Writing A Flagship Series (And Why You Should)

Last weekend I attended the Sell More Books Show Summit. In the first presentation, Author Chris Fox talked about how and why to write a flagship series.

As I listened, I realized that without knowing it I’d started what I hope will be a flagship series. The talk helped me hone in on how best to build that series (my Q.C. Davis mystery/suspense series).

If you’re hoping to make a living writing–or you want to develop long-term fans–writing this type of series can help.

The information below comes mainly from Fox’s talk, but it includes my own thoughts as well. So any errors (or inept explanations) are mine.

What Is A Flagship Series?

A flagship series is one that readers and fans (and often non-readers) know by name. Such a series is as well known as, if not more known than, its author.

Many fans read or follow only that series and not the author’s other works.

Think about the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

Most people know the name of the series even if they don’t recall the author.

Devoted fans not only read everything about Harry Potter and any related characters, many will buy Harry Potter merchandise, post about the world on social media, and see all the movies.

A lot of these fans, however, do not cross over to read Rowling’s mystery series (written under pen name Robert Galbraith), which I love just as much.

Another very well known example of a flagship series is Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Each mystery features her private eye Kinsey Milhone and begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, starting with A is for Alibi.

Elements Of A Flagship Series

Flagship series should be:

  • Well Branded

The brand should be easy to identify, as in the examples above.

Two other well-branded series are John Sandford’s “Prey” novels (each includes the word Prey in the title) and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series. Either the titles or the characters make it easy to identify that each new book belongs to the series.

This requirement is one reason my Awakening series doesn’t qualify.

While the titles are somewhat similar (The Awakening, The Unbelievers, The Conflagration, and The Illumination), I took the name from the first book in the series. I include it in sub-titles, but it isn’t otherwise recognizable the way Sandford’s Prey novels are.

Also, The Awakening is a title that’s been used far too often for other books and movies, so it’s unlikely readers will associate it only with my supernatural thrillers.

  • Long 

Fox suggests the series ultimately should include at least 1 million words. If your novels are 80,000 words long, which is about average, that would be 12.5 novels.

The idea is that the reader should become lost in the world of the books.

I think it also helps to write an open-ended series. That way you can always write another book in it if you want to.

Mystery and suspense novels focused on the same protagonist have this advantage, which is part of why I started my Q.C. Davis series. If it goes well and I still enjoy it, I can just keep writing it.

  • Designed To Create Loyal Readers

These readers not only buy each book but often publicize a flagship series for the author. They might post on social media, tell friends, buy and display merchandise, or write fan fiction.

Pluses And Minuses Of A Flagship Series

If you successfully create a flagship series, you’ll have lifelong fans.

When you write a new book in the series, readers will be eager for it and excited about it, something most authors dream of. They may even write you to hurry you on.

This demand for additional books will occur without the need to do a tremendous amount of marketing. Built-in demand makes it far easier to earn a living as a writer.

As an example, though not quite a flagship series, I did build some following for my Awakening series.

When I set the fourth and final book for preorder a month before release, I had 50 times the number of preorders as I got for The Worried Man, the first book in my new series.

The only downside I can see of a flagship series is that authors sometimes end up feeling trapped by it or get tired of writing it.

They may want to write about a different character or different world but find that readers are primarily interested only in the flagship series. Also, the longer the series runs, the more limitations there are on what they can do with the characters.

For most of us who are working on establishing and growing an author career, though, the idea of having those types of problems sounds very appealing.

Creating Reader Loyalty Through A Flagship Series

Creating a flagship series means including certain elements that help readers become and stay engaged with the series.

  • Open Loops

Open loops are questions you raise at the beginning of the series that aren’t resolved in the first book or the second or the third….

Wanting the answers keeps readers eagerly picking up the next book despite that the main plot in the current book resolves.

Fox gave the example of the television show Lost which raised numerous questions in the very first episode.

Book 1 in The Awakening Series

Many audience members watched the entire series in the hope of getting answers to those questions. (I personally felt the series didn’t resolve enough of them, but I watched faithfully the entire time.)

Another TV example of an open loop is Fox Mulder’s on-going quest to find out what happened to his sister in The X-Files.

In my Awakening Series, an open question from Book 1 was what originally caused my main character Tara’s supernatural pregnancy. That question isn’t answered until the fourth and final book.

  • Narrative Drive

Narrative drive encompasses the running plots woven throughout the series.

For example, in each of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, the crime is solved. But Stephanie’s romantic relationships remain a running subplot. For many books, she wavers between a policeman boyfriend and a strong and somewhat shady private security guy.

Wanting to see what happens next in her relationship is part of what draws readers from book to book.

  • Character Growth

Significant changes in the characters keep readers engaged.

In Harry Potter, we see Harry and his friends struggle to learn how to harness their powers. We also watch them grow from children to adolescents to young adults.

Fox noted that all the characters in a flagship series should change dramatically throughout. So the protagonist, antagonist, and side characters should all experience significant character growth.

In some series readers become nearly as invested in the side characters as they are in the protagonist. Think about the hugely successful Twilight series. Readers were Team Jacob or Team Edward.

Likewise, in the Hunger Games Trilogy, Peeta goes through radical changes in his personality, his view of the world, and his feelings for Katniss.

So what are your favorite flagship series to read?

Are you writing one yourself?

Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly

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