First up, I'd like to say that I neither particularly enjoy writing series nor reading them. Nor am I in any way telling you that you have to write one in order to succeed at self publishing. Being the kind of writer who tends to do what he wants regardless of whatever anyone else is doing (or you can substitute that for "poor"!), I have a love and hate relationship with series.
Once, many years ago, I refused to ever write a sequel. Then I wrote Tube Riders, and realised that while the story ended it was only part of a larger story, which has now been expanded into a trilogy (due for imminent release - I hope ...) with the possibility of further books in the same world. So I broke my own rule, and I chastise myself every day. However, its a cool story, and I'm hoping that finally, after two years, I might make some money from self-publishing when the next two series books come out. Then I can go back to writing standalones that no one reads ...
So I love them and I hate them. But, however you feel, there are several reasons why writing a series is a good way to be successful (read in that make sales and money), and why many self-published writers do nothing else.
1. Never underestimate the power of a sequel.
Basically, if you have a good first book, a large percentage of people will want to read the sequel. And the second sequel, and the third. Of course, if your first book is a bag of toss then it won't matter how good your sequels are. Saying that though, self-publishing is littered with one star reviews on second and third books in a series saying something along the lines of "even though the first one sucked, I bought the second/third/fifteenth to see if it got better. It didn't." Sucks to get a bad review, but you'll be several dollars richer for every muppet like this who comes along.
2. Readers love familiarity
There is a reason why millions of trad writers have recurring characters in their books, even though when you really look deeply at how that character is constructed there's often very little to set them apart from any other random person. I love a good Agatha Christie, but I've read a couple of Poirots where he doesn't show up until halfway through, and even then it's almost as an afterthought. You could replace him with any other random inspector who could do the same thing, but it wouldn't be the same and it wouldn't have the same mass appeal. It's branding. Go to your bookshelf and pick up a couple of books that have recurring characters. Try to jot down what they say or do differently to any other person, what sets them apart. For many there will be something, sure. But for others, all you've got is a name, but that's power.
3. You can work the free book system.
Amazon Select used to be a goldmine. Like everything else I've done in life I came into it after the goldrush was over, when it was about to go belly up. What used to happen was that you gave away 30,000 free copies over a few days, and while you'd get a few asshole one star reviews for your kindness you'd also a couple of thousand post-free sales because of the increased visibility. Now, you just get the asshole reviews, because Amazon has tweaked their systems so that you don't get any extra visibility at all. So on a standalone book Select is basically a waste of time, unless it's so good that people will go stumbling out into the street in the dead of night to tell people about it. However, when you have a series you can hammer that first book, or even get it set perma free (you have to publish it for free elsewhere and hope Amazon price-matches - this is what I've done with the sampler for Tube Riders) and make your money off the sequels. This is how many big selling indies are making their money.
4. You can afford to take an advertising hit.
There are few sites where you'll make money from an advertisement. Even most of the better websites are a case of pay $20, make $10 from sales, but if you have sequels you have afford to take those hits, because the sequels sales will make up for it.
5. You always have something to write about.
So, your trilogy is done and dusted. But is it? What about the prequel, or the spinoff featuring a couple of minor characters, or the new trilogy featuring the kids of the first lot of characters? When you write a series you do more than just tell a story, you build a world. And the stories you can get out of that world are infinite. And because it's connected to your first series, it has the same appeal to fans of those books. It's names and branding all over again.
So, there you are. Some reasons why writing a series can be successful. Feel free to add any more you think I've missed in the comments below.
And if you want to see how badass my own series is, download the free sampler of Tube Riders (22 chapters) here.
21st October 2013