How Can You Tell if a Book Is Part of a Series or Serial?

Series or Serial? puzzleI’ve been cranky lately. For the second time in several months, I’ve picked up a book that I have enjoyed and was anxious to get to the climax of, only to find at the very end NO climax and a “to be continued” with an ad to buy the next book in the series. I’m not averse to a continuing story, I’m just not happy to find out that’s what I’ve got after I’ve read the entire book and was looking for a satisfying resolution. In checking back with the book descriptions, I did not find any clear evidence that these books were only part of the larger story. Yes, they say they’re a series; no, they don’t say you have to read them all to get the full story.

It got me to thinking that there are actually two types of series books out there. According to Wikipedia, a series will typically share a common setting, story arc and characters, for example in crime fiction, adventure or science fiction (i.e. James Bond novels). Although the books have these things in common, they do not link to each other in a chronological way. Each book can stand alone and has its own story arc that comes full circle by the time the book is done. You might choose to read others in the series, but if you don’t, you won’t miss out on a larger, overarching story.

A serial, by contrast, is when a single large work is broken up into separate installments and must be read in order and in its entirety to grasp the larger story (like Lord of the Rings). Each book depends on the one(s) before, and reading out of order or reading only a single book will only confuse and frustrate the reader.

The Evil Mastermind wrote about Series vs. Serials here.

I believe it’s the author’s job to not irritate the reader. I believe it’s the author’s job to make it very clear what the reader can expect from a book they buy. I’ve heard from other authors that they’ve seen similar discussions (and general grumpiness) in some of the forums online. We’ve even written about it here before on IU – reader response to that author’s mislabeled serial was ugly. I would sincerely hope that no authors think it’s a good idea to purposely fail to mention that the books are linked and use the cliff-hanger endings to rope readers into buying more books. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, because anything else is just cheating. No one likes a cheat.

Personally, I would love to see some standard practice in use so it would be easy to tell the difference between these two types of series. I’m not exactly sure what that would look like, but I’m certainly open to suggestions so my question to all you readers out there is: what’s the best way for an author to communicate to you that the story requires reading more than one book? What tells you the book is not a stand-alone? That’s it’s an installment? That it’s No 1, 2, or 3 in a series? What’s the giveaway that the single book you’re buying is not the end of the story? And I really hope series authors are paying attention.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

57 thoughts on “How Can You Tell if a Book Is Part of a Series or Serial?”

  1. I’m all for the idea of a “standard notation” in this and other publishing/marketing factors. However, with all the independence going around these days, I’m not sanguine about the possibility of a widely accepted language developing.
    What should shake out over the next few years is the growing awareness in serious authors of the responsibility to keep our readers informed as to what they’re getting. The tyros will continue to make mistakes, and reviewers should continue to draw everyone’s attention to them.
    A whole lot of articles like yours will help. Thanks.

    1. I think you’re right, Gordon. Since there are no “book police,” there’s no way to enforce this, but if enough readers get upset and post scathing reviews, things may change slowly. I do hope more authors will realize that they’re trading a quick one-off sale for long-lasting resentment.

  2. I totally agree. You want to know that the A plot is going to wrap up or not, even if the B plot doesn’t. Mystery series with romantic threads running through them fit this pattern. You don’t really want to read them out of order, but you could, if you only cared about the mystery. At least THAT part should end in each volume. (Personally I have minimal interest in mysteries for their own sake. I just put up with them to enjoy the slow build of an interesting relationship that is being repeatedly tested. This is also the recipe of just about every TV show I’ve ever been addicted to.)

    1. Sandra, I know what you mean. Currently I’m reading one of a large series, but I haven’t read even half of the earlier ones. I see infrequent mentions of the B plot, but not enough to put me off the A plot, which is fine. I can live with that. And, yes, I am reminded of the X-Files on TV, which alternated between the stand-alone episodes and the larger “mythology” episodes. I do enjoy the layers in stories like this, as long as I know up front that’s what it’s going to be.

  3. I read and review more than 100 books a year and nothing frustrates me more than reaching the end of the written words without a conclusion to the story. I have been so upset that I’ve taken to leaving 1 star reviews with an explanation that no matter how much I liked the work, (along with pointing out all the good things about the work) I was left upset by the marketing strategy and wanted to warn other readers before they embarked down the same frustrating journey that I’d just taken.
    Great Post!

    1. Will, you’re doing a great service by your reviews! If just one of the reviews of the books I read had an indication of this, I would have been forever grateful. Keep up the good work! And authors: pay attention!

  4. I will be launching book one soon. I am guilty of doing this very same thing. My idea for book one turned out to be too long. I am calling mine a ‘saga’. I hope that differentiates it from a series.
    Again, the cliff hangar ending is almost bringing the reader full circle-but then ripping them away at the last possible moment. This is designed to torment, but I am not trying to ‘false advertise’ from the start. I intend the audience to be aware that the saga continues before they commit to reading book 1.

    1. Lance, I have a 5 part Sci-Fi series where each book is in the neighborhood of 500 pages (150K words). While each book carries an underlying theme and cast of characters, there is a main story that concludes in each book and the books can be read out of order if that’s the way you come upon them, though I don’t recommend it. Be sure if your books are part of a serial that requires reading all of them to get to the climax, you blurb it over and over or expect some snarky remarks and bad reviews. Good luck with your work.

      1. Lance, I’m not completely convinced that calling your books a saga is enough. My take on a saga is a continuing story through generations, but to me that does not necessarily imply cliff-hangers and unresolved endings. As Will said, I would strongly encourage you to be very clear about this in your book descriptions so readers know exactly what they are getting into. Anyone else want to weigh in on sagas?

        1. Melissa, I appreciate your input. I will definitely make the ‘serialized’ nature evident. Perhaps when I complete book 2 I will combine them in an omnibus. Book 1 is 5 years in the works and I am launching in June.

        1. A few comments, Melissa. First I agree.:) With both your main post and with Will’s comments, but have a few comments to add to both.

          I think often times a series can have the characters develop over time and reading in order will allow the reader to get more out of the subtle things happening in later books, having more of the back story. But if the author gives any back story to understand what is happening to read as a standalone, then everything is copacetic.

          With a serial, not only does it need to be made clear that it is a serial to avoid having a lot of readers feel cheated, but each installment should ideally have a story arc of its own with the character hitting some kind of milestone. Sure, you can have a cliffhanger, but ideally I think that should be something new introduced – the obstacle to overcome in the next volume – not almost solving today’s problem only to have the solution yanked away. (There is an analogy to a frustrating sexual experience here, but I’ll avoid it. Or not.)

  5. I’ve seen in some book descriptions where they say it’s just the beginning and you have to read a book two, but that’s rare. I think it’s good for writers to think of their reader and indicate that the book is a serial that needs to be read as a whole.

    Though, I think this is most important with serials that have cliffhangers. Harry Potter is a serial. It’s one continuous story told over seven books. But, if you read book one, you’re not left feeling like you got robbed. It’s an entire complete story. I think that kind of serial isn’t particularly off-putting. It’s the kind where it leaves you right in the middle that readers think, “This is just plain mean” and get mad.

    1. I like endings like The Empire Strikes Back and Fellowship of the Rings. I like disarray in serialized stories. They leave me craving more. I guess I am just not a fan of the happy ending.

      And, no, Big Al-not that kind of ‘happy ending’ 🙂

  6. In my four-part vampire romance “series,” each novel has a beginning, middle, and end, with no cliffhangers. The stories focus on different characters, but some reappear in subsequent books and many reunite in the final book. In that respect, the novels are linked together and readers would enjoy the full impact of the series if they read all of the books. Does that make it a “serial series”?

    1. Linda, if each book can be a stand-alone with no cliffhangers, I’d call that a series, not a serial. The fact that the books all fit together and widen the reader’s experience is a plus, but it doesn’t have that bait-and-switch feeling that an incomplete serial does. At least that’s my view.

  7. When I had a my manuscript printed,139,000 words, by a local printer. He said a 51/2 x 81/2 book would be 720 pages and that it would be expenive even for CreateSpace to print. That it’s not a good idea for a first time author to sell such a tome. So, I researched the idea of breaking it up into two books. I like Ken Follett’s ‘Fall of the Giants’. On his book cover it says, Book one of the century trilogy. 950 pages later he ends book one and proceeds to give the reader the first chapter of book two. Any opinions? And a big thanks to Melissa for posting this timely topic.

    1. Jim, when I think of trilogy, the first thing that comes to my mind is Lord of the Rings, a definite serial, so I would guess that would work for you. What’s a two-book set? A bilogy? Boy, you really got on a roll, didn’t you? Good luck with that.

  8. An excellent article, Melissa, and thoughtful, articulated comments in regard to it, everyone. I believe the general consensus is that any single book in a trilogy, duology or any multiples in a series or serial need to have a story arc that has some kind of conclusion, regardless. My sentiments exactly.

  9. Are you happy if I label the first finished part of the story ‘Book One of the Pride’s Children Trilogy’?

    I have been posting the scenes Book One every Tuesday on my blog for around two years – where it can be read for free – and not one of the long-time readers said they were disappointed when they got to To Be Continued. Ditto the binge readers – those who read a 160K word novel in a day or two – no complaints.

    The whole story takes about 500K – and won’t be completely finished until the end of the trilogy, but the three pieces have to be finished the way I’m finishing them for the characters to go on: the structure was designed before I started writing.

    Do you remember the end of Gone With the Wind? The book ended, and the author never planned a sequel, but every reader thought there should be more to the story. That’s the feeling I’m going for.

    What would you consider sufficient warning?

    1. Alicia, I think I would be inclined to see a trilogy as a serial, i.e. each book is a part of the whole story and needs to be read in order. Anyone else want to weigh in on that?

  10. To my understanding a series means the books share a common link or theme but is complete in itself. A serial is where each book is like a separate chapter and any conclusion only comes at the end of the last in the series.

    Be it known that my African memoirs are a series. Each book tells a separate tale and is complete in itself. They are linked into a series by all being about Africa. I hope that is clear.

  11. I wonder if this isn’t a case where the big seller/reader community (read Amazon B&N, Good Reads etc.) could crowd-source help for readers by adding a “cliff-hanger” button that reviewers/readers can push. Many reviewers mention whether or not a cliff-hanger is involved but having an at a glance statistic of how many readers consider the book a cliff hanger out of total reviewers would be helpful. And while some readers may not want to leave a full review, they might be motivated to warn other readers by clicking a button.

    Even if a few readers seek to mislead by clicking untruthfully, the statistics should reveal the risk level, based on total number of reviews and clicks to warn a potential reader when further investigation may be necessary…

    1. Michele, I think that’s an excellent idea! It would certainly clear up any confusion and readers would know instantly if they needed to commit to the entire set of books to get the full story. Amazon, B&N, are you listening?

  12. There’s nothing wrong with writing a series, but an author should endeavor to make each book in the series a separate story, a “stand-alone.” One reviewer of my novel Aristocrats and Assassins said that I should teach a course on how to do this (you have to love reviewers like that!).
    When we start a tale, decisions about whether it’s a short story, novella, or novel, or whether it fits into a series, shouldn’t occur immediately. Start with one or two what-ifs and go from there (obviously I’m not an outliner–for me, my stories grow organically).
    Of course, part of the problem lies in a more deplorable and insidious phenomenon: authors now often create the literary versions of soap operas. To paraphrase Clancy, just get on with it and tell the damn story.
    r/Steve

    1. Steven, no, there’s nothing wrong with any of these styles just as long as the reader knows what they’re getting. I’m with you on writing the story to the end, regardless of how long or short it turns out to be, and market it as such. Like Jim noted above, his book got to be overlong, so he broke it up into two. Again, no problem, as long as it’s presented accurately. I have no problem with any of these things–series, serials, trilogies, etc.–as long as the author gives the reader a clear indication of what they’re getting.

      1. Melissa, I think you just summed up the entire conversation here-“just as long as the reader knows what they’re getting.”

  13. Phew!

    I label it a trilogy – and that’s deliberate.

    The intent is to tell readers up front that there will be two more books before the story is complete – and that they are the same story, continued.

    For a moment there the title of your email had me worrying about this plan – I’m glad it works that way, as I was stumped for how else to convey that information.

    I promise I will not turn the trilogy into something longer. I happen to think each volume is not only complete in telling its part of the story, but good enough on its own (but then, I’m the writer!). When you ask people to accompany you on a journey that will end up just shy of a half-million words, they need to feel taken care of along the way, too. That’s my job.

    Thank you for a very timely subject, Melissa.

    1. Alicia, I’m certainly not trying to throw stones at any author UNLESS that author’s intent is to bamboozle their readers into buying more books by not being clear about what’s involved. To my mind, yours sound okay (but that’s just me). As you can see by the ebb and flow of this discussion, the subject is all over the place and even if we all come to consensus here, there’s still the rest of the world to convince!

  14. I guess I’m the naysayer here.
    I have my own trilogies, but each book can be read as a stand-alone–in other words, I treat them no differently than other series. Mine are sci-fi, but one classic trilogy stands out in that genre: Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I first read Second Foundation (the third book) as a teenager–each book in that original trilogy is a stand-alone. Years later the old master brought this trilogy, the sci-fi mysteries Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, the robot novels, and The End of Eternity, together as one huge and lengthy series, proving that each book in that trilogy HAD TO stand alone.
    That masterful stroke defines what I mean by stand-alone. Sure, the reader can receive special (insider?) enjoyment because s/he’s familiar with the characters and settings, but you must finish each book as if you weren’t writing any more.
    r/Steve

    1. Steven, what you’ve done is point up part of the issue here: how do we label groups of books that can be stand-alones and groups of books that hinge on their order and each other? If either kind can be a trilogy, then the word trilogy doesn’t tell us that key bit of information. If the group word doesn’t tell us, then the descriptions had better be spot-on so the reader understands. As I said above (and thank you, Will), the reader has a right to know what they’re getting into. Giving the reader less than that information is doing them a disservice.

  15. Excellent discussion. Any comments on putting in at the end of the first book the first chapter of the second book? Just like Ken Follett and other authors do?

    1. Thanks, Jim. We are definitely getting at this thing from all angles, aren’t we? Re: your question, I’ve seen many authors put the first chapter of the next book at the end of the first. I see no problem with giving a preview with the hopes of enticing the reader onward as long as (and I’m afraid I’m sounding like a broken record) it’s clear up front that the story continues. If it wasn’t clear to me when I bought the book, no preview chapter is going to take care of the grumpies.

  16. I also have written a series of novels where each story is complete in itself, but the characters involved in the stories have lives which do not stand still. I therefore recommend in both the sales blurb and in the front pages that the books are best read in the series order. The first book is a series of short stories which introduce characters and sets the overall theme of the subsequent books in that they are essentially crime with a hint of paranormal and romance. I also include the opening chapter or two of the next book in the series, hoping it is gripping enough for the reader to want more!

    1. Philip, I think it’s admirable that you have let your readers know the best way to read your books, even if they don’t have to be read in order. Telling readers what they need to know in order to have the best reading experience is a win-win as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for commenting.

  17. Philip, my stories aren’t “gripping,” but I include notes in the beginning and the first chapter of the next book at the end. The first novel can be read as a stand-alone, and a reader need not go any further. The second, however, would have more meaning if book one was read first. The third novel can be read as a stand-alone–it is the “bridge book” that brings characters from the story into the fourth book. That final book would have little meaning for readers without the other three, since it solves a 25-year-old mystery presented in the first novel. When I started the series, I had no idea there would be four books! What was I thinking? LOL.

  18. Melissa,
    I did this with my vamps. I was finished with the story in my head and had no idea what the next part would be—so I let it end. I don’t think I’ll do that again.

  19. So, “I would put across the front cover in a 12 or 14 font, ‘Book one of two: The Woman Who Regained Her Youth and More.’
    The two books would have diferent large titles. The second book would have a prologue of the first book. Would that be fair to the reader?

    1. Jim, to my mind, that would be a pretty clear indication that the books were linked and depended on each other to tell the complete story. Book One of Two seems to make that statement. Anyone else?

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