The 1-2(-3) Punch: Publishing and Promoting a Trilogy of Books
Trilogies are one of the most tried-and-true series structures in storytelling. Not only do they lure us in with the familiar structure of beginning, middle, and end, but they provide enough space for you to weave intricate plot lines and character arcs together.
And they don’t run the risk of going on for so long that the story becomes dry or too convoluted. Most of the time, anyway.
For authors, whether you’re focusing on only storytelling or making a living from your writing, trilogies are a powerful tool. So it only helps you, one of those said authors, to understand the ins and outs of publishing and promoting a trilogy.
Getting a comprehensive grasp of trilogies isn’t as easy as 1, 2, 3, though. Which means we’re going to get down and dirty with the deets in this article, including:
- Understanding trilogy structure better
- Best practices for creating a trilogy of stories
- A pre-publishing checklist
- Choosing your best publishing route
- Marketing yourself and your series
- Measuring success
Like I said, not that simple. But that’s why you’re here! It doesn’t matter whether you’re planning a trilogy out or are in the middle of one of the books in it, I’m going to set you up for triple success* by the time you’re done with this article.
*Note: Tragically I can’t promise you’ll triple your sales because, unfortunately, “triple success” is just an admittedly okay joke. However, understanding the info laid out in this guide will put you leagues above most authors who don’t approach their three-book series with intentionality and understanding. Let’s get started.
Trilogies in Creative Writing
When it comes to writing fiction, you have a lot of options: short stories, novellas, standalone novels, sequels, never-ending series, and even epic literary universes spanning multiple series.
Nestled in there is the familiar, loveable, and time-tested trilogy.
Offering a balance between depth and breadth, the trilogy serves as a series large enough for storytellers to weave tales that captivate hearts and minds over extended arcs. There’s more to it than just “I have more words to explore,” though.
Defining a Trilogy
Before we set sail on this literary journey, we need to understand what constitutes a trilogy.
At its most basic, a trilogy is a set of three connected works, often narrating a continuous story line or exploring common themes.
Historically, the term referred to three connected tragedies penned by the same author. These tales would have been plays written for drama competitions known as the Great Dionysia from ancient Athens.
These days, any storytelling medium (novels, short stories, plays, movies, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc.) can be part of a trilogy. For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on novels.
Unlike standalone novels, trilogies allow authors to dive deep, often unfolding plots that would be too large or complex for a single book.
But why three? If you want to get a little metaphorical with it, this number has long been significant in various cultures, symbolizing unity, progression, and finality.
For a more practical approach, combining three stories in fiction provides a beginning, middle, and end, offering a complete narrative experience over the course of a much larger tale. The three-act structure is by far the most common storytelling format, whether you’re writing or speaking.
Trilogies are like a really big three-act structure, and each act is a comprehensive and entertaining story.
The Allure of the Trilogy Format
There's an inherent magic to trilogies. They lure readers in with the promise of a journey—one that’s more extended and layered than singular narratives.
Trilogies also ensure sustained reader engagement. The anticipation of a subsequent installment keeps your audience hooked. Cliffhangers, plot twists, and evolving character arcs across three books sink your hooks into your readers and keep them coming back for more.
From an author's perspective, trilogies can be liberating. The extended format offers the freedom to experiment with subplots, flesh out secondary characters from a previous book, and even challenge or subvert established conventions without feeling the constraints of wrapping everything up too quickly.
Challenges of Writing a Trilogy
Yet, as with any grand endeavor, trilogies come with their own set of challenges. The narrative consistency across three books, evolving yet maintaining core character traits, and managing reader expectations can be daunting.
The middle book, in particular, often bears the brunt of criticism. It's a bridge that can the freshness of a beginning and the resolution of an end. I mean, we call it the “sagging middle” of any story, and a trilogy is just a big story filled with three smaller ones.
Crafting this mid-segment requires a delicate balance to ensure it stands strong on its own while bridging the first and last books together.
On top of that, the longer readers spend in a fictional universe, the more attached they become. This deep connection can be a double-edged sword, though.
While it guarantees engagement, it also means that any perceived missteps in character development or plot progression can lead to heightened criticism. You’re asking your readers to commit their time and attention three-fold, so their expectations are much higher.
Crafting a Cohesive Vision
While the trilogy format offers ample space for narrative exploration, it's important you have a cohesive vision.
Before pen touches paper (or fingers touch keyboards), chart out the major milestones of your story across the three books. While your roadmap will evolve, it’s a disservice to your readers to think you can stumble your way through a trilogy.
Without some sort of planning, you’re not using the full strength that writing a three-part series can offer. We’ll discuss some best practices for planning a trilogy in a moment, but here are some things to keep in mind for now:
Central to a trilogy’s success is its characters. They're the ones pushing the story forward, after all.
Plan their journey meticulously. How will they evolve across three books? How does each individual book change them? What trials will they face, and how will these challenges reshape them?
Arcs are important to add the why behind your characters’ decisions, too. This is especially important if your kind, wholesome character in book one is a tyrannical dictator in book three… or, you know, something less drastic.
Themes act as the underlying binds that hold your trilogy together. Whether you're exploring love, betrayal, sacrifice, or redemption, you want your themes to carry from one story to the next.
This could mean twisting the theme on its head, too. If your first novel highlights the importance of trust, how devastating will it be (for your characters and readers) when that trust is broken and your second book explores themes of pain and betrayal?
Finally, with all the extra space trilogies give you to play around with, you want to make sure you aren’t stuffing these books with things that don’t matter.
Sure, it might be interesting to know about a side character’s backstory, but what does it add to the main plot? It could be better kept for a short story you share with your email list.
When you decide to write a trilogy, you’re embarking on a journey that is as rich as it is complex. Stories unfurl naturally, characters become lifelong friends and enemies, and your themes leave a mark on your readers.
If you do it right.
Writing and Completing Your Trilogy
So you've got this expansive canvas and are ready to fill it with twists, turns, heroes, and perhaps a villain or two. But where to start? More importantly, how to finish? Let’s dive in.
Starting Strong, but Not Too Strong
Ever attend a party where someone makes a grand entrance (or, more realistically, seen a movie where this has happened), and you just know they’re going to be the life of the event? That’s your first book. But here's the catch—you don’t want it to overshadow the rest of the party.
Your opening book should grab attention, introduce the core conflicts, and set the tone, but save some of the best tricks for the later acts. Remember, it's about setting the stage, not stealing the show.
Here are five tips for nailing the first book in a trilogy:
1. First impressions matter - Your opening scenes should captivate. Introduce the central conflict early on and ensure it's intriguing enough to carry the weight of three books.
2. Character foundations - While characters will evolve, it's essential to establish their core traits, values, and motivations. Readers should have a clear idea of who they're rooting for (or against) so you can give them compelling arcs throughout the rest of the books.
3. Worldbuilding with depth - Whether it's a contemporary setting or a fantastical universe, weave in cultural, historical, and social nuances. Make your world feel lived-in from the get-go.
4. Plant seeds for future conflict - While the primary conflict is front and center, drop subtle hints or plant seeds for challenges that will arise in books two and three.
5. End with a promise - The finale of your first book should wrap up immediate conflicts but leave enough unanswered questions or new challenges to promise more excitement ahead.
Middle Book Blues… or Not
Our dear middle child, the second novel, is the often overlooked segment of a trilogy. It's like the Wednesday of a workweek—far enough from the start to lose some freshness, yet not close enough to the weekend to feel the thrill.
But just like a Wednesday can surprise you with unexpected joys, your second book can (and should) be captivating.
This is where subplots become your best friend. Introduce fresh challenges after those of your previous book, but make sure they tie into the bigger picture. Perhaps a character from book one, previously on the sidelines, steps into the limelight with their own mini-arc. Or an old conflict resurfaces in a new guise, reminding readers of the stakes.
The second book in the trilogy is filling a different role than the first, so here are five things to keep in mind:
1. Reintroduce with care - Start by gently reminding readers of key events from the first book without a full-blown recap. A brief flashback or a character's reflection can do the trick. We don’t need an info-dump summarizing the first book.
2. Elevate secondary characters - Now's the time to delve into subplots. Secondary characters from the first book can take on larger roles, offering fresh perspectives and added depth.
4. Avoid the middle book slump - The second book in the series should not merely serve as a bridge. Introduce a self-contained conflict or challenge that complements the overarching narrative. Remember, this needs to be an excellent story in its own right.
5. Set the stage for the climax - By the end of the second book, readers should be on the edge of their seats, clearly seeing the stakes and eager for the resolution that the third book promises.
The Grand Finale: Stick the Landing
It's one thing to keep readers engaged for one book, but by the third? They’re not just engaged—they're invested. They've cheered, cried, and probably yelled at the pages (and you, by proxy).
So the third book? It's where you pay it all off.
But here’s the tricky part: while you’re tying up loose ends from the previous book, avoid making everything too neat. Life’s messy, and your trilogy should reflect that. Give resolutions but leave some questions open, some futures uncertain. It not only feels more genuine but also leaves room for readers to dream up their own continuations.
Book three is where it all comes together, so we want to make sure we get this one right. Here are five tips to help with that:
1. Start with momentum - Dive in with energy. Remind readers of the stakes and jump into the action or conflict that will drive this final installment.
2. Character arc culmination - By now, your characters have grown (or descended) and evolved. Make sure their arcs reach satisfying conclusions that are true to their journeys throughout the trilogy.
3. Tie up loose ends, but not all - Address major plot points, but leaving a few mysteries or questions can make your world feel more real and alive. Don’t leave major plot points unresolved, though. Ever.
4. The climactic peak - Ensure the climax of your story doesn't just resolve the third book's conflicts but feels like a genuine culmination of the entire trilogy's journey.
5. Epilogue with care - If you choose to include an epilogue, use it to give readers a glimpse into the future of the world or characters they've grown to love. It's your final farewell, so make it memorable.
Trilogy-Wide Writing Tips
While those cover some specifics of each individual book, trilogies aren’t just three stories. They’re a set! Which means there is a bigger picture you need to look at.
Here are some tips to help you throughout your entire trilogy.
Character Consistency and Growth
Characters are your trilogy's heartbeat. They've been through the wringer—three times, when all is said and done—and as they move towards the trilogy's climax, they need to remain consistent at their core.
But remember, consistency doesn't mean stasis. If your timid protagonist from book one is leading an army by book three, there better be a compelling journey justifying that change.
And it's not just about the big moments. The little things—quirks, habits, phrases they use—help cement character identity. Consistency in these tiny details reinforces authenticity.
To Plan or Not To Plan?
There's a long-standing debate in the writing community: Are you a planner or a pantser? That is, do you plot out every detail before starting, or do you dive in and see where the story takes you?
For trilogies, a hybrid approach might be your golden ticket. Have a broad roadmap for where you're heading across all three books, but leave enough open spaces to let the story breathe and evolve organically.
Because sometimes, midway through book two at 2 a.m., inspiration might strike in the most unexpected way.
On the other hand, you don’t want to end up in the middle of book three and find you’ve “explored” your way into a plot hole back in book one.
Develop a Writing Habit
While having three books to explore your characters, themes, and plots is great, it doesn’t come without its difficulties. Namely, the fact that you’re writing three entire books.
If you’re writing in a genre like fantasy, this could mean more than 500,000 words by the time you’re done. Even in other genres, you’re likely looking at over 200,000 words, conservatively.
That takes a long time. It can take some people a decade. But the best trilogy writers (which could include you!) know that crafting a series requires writing every day, even when you don’t feel inspired, to create a habit that sticks.
When the Ink Dries, Celebrate, Then Reflect
Completing a trilogy is no small feat. It's an Everest in the literary world. So, when you pen that final sentence, take a moment. Celebrate. Bask in it.
Then, after the champagne or coffee (or both?), sit back and reflect. What worked? What didn't? What would you do differently? Each trilogy, each book, each page is a step in your journey as a writer. Cherish the lessons, and carry them forward.
Crafting a trilogy is a marathon, not a sprint. It's an exercise in patience, consistency, evolution, and love—lots of it. From the first word of the first book to the last period of the third, remember why you started this journey.
Hold onto that passion, let it guide your pen, and trust that your readers will feel it in every page they turn.
Pre-Publishing Checklist for Your Trilogy
Launching a trilogy is no small endeavor. You've invested countless hours in crafting a compelling narrative across three distinct books. Now, before your work graces the shelves (physical or virtual), there's a crucial phase every author must navigate: the pre-publishing process.
This process ensures your trilogy doesn't just captivate with its content but shines in presentation, consistency, and professionalism.
Check out our pre-publishing checklist below that’s tailored for trilogies to ensure a smooth transition from manuscript to masterpiece. Note that some publishing paths (which we’ll discuss in the next section) will accomplish some of these tasks for you.
1. Revise, revise, revise - Once your draft is completed, it’s on you to revise your novel and make it as close to perfect as you can. This process might involve beta readers once you’ve polished it as much as possible.
2. Comprehensive editing - Begin with a developmental edit focusing on plot consistency across all three books. Follow with line editing, concentrating on sentence structure, grammar, and style.
Editing a trilogy is a layered process. Ensure your editor understands the interconnected narrative and character arcs spanning three books. Since you’ll likely be releasing books before the last one is written, this involves dialogue with and understanding from your editor.
3. Meticulous proofreading - Once editing is complete, proofread each book for any lingering typos or errors. I strongly advise hiring a professional, as we all miss our own mistakes.
4. Trilogy book covers - Consistency is key here. Your trilogy should have a unified visual identity. Whether it's a recurring symbol, consistent typography, or a shared color palette, make sure there's a clear visual connection between the book covers.
Cohesive trilogy book covers can significantly boost brand recognition and convey the interconnected nature of your stories. Given the importance of first impressions, it's worth investing in a professional cover designer familiar with trilogies or series.
Unless you have years of experience in graphic design in your specific genre, there is someone out there who can make a better cover that will sell more copies.
5. Interior layout and formatting - Ensure a consistent layout across all books, keeping font types, chapter headings, scene break images, and margins uniform.
6. Consistent branding across supplementary materials - If you have promotional materials like bookmarks, postcards, or posters, ensure they align with the trilogy's branding.
7. Back cover synopsis - Craft compelling, concise blurbs for each book that entice readers while maintaining a consistent tone.
8. ISBN and barcoding - Secure an ISBN for each book in your trilogy, ensuring proper tracking and distribution. Laws regarding this vary by country, so check your government’s page on ISBNs.
9. Pre-launch reviews - Before release, send advance reader copies (ARCs) to bloggers, reviewers, and influencers in your genre. Feedback can build early buzz. Remember to get consent before bombarding them with your work, and consider using a paid service to connect with ARCs if your budget allows.
10. Distribution channels - If self-publishing, decide whether to go exclusive with platforms like Amazon's KDP or to distribute widely through multiple channels.
11. Finalize your launch strategy - Plan your release dates. Will you launch all books simultaneously or stagger their releases?
Choosing the Right Publishing Route for Your Trilogy
Okay, let’s say you have the first book in your trilogy—or even all three!—ready to go. You have a difficult choice to make: how are you going to publish it?
Navigating the complex world of book publishing can be daunting, especially when you have a trilogy on your hands. The paths to publishing can primarily be categorized into traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid routes.
Making an informed decision about which route to pursue can spell the difference between your trilogy's success or obscurity. We have a bunch of articles over at DabbleU about these different publishing paths that I encourage you to check out.
For this article, here are some pros and cons of each option.
- Professional assistance - From editing and cover design to marketing and distribution, everything is taken care of by the publishing house.
- Advance payment - Authors might receive an upfront payment before book sales even begin.
- Industry recognition - Being traditionally published can offer greater recognition and opportunities for awards.
- Loss of rights - The publishing house often obtains the rights to your trilogy, which might limit how you can use or adapt your work in the future.
- Lower royalties - While you might get an advance, your royalty rates per sale will generally be lower than self-publishing.
- Longer timeline - The process from manuscript acceptance to bookshelf can take years.
- Full control - You maintain all rights and have final say over content, cover design, and marketing decisions.
- Higher royalties - You earn a more substantial percentage from each sale, sometimes up to 70% on indie author platforms like Amazon's KDP.
- Flexible timeline - You decide the pace and can release your trilogy however you see fit. That said, the less time in between books in a series, the better.
- Upfront costs - From professional editing to book cover design, all expenses are on you.
- Marketing challenges - Without the backing of a publishing house, you're responsible for promoting your trilogy.
- Steeper learning curve - You must navigate all aspects of publishing, from formatting to distribution channels.
- Professional assistance with flexibility - Hybrid publishing combines aspects of both traditional and self-publishing. You'll receive professional services while retaining more control over your work.
- Shared investment - While you might shoulder some costs, the hybrid publisher also invests in your trilogy's success.
- Varying terms - Not all hybrid publishers operate the same way. Some might offer better terms than others.
- Potential for lower royalties - Depending on your agreement, you might earn less than self-publishing but more than traditional routes.
A Word of Caution: I can’t overstate how vigilant you have to be when navigating the hybrid publishing landscape. Some predatory hybrid publishers might promise the world but deliver very little, all while charging exorbitant fees. Always conduct thorough research, ask for testimonials, and perhaps consult with other authors before committing.
Whether you opt for traditional, self, or hybrid publishing routes for your trilogy, each path offers its own set of advantages and challenges. Your decision should be influenced by your personal goals, resources, and how much control you wish to maintain.
Marketing and Promoting Your Trilogy
With your stories ready to enchant readers, your next step is getting the word out. Book marketing for trilogies requires a nuanced approach, leveraging the interconnectedness of your series to hook readers and carry them through the entire series.
Here are a handful of proven book marketing tactics for your trio of stories.
Book launches - Your trilogy's launch is pivotal. Consider staggered launches where the anticipation built from the first book can fuel the excitement for the subsequent ones. Capitalize on launch parties, virtual or in-person, where you can interact with your audience on the new publication date.
Author website - Develop a central hub for your series and work. An author website should contain synopses, character profiles, sneak peeks, and direct purchase links. This will be your main platform to engage with readers and update them on upcoming releases or events, so be sure to ask for email addresses when people visit.
Social media - Utilize platforms like X (Twitter), Instagram, and Facebook to share updates, snippets, and engage directly with readers. Creating hashtags specific to your trilogy or hosting Q&A sessions can boost visibility.
Book reviews & author interviews - Encourage readers to leave reviews. These are the best pieces of social proof that can significantly influence potential readers. Meanwhile, author interviews, whether on podcasts, blogs, or YouTube channels, give you a chance to discuss your trilogy's themes, characters, and inspirations.
Book tours - If feasible, organize book signings or participate in book fairs and conventions. Meeting readers in person can leave a lasting impact and foster a dedicated readership.
Author platform development - Engage regularly with your audience through newsletters, blog posts, or exclusive content. Providing insights into your writing journey or discussing trilogy-related topics can bolster your presence.
Fanbase building - Organize contests, giveaways, or fan art competitions. Celebrate your readers by sharing their reviews or creations and foster a community around your trilogy.
Leveraging Trilogy Marketing Trends
Trilogies just keep showing off even after you’ve written them. These three-part series bring some unique marketing abilities to the table once you’ve published them.
Think about some of these trilogy-specific book marketing tactics:
Audiobook adaptations - With the rising popularity of platforms like Audible and Storytel, converting your trilogy into an audiobook series can access a broader, often untapped, audience.
Box sets - Once all three books are published, consider offering a digital or physical box set. Not only does this appeal to collectors, but it also offers fans a chance to own the entire trilogy, often at a discounted price, which can boost sales and attract new readers.
Expanding the universe - If your trilogy has been well-received, think about writing additional standalone books or spin-offs set in the same universe. It's an opportunity to capitalize on the world you've already built, and loyal readers will appreciate the chance to revisit a world they love.
Case Study: The success of the Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo didn't end with the original three books. The Grishaverse expanded with related series and standalone novels, proving that a beloved universe can spawn multiple successful stories.
While it's driven by passion, evaluating your trilogy's impact in the market is essential. You’ve put all this effort in and, even if you aren’t looking to make being an author a big part of your career, it deserves to succeed.
Here are some metrics for measuring your trilogy’s success.
Book sales - Regularly monitor sales across different platforms. This will not only help identify which marketing strategies are most effective but also show the trajectory of your trilogy's popularity.
Reviews & feedback - Beyond the sales numbers, qualitative feedback in reviews can offer insights into what aspects of your trilogy resonate most with readers.
Readthrough rates - An essential metric for authors, especially of series or trilogies, is the readthrough rate. Typically, the most significant drop-off occurs between the first and second books.
Reader engagement metrics - Regularly check website visits, newsletter open rates, and social media engagement. These metrics are not just numbers but a reflection of the strength of your bond with your readers.
The First Step to Any Trilogy: Write Your Book
I’m going to keep this wrap-up brief, because you have a lot of words to write, revise, format, publish, and promote, right?
The very first step to writing your trilogy is to write a great book. Then you do it again. And again.
But writing a great book isn’t that easy. Luckily, we have hundreds of articles just like this one over at DabbleU for you to check out.
Even better, you can click here to get a free, 100+ page e-book on writing your first draft. All yours for absolutely zero dollars and zero cents.
And all that’s left is to go write. So get writing!
Book marketing. Those two innocuous words instill fear and loathing into the hearts of so many writers. You just want to write your books and have them sell themselves. Why do you have to tell people about it? Well, Susan, because you do. I know you want to write, but if your goal is to write, publish, and make money from your books, then you’re going to have to find a way to make them visible. Thousands of new titles are uploaded to Amazon every single day. Millions of books are being published every year, and no matter how good your story is, without marketing, there’s not much chance very many people will find it.
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
Dystopian fiction is one of the darker subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. It takes us into dark, foreboding worlds, where oppression and bleak landscapes are the norm. Books like 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley have become classics that shine a light on political corruption, environmental disaster, and societal collapse.Why do we love these stories? Maybe it's because dystopian fiction allows us to explore worst-case scenarios, to grapple with the idea that the world we know and love could be lost forever. It's a way for us to confront our fears and anxieties about the future, to see what could happen if we continue down a certain path.