What’s Your Third Book?

At some point, whenever I speak with an un-published author I will ask the question, “What is your third book?”

The purpose of the question is to elicit a response to get an idea if the author is interested in being a professional author or simply publishing a book.

Those are different goals entirely.

Agents mostly represent professional authors, not books. Agents are “in this” for the long term so we look for authors who are as well. You can understand how someone trying to get a book published with no plans or ideas for what happens next will find it difficult to find an agent, much less a publisher.

So, what is your third book? The question is intended to uncover your strategy. Your second book might be relatively easy to determine, but book #3 takes some thought.

The first time I encountered the implications of this was about 25 years ago when an author wrote a book, which sold pretty well. So well, in fact, the publisher offered a multi-book contract for subsequent titles.

The author could not deliver book two. For the life of them, they only had the one idea. They burned off all their thinking in the first book.  Re-shuffling chapters and re-stating concepts from book #1 did not constitute a new work.

After some time, the book contract was cancelled and advance money repaid.

It was painful for everyone.

If the author and publisher had thought about a third book, they probably could have determined rather quickly there was no second book.

So how do you develop a writing strategy? First, you need to know what it is not.

It is not a test of your creative ability.

It is not a test of your writing ability.

It is not a test of your value of your message.

Developing an extendable writing strategy so you can write more than one book is a function of whether you know who you are and where your limits are drawn.

You know your own unique approach.

You have an audience in mind.

You have a core message in everything you do.

You’ve all heard something about developing a brand. One of the “dark” sides for creative people of developing a brand is the concept of intentionally limiting creativity. Brands are the creative boundaries you stay within.

You cannot become well known for something unless you are known for something.


It seems counter-intuitive, but creativity flourishes inside boundaries. Outside the boundary are random thoughts and confusing plots. Structure provides clarity for the author and the reader. It is similar to knowing the size of canvas you are painting.

So, here’s how to determine your book three (because book two is comparatively simple):

  1. Accept your unique approach – I worded it this way intentionally to use the word “accept.” You know what your unique style is, but the creative lobe in your brain fights it. You are a researcher, an explorer, an encourager, and a forgiver you know who you are. It could be the exercise of your God-given spiritual gift in writing. If you know your spiritual gifts, you know your creative approach. Easier said than done, but not impossible. If your dominant spiritual gifts are teaching and encouragement, then this is your unique writing approach…to teach and encourage. Accept it, don’t fight it.
  2. Accept the fact you probably have one primary core message – this is actually quite liberating. Much of publishing is writing the same core message to different audiences. Once you accept you have one core message, accept the challenge of communicating the same thing to different people. The vast majority of authors will publish three or fewer books in their lifetime. Accept the reality your author-window is relatively brief and highly focused.
  3. Accept the fact you will be limited – unless you are a one-in-a-million writer (or self-published) you will not be known for writing novels, narrative non-fiction, cookbooks, text books, kids books, picture books and coloring books. Accept the fact you will be known for one thing…one type of writing.
  4. Accept input from others – Your first book was your idea. Probably number two was pretty much your idea. Others might heavily influence your third book. You need to make sure it fits with your unique approach and core message, but when publishing people and readers start suggesting a direction for number three, you might do well to listen. Accepting suggestions does not make you less of an author. It makes you a willing participant in communicating to others through the written word.

So, are you a professional writer (published or unpublished) or do you want to get a book published? There are more opportunities (and more agents looking for you) for the former than the latter.



27 Responses to What’s Your Third Book?

  1. April Kidwell June 21, 2016 at 4:47 am #

    If you are writing a series, does the third book need to be part of that series, or could it be a new story you are prepared to tell?

    • Dan Balow June 21, 2016 at 5:02 am #

      Every book in a series needs to be connected to the series some way. Doesn’t mean you can’t do a book outside the series, but the nature of a series is a set of books working together.

  2. Linda Riggs Mayfield June 21, 2016 at 5:14 am #

    When I was doing my research to prepare to attend my first conference, I read advice to only pitch or propose one book and do not even mention anything about a series. That didn’t seem reasonable to me then, and seems even less so after reading your post. I’ve already written two books in the series and begun the third (!) . Wouldn’t that be a plus to an agent? Thanks.

    • Dan Balow June 21, 2016 at 5:25 am #

      You don’t need to write every book in a series beforehand, but at least have an idea where things are headed. Agents and editors aren’t going to look too favorably on someone with one book and no ideas where they could go next.

  3. Loretta Eidson June 21, 2016 at 5:24 am #

    I’m presently working on book three. I have another one rolling around in my head and I’m already thinking about my next series. I love it!

  4. Judi Iverson-Gilbert June 21, 2016 at 6:22 am #

    Brilliant! Nothing terribly new. Nothing I haven’t heard before in some form. Yet these are the particular words that put truths together in a wisdom packet I can swallow and be nourished by. That’s the theme I want to run through all my books: fiction and non-fiction alike. I want to be known for discovering the words and images that connect wisdom to actionable life for my readers. Thank you!

  5. MaryAnn Diorio June 21, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    Great post, Tamela! And much needed. Thank you! I smiled because I know not only my third book, but my thirty-third! (I counted them! 🙂 In fact, I feel as though ten lifetimes are not enough to write all the stories God has placed in my heart. But I will keep moving forward, one novel at a time, and write as many as He allows me to write. Thanks again for your inspiring post.

    Blessings to you!

  6. Jennifer June 21, 2016 at 7:08 am #

    For an unpublished, not quite ready author, this was perfect timing for me. I’ve got seven separate outlines (only two are a “series”, and currently working on two different stories. Writing is both a passion and a hobby for me yet I keep a realistic outlook. This article reminds me that even unpublished, I’m still a writer.

  7. Richard New June 21, 2016 at 7:27 am #

    I’ve got at least three follow-on ideas after the first book, which is at a freelance editor’s now.

    Plus, a completely new idea unrelated to the first series to flesh out and write.

  8. Davalynn Spencer June 21, 2016 at 7:45 am #

    Dan – What a liberating post. Thank you.

  9. Barbara Tifft Blakey June 21, 2016 at 7:58 am #

    After finishing the first novel in what I hoped would become a series of three, I was given advice at a conference by a reputable agent. She recommended not writing the second novel in the series until the first had sold. As an unpublished author I thought having the second story well begun would help sell the first one. That might be true, but the agent had a point I hadn’t considered. What if the first one doesn’t sell? How does one pitch the second book in a series if the first book hasn’t sparked interest? The outlines for books two and three are ready, but not my present focus. At first it was hard to leave book two languishing in a Scrivener file, but not anymore. I’m excited about my current WIP, and see the benefit of not having all my proverbial eggs in one basket.

  10. Cecil Murphey June 21, 2016 at 8:01 am #

    Dan, I like this. May I reprint it on my blog, CecWritertoWriter.com?”
    I’d like t do it in 2 parts by making the second part the practical tips you offer.

  11. MaryAnn Diorio June 21, 2016 at 8:14 am #

    Sorry. I should have addressed this to Dan, not Tamela. Please forgive me.

    • Dan Balow June 21, 2016 at 8:17 am #


      For future reference, Tamela’s hair is longer than mine, far more blonde and we use entirely different shades of lipstick.


  12. Patricia Sawyer June 21, 2016 at 11:10 am #

    Thanks Dan for the enlightening post I have given thought to a third book, but wouldn’t think of starting it until the second was accepted.

  13. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. June 21, 2016 at 11:23 am #

    Dan, thanks for the thinking-ahead strategy. My first book is for the unexpectedly unmarried, the second one is a novel about a woman who becomes single against her will, and the third one is for the still-single.

  14. Carol Ashby June 21, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Dan, I like your emphasis on accepting one’s unique approach, both in style and in message. It’s probably harder to express what that is for fiction.

    I found getting ready for my first writer’s conference invaluable for forcing me to put my core message into words. With 4 finished and 3 in process in one series and another finished outside the series, that was easier than it would have been if I’d only written one or even two. Still, by the second book, the pattern was already there. They are all stories of difficult friendships growing into love coupled with the spiritual transformation of one of the protagonists to find faith in Christ. Without actually planning to define my brand, I discovered that I had one already defined.

    Even if someone isn’t planning to go to a writer’s conference soon, I would recommend trying to write the elements of a one-sheet: the theme of each novel (<100 words), the distinctive characteristics (<50 words), and a summary (<150 words). You may discover your natural brand, too.

    Regarding the lipstick, your photo is B&W, Dan, so we can’t use the shade to distinguish you from Tamela.

    • Dan Balow June 21, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

      With fiction, if an author writes in a process of discovery, it is different than if you started with an outline or a clear plan. Non-fiction is much more applicable to the post today.

      But even with a process of discovery, authors will probably step back from their manuscript and see their unique style and approach come through. It was simply hidden and not so obvious to them until it was typed.

      And by the way, in my photo I was wearing a special kind of balm.

  15. Yaasha Moriah June 21, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    Dan, thank you for helping me crystallize my unspoken thoughts. When I first started blogging, I resisted the idea of defining my niche. I wanted to be historical fiction writer, fantasy writer, science-fiction writer, non-fiction writer, and everything in between. It took me over four years to realize and accept that focusing on one genre or brand is a strength, not a weakness. I wish I had done it sooner.

    I definitely have more than three books in me. By your definition, I am a professional author. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Question: Does your emphasis on the third book imply that agents are more interested in series than in standalone books?

    • Dan Balow June 21, 2016 at 7:05 pm #

      Agents are more interested in authors who have more than one idea. Doesn’t have to be a series. This applies to fiction and non-fiction.

  16. Shelley R Neese June 21, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    I am stuck wondering if my one book is actually two books (115,000 words nonfiction). Is it better to give everything you have to one book or to slice it out in two books.

  17. Michael Emmanuel June 21, 2016 at 11:51 pm #

    Writing the first full-length novel hasn’t defined my brand completely. So far, I know I love prodigies, a bit of science, but it’s majorly thrillers… If there’s a core message, it’s trying to figure out the answers… I don’t know if that defines a brand or not.
    And I do have three ideas buzzing in my brain for six months running, and another series I haven’t fleshed out… Hope it all works out… Thank you for this post, Dan.

  18. Angela Mills June 22, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    I am currently writing book 3. Books 1 and 2 are yet to be published. Your #1 point really resonated with me. I write fiction, but I do have a certain approach– A style and voice that is the same in all of my books. I’m tempted to try something different, or new, but I wanted to write at least three books in the same style and see what happens. And yet it’s always in the back of my mind to try something else, basically to be a different kind of writer. This encouraged me to accept my unique style. Thank you!

  19. Phillip August 21, 2018 at 10:58 pm #

    After half way writing my second book, I soon realize that this book was going to be a series. I already had the next two books already brainstorm before I even finished my second novel. Now I’m working on my third book. Book Four is the final installment. Has this happen to anyone else?

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