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Releasing a series all at once or one at a time — which is better?

Posted in Just for Writers, and Release

fallingdominosI'm just about to start writing a new series. Unlike some of my others, this one is open-ended, rather than coming to a natural (if extensible) close after just a few books.

Is it better to release the new series books one at a time as they're finished, or to write the first several, and then release them quickly, one right after another?

Easy to say — hard to analyze. Lots of uncertainty.

For my own curiosity, I built a spreadsheet to help me do the analysis, and I'm sharing that here with you. As always, I am not responsible for any errors in my assumptions or algorithms — please do your own calculations using your own assumptions.

Assumptions

Time to write a book in the series: 3 months. That's 4 books/year. Sometimes it might be faster, sometimes slower.

I assume my partners (cover artist, conlanger) can keep up. That should only be an issue as the release schedule begins to crowd the writing schedule.

Length of series: Even if I write ahead, the various models end up the same beginning with book 10, so 10 books is enough for this evaluation.

Quantifying uncertainty

To analyze, you need numbers. Those numbers have enormous uncertainty associated with them. Tinkering with the parameters will give you an idea about the sensitivity of the results to the initial setting. Since I'm only interested in the comparative results of different plans, using the same parameters will help cancel out the uncertainty.

SeriesCalcAssumptionsI've tried to lowball all the parameters. They are laid out on the right of the spreadsheet.

Book 1 sells 50 units the first month.

If the next release is a month later, then Book 1 will sell 50*1 more units. If it's two months later, then 50*.5 more units each month, and if three months later, then 50*.25 more units for each of the three months. A series with rapid releases might expect more momentum than this, but I didn't want to build that into the model.

All of the rest of the series sells as a percentage of Book 1. These numbers are based on stable data from my shorter series and there's no way to tell if they are good predictors or not for a long series. Popular series have the potential for much higher sell-through (else why write volume 17 of a long-running series), but I wanted to keep this very modest.

You can see that if these parameters are correct, then a person who buys book 1 of a 5 book series is 60% likely to buy book 2, and (on average) likely to buy 1.5 more books altogether in the series (150%).

Release Plans

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If I begin writing in November 2016, then Book 1 should be ready for release in February, 2017. Releasing each book as it comes out is what Plan F on the right models.

In each case, you can see the cumulative units of Book 1, and the total cumulative units for all books in the series, according to the assumptions.

The possible models are constrained by my writing speed. Obviously I can begin to release books before writing the 10th one, but eventually, in all of these models, I will catch up, at book 9 if not before. I chose not to start releasing any later than January of 2018 for any of these models, out of concern for going a year without new publications. That extreme is in Plans A and D.

This set of numbers matches the above parameters. Let's see what it looks like as a graph.

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The baseline is Plan F (do nothing — publish as each book is ready). You can see the rapid ramp up of Plans A & B which do a 1-per-month release for as long as they can until they catch up to the writing schedule. Plan C is a modification of that — release every two months as long as you can. Plan E catches up to the writing schedule too early and joins the baseline.

What happens if we tinker with the assumptions? Let's penalize the every-3-month release by having it reduce the growth of Book 1 (growth for 3-month gap is only .1 instead of .25).

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That makes a big difference. The plans which can get books out sooner than every three months suddenly look good. Of course, the faster they release them, the sooner they catch up to the writing schedule and parallel the baseline. Plan C (a pure every 2 months) and Plan D (a hybrid – start late and do every month, then every 2 months) look a lot better.

What happens if go back to the first set of assumptions and add 5% to each of the book's series uptake (in other words, make book 3's uptake 45% instead of 40%)?

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Why, nothing at all. The absolute number of units goes up, but the relative positions of the plans are unchanged. The models are not sensitive to the assumptions about series uptake quantities. Good to know.

Since Plan C keeps coming out on top by book 7, let's see how sensitive that is to the assumptions of the every-2-month release by having it reduce the growth of Book 1 (growth for 2-month gap is only .25 instead of .5, and the 3-month gap is .1 instead of .25). (Another way of saying your readers sure forget you when a new book isn't coming out.)

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Another big difference. Now the plans that emphasize an every-month release soar past the every-2-months Plan C. So your weights in the parameters for how many new units you get for book 1 when new books come out, or when that skips a month or two, are very important.

Here's the spreadsheet — go play.

AFFIN-BookReleaseSchedule

Other benefits and costs

There are other considerations than just the comparison of these or other models.

Benefits

You can easily organize pre-orders.

You can generate lots of pre-release buzz.

You can get pre-release reviews and advertising

Costs

A year without release causes all book sales to diminish. Do you lose more than you gain? Is the difference between Plan F (baseline) and your chosen plan smaller than the possible lower sales everywhere else for the year?

What if you stop the series early, for any reason? Check where the lines cross on the various models. Remember, you don't have to stick with just one plan — you can adjust it as you go along.

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4 Comments

  1. Eleanor
    Eleanor

    I understand that you cannot build readers’ preferences into your model, but here is how I approach series.

    If it is an author I am not familiar with, I wait until all books are published. I have been burnt by good series that never finish (Lorna Freeman’s Covenants comes to mind).

    If it is an author that I really like, I tend to grit my teeth and buy and wait impatiently. I did that with your George Talbot Traherne books.

    I will not start a series in the middle. And I have no compunction abandoning a series that I don’t like.

    August 12, 2016
    |Reply
    • I pretty well agree with all of that as a reader, myself, though I will sometimes start an uncompleted series. Cautiously. I especially agree with the last line — no exceptions about starting a series in the middle.

      (I was sorry there was a delay getting the fourth book of The Hounds of Annwn out (Bound into the Blood), but I was still trying to settle into this new career of writing. Still am…)

      Since I can’t write them any faster than I can write them, the only thing the strategy above does is inconvenience those readers (unlike us) who DO start uncompleted series who would have to wait to start the first books until I have a few lined up. It does build up some momentum with them, though. My sales of The Chained Adept series are very different from The Hounds of Annwn, and I’m convinced that a lot of it is the constant reminder in the “just published” lists of first book 1, then book 2, and now book 3 — all in seven months. (Aiming to get the 4th and final book out in October).

      If I consistently avoided uncompleted series, I would never have read the Travis McGee books by John D MacDonald as they came out, and what a shame that would have been. 🙂 This series under discussion (The Affinities of Magic) is like that, or any other long-standing mystery series, not like the conventional trilogy or tetrology — at least that’s my goal. With that in mind, I hope that giving people the first several books on, say, an every two months basis will reconcile them to a more normal every three to four months as the series continues.

      God knows it’s better than the once per year releases of the trad publishing world.

      I don’t like delaying the release of books in general (for the sake of my readers) but for a series that hasn’t been released at all yet, I can take the point of view that they don’t know what they’re missing (yet) so no one is harmed.

      That’s if I end up doing this release strategy at all… I haven’t firmly decided yet. I know how it will crater my current sales for a year before the first one comes out, and it’s hard not to find that depressing. And depression is a killer for getting the wordcount up.

      In the end, it’s an experiment. One of the great things about the indie world is that you can do experiments.

      August 12, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Eleanor
    Eleanor

    Travis McGee stories, like the Peter Shandy mysteries that I am currently reading, (or Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple for that matter) tend to be the continuing adventures of a particular character. Each story has a definite ending. The next book is a different story, even though some of the characters are the same (and may change and grow over time). You could have left To Carry the Horn as a stand alone, but the other books in that series are more closely bound together (IMO). It sounds like your more frequent release schedule for The Chained Adept is helping sales. I am glad to hear that. Sarah Hoyt has also pointed to the same phenomena.

    I am also looking forward to The Affinities of Magic especially after that teaser of a chapter (several months ago). You have a knack for writing sympathetic characters.

    August 19, 2016
    |Reply
  3. This is a great bit of research that lends an air of authority to what I’ve noted myself. I have a 9 book mystery series out with a 10th due for release by the end of the month. I was releasing a book I also have 2 books of a new series out with a third to come out in a few months…so long because I have the follow up to a stand-alone romance novel coming out in early/mid February. My experience with the primary series has been that every 2 months definitely worked best. Unfortunately, life got in the way last year and I haven’t released anything new since October.

    The books in both of my mystery series stand alone but the main characters in the 9/10 book set have evolved and grown significantly. I pick up new readers all of the time, most of whom start at book one. The other series that stands at 2 books has the same two main characters but those books stand far more alone and they were a year apart in release. They’ve been a much tougher sell even though those who’ve read them, seem to love them. I definitely would have benefited from waiting until I had 3 or more books done in that series and it’s in the plans to do at least 2 in 2017. As we get into the 2nd half of the year and I have significantly more writing time, I may step that up. Your research confirms what my experience shows. More, released no more than a couple of months apart is better!

    Thank you for this. The insight is very helpful.

    January 15, 2017
    |Reply

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