My first blog post on this topic described the relationship between Harper Lee’s novels To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set a Watchman (2015). This post develops the subject further by describing the experience of a more recent writer.
The story goes that Charles Frazier, upon completing his first work, Cold Mountain, took it upon himself to “shop” the manuscript around to publishing houses. His hopes that one of them would agree to take on the project were dashed. Frazier gave up in frustration: he shoved the manuscript in a kitchen drawer and forgot about it.
Some time later the author’s wife came across the manuscript. She managed to convince a small press that her husband’s effort merited a look. They took a chance on it, and the rest is publishing history. Cold Mountain is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in the American South of the Civil War. It details the homeward journey of W. P. Inman, a Confederate deserter determined to reunite with Ada, the woman he loves, back in his North Carolina town.
Charles Frazier received a $100,000 advance for his book. It proved a good investment for his publisher. Published in 1997, as of 2006 some 1.6 million hardcover copies were sold of Cold Mountain, and 2.5 million paperbacks. It won the 1997 National Book Award. A film adaptation made its debut in 2003. The movie, with Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in the starring roles, was faithful to the novel.
Cold Mountain’s popularity gave its author the chance to further hone his writing chops. His Thirteen Moons (2006) depicts the social and political climate preceding and following the Cherokee Removal (1836-39), when Federal troops forced the Cherokee Nation from its ancestral homeland to Oklahoma. I classify this book as a sequel, in that it is set in the same locale as its predecessor.
The success of Frazier’s first novel saw the manuscript of Thirteen Moons auctioned for a hefty $8 million, on the basis of a one-page outline; a $3.7 million film deal followed soon afterward. The publisher set a 750,000 hard copy initial print run. All that was needed was for Thirteen Moons to rack up sales matching those of its predecessor.
The hard reality was, only half of the print run sold. The publisher lost $5.5 million on the advance paid Charles Frazier. The book had to sell 650,000 copies just to cover the advance; still more to address marketing, printing and other associated costs. No movie is forthcoming. (Frazier’s third novel, Nightwoods, which takes place in 1960s North Carolina, was published in 2012. It didn’t hold a candle to Cold Mountain either.)
Does my brief study prove that all book sequels are, by their very nature, doomed? Nah. I would, however, venture to say that one success doesn’t guarantee a string of them.