Question of the day

Is the sequel a phenomenon that works for crime fiction but not for other genres? So asks Suroopa Mukherjee at the Macmillan New Writers' blog. "Do readers look for continuity? I am ill at ease with the idea of a brand name. Is this a marketing strategy? But what if the author is inspired to write differently?….How do we plan out our next book? Do we write with the Imprint in mind? How do authors deal with a contrary creative impulse? Which is the common meeting ground for marketing and creative strategies? Do readers look for brand names? Are these creative constraints faced by all published authors?"

Well, that's rather a lot of questions, not just one, but they all relate to the issue of the "second novel", and whether it is advisable (not least, in order to actually be published) to continue a theme begun in a successful first book, or to go for something different?

Suroopa writes that crime fiction is well suited to the second novel as sequel because of a "central investigating character". Her novel, not crime, is Across the Mystic Shore. Her post was inspired by M. F. W. Curran's news (on his blog Muskets and Monsters) that Pan Macmillan are not going to publish his third novel, The Black Hours, because "it couldn’t be marketed as an “MFW Curran” book. It’s quite different to The Secret War, perhaps too different." The Black Hours is described by him as a "Victorian thriller", which might interest readers of this blog – in which case I recommend a visit to Muskets and Monsters to discover more – its a very engaging blog.

5 thoughts on “Question of the day

  1. A friend of mine has been trying to find a new agent. One that was interested in taking him on said he needed to be ‘rebranded’ because his other books had not sold very well. So certainly some literary agents think in these terms.
    My friend said he couldn’t believe he was hearing that- but then he is very literary. I suppose he thought it made his work sound too much like a product – which since all the best sellers are old in supermarkets these days might be very apt.

  2. You read that term “brand” so often these days. Not my cup of tea.
    I should have mentioned in my post that M Curran’s first two publshed novels (well, one published and one in the press) with Macmillans New Writers are sort of Science Fiction/Fantasy-ish from the looks of it. Then he wrote this Victorian thriller which they decided not to take. He also wrote on his blog about how the second or third (forget which) novel in his fantasy/SF series was not taken up becuase it did not feature the main characters in the sequence and did not continue the story arc. So they’ve missed out that one and moved on to the next. Interesting…..

  3. And yet James Patterson can get everything from his latest procedural to the shopping list he co-authored with his Aunty Maude published. What’s his brand?

  4. It’s an interesting debate. I’d draw a distinction between writing a ‘sequel’ (which sounds like an afterthought) and consciously setting out to write a series of linked books. I think the latter does work particularly well with crime fiction. I embarked on a series because I was attracted by the idea of balancing a fast-paced thriller plot against the slower narrative arc of the developing characters and their interactions. I’m a great fan of writers who manage to sustain that over numerous books – Reginald Hill or Ed McBain, to take two quite different examples. It’s possible to think of non-crime examples – in fantasy and science-fiction, of course, and also series like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books, or even non-genre examples like Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ series or John Updike’s Rabbit books. But they do seem less common, perhaps surprisingly so, outside the crime genre.
    As for branding, whatever that means, well, it’s not surprising that publishers and agents are keen on the idea, particularly given the growing influence of the supermarkets, as Clare points out. They’re keen to lock readers in to their particular products, and a successful series is a pretty good way of doing that. And I don’t think that applies only to individual authors. It’s also about trying to relate newer authors to established ‘brands’ through cover design – which is why crime books tend to look so ‘samey’. And many readers, if they’re fond of a given author, do look for more of the same, so it’s a reasonable commercial strategy.
    I suspect the danger is that, in constantly promoting the new J K Rowling or the new Ian Rankin, publishers sometimes forget that those past successes initially came, not from trying to replicate something else, but simply from having faith in the creativity of talented writers. Publishers can no doubt make money by copying what’s already there, but I suspect the real (commercial as well as artistic) successes will always come from left field – from Alexander McCall Smith (I bet most publishers wouldn’t have seen those as best-seller material) through Steig Larsson to David Peace.
    My own view is that, unless perhaps you’re James Patterson, writers shouldn’t worry themselves about this stuff. My own approach is just to try to write something I’d like to read, in the hope that some others will like it too. I suspect that trying to write a best seller or to second-guess the market is probably the surest route to writing unreadable rubbish. On the other hand, that might not stop it being a best-seller…

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