A mystery novelist who was published by a small house recently sent the following email:
My first book was published by a small press. I hoped it would be
the first of a series and the publisher wanted to do the second book.
Unfortunately, about the time I finished the second book, the
publisher went out of business. I queried a large number of agents
with very little luck. Finally, I talked to a writing consultant
who'd had experience in the publishing industry and she told me that
publishers are often reluctant to pick up second books in a series.
She suggested changing the main character, or at the very least,
changing her name. An agent about it gave me similar advice.
Finally, I raised the issue with an editor at St. Martins. Her
response was, "We just picked up Barbara Seranella." (This was
before her death.) I said that Seranella was a superstar and did she
know of any non-superstars whose series were picked up by another
publisher. She couldn't name any.
I did take the advice of the consultant and the agent. I changed my
protagonist (more than just her name) and was pleased with the
result. I eventually found an agent to represent it. However, the
change wasn't easy. I'd had a lot invested in that character--a half
dozen short stories in addition to the novel. The only explanation I
had was that publishers don't like to take on an on-going series
because they don't know how much of the market has been used up. Is
there something to that? Is there any future for my abandoned
character? I know other authors who are facing similar situations,
i.e. have a series with a small press and, for one reason or another,
want to take their series to a different publisher. Are they likely
to have to abandon their series and start a new one?
Here are my thoughts on this question. Keep in mind, as always, that no two people in this industry think exactly alike.
Editors/publishers really have two desires when it comes to acquisitions: financial and artistic. On the financial side, our jobs and reputations are very much tied in to finding and publishing books that sell. It's always easier to sell a book by someone who's already very well known, which is the reason why the big names get the biggest advances (most of the time). For purely monetary reasons, we'll sign this or that celebrity or sports figure, expecting that sales will follow (and they often do). Judith Regan, late of HarperCollins/Regan Books, had an amazing talent in this regard (though certainly she had a number of well-documented drawbacks). Judith cared about selling books, and selling a lot of them. Her opinions and tastes didn't come into play much when she made her publishing decisions. And Regan Books did make a boatload of money, at least by publishing standards.
On the creative side--the side that most of us went into this business for--there's nothing more exciting and rewarding than finding someone brand new, then helping guide him or her onto the best seller lists (which can take as little as a year or as much as a couple of decades). We are remembered and honored in the business for the authors we've found.
This may seem a bit off the topic, but it actually gets at the answer to your question. An author who's already been published--but without resounding financial success--does not help satisfy either one of the editor's two primary motivations. First, you don't have the numbers to warrant continued investment. Second, since you've already been discovered by another editor, you're not going to offer editors at new houses anything new or exciting, which means you won't be fulfilling their creative needs either. Picking up an author with minor to modest sales is a bit like buying used clothing that you like but don't love.
This may be tough for writers to hear, especially those who've invested a lot of time in creating a character. If you are writing as a hobby, then by all means write multiple manuscripts starring the same character. But if I were a writer just starting out, I wouldn't paint myself into a corner with one particular character. First, I think that's quite limiting for a writer. Second, when I get queries along the lines of "This is the first in my series; I have five others already written" I wonder about the writer's understanding of the realities of modern publishing. Also, ask yourself if your series character is really your alter ego. While that works for some writers, I personally find such characters to be little more than therapy in the form of a manuscript. An excellent series character is not about you--it's about connecting with your readers. (Consider one of my favorite examples, Mma Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith's books. Though they may share certain beliefs or a certain way of looking at the world, Precious is not Alexander.)
This is not to say that series are never picked up by other houses. For instance, one small press that I can think of -- Perseverance Press -- has a mission statement of picking up midlist authors who've been dropped by other houses, but who sell enough books to warrant continued investment (mostly because of the smaller press's more forgiving cost structure). But you have to have really decent sales somewhere else. One or two thousand copies isn't enough. I personally would not even think of picking up a previously published author unless his/her books have sold a minimum of six or seven thousand copies each. (Note that I don't know Perseverance's exact policy on this, so you may want to look into it further. I will say, though, that I have heard great things about the editorial staff there.)
All of this is to say that you are facing a tough battle. If you really love your character, keep trying. But if I were in your situation, I'd look for someone and something fresh, modern, and interesting. A character you conceive of today is going to be fundamentally different than one you started writing about ten years ago. Editors can sense an old manuscript, character, or idea within the first chapter, no matter how much the book has been updated before submission.