for Book 2 - You are so right in that series writing is easier in that your character's relationships with others are already established. However, I am now writing Book 5 which I am finding a struggle. Apart from contriving a credible puzzle to solve that is as engaging and interesting as the last one, my characters still need to grow, but not too much because readers have expectations of them they wouldn't have in a standalone book. Readers are unpredictable too, as Book 3 is my favourite thus far, but my readers don't agree and like Book 1 and 2 better. Very frustrating as I worked the hardest on the historical research and the plot - so what do they want? I just have to keep going - and hope.
Debbie Young said…
Thanks for your kind words about Sophie, Anita. I know what you mean about growing characters slowly - I have had to employ some delaying tactics for one of Sophie's key relationships in book 2 (but no plot spoilers here!)

I'm not sure which of your Flora books I like best so far. They're all so different because of the completely different setting for each, which is a brilliant way to add variety for the same characters - something Dorothy L Sayers did so well. I've got the challenge with my Sophie books of having all of them set in the same village of Wendlebury Barrow, although I will be treating her to a trip to a Greek island for book 6! Hmm, time for some research, I think...
AliB said…
I don't particularly get in to series probably because I don't read many murders, but of course I gobbled up many childhood series - Chalet School, Sadlers Wells and I was even a member of the The Lone Pine Club (Malcom Saville).
Offering membership of a club? - there's a thought!
Debbie Young said…
Ooh, good thought, Ali - I've already got my Sophie Sayers joining other organisations in her fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, so maybe I need to get her to start a village murder club! ;)

I think we are primed from our earliest reading days to get hooked on series - the wonderful Just William from way back, as well as the all the Enid Blyton (and I loved Chalet School too), not to mention the relatively recent Harry Potter. And series for grown-ups don't have to feature murders (I don't think anyone gets bumped off in the Forsyte Saga?) So I wonder why so many do?
Unknown said…
AS you know, I saw clear and pressing potential for a series when I was halfway through Best Murder in Show, and I wanted to be in that bookshop having coffee with Sophie serving me. Thank you for mentioning A Relative Invasion: an American librarian has asked if I will do a mini series. (I'd fully intended to come into the 21st century after Bill left for his Natonal Service in 1951).
Debbie Young said…
What a lovely thing to say about wanting to be in the bookshop, Rosalind - I wonder which music Hector would have chosen to play while you were there? (For those who haven't read it yet, Hector's the owner of the bookshop and one of his charms is that he sets music playing in the shop to suit each customer as they arrive, immediately putting them at their ease - one of many reasons his shop is such a success.)

What great feedback for you from that American librarian. I'd certainly love to know what happens to your characters in the 21st century - though I think the ending to book three of the trilogy is artistically perfect and complete.
Unknown said…
I loved Sophie (review will be up soon), and I cannot wait for the next book. Thank you so much for including The Englishman series on your list, I'm very honoured to be amongst such brilliant authors.

Helena xx
Alison Morton said…
Debbie, I didn't catch this earlier. Thank you so much for the kind mention of the Roma Nova series!
I love series as a reader and look forward to learning something new about each character with each new book. That's the key when writing.

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