What Readers Want – Series vs. Standalone Books

what readers want logoAs an author, do you ever struggle with a decision about your book and wonder, “What would a reader say?” You probably aren’t the first author to wonder about that same thing. Indies Unlimited has two reviewers on our staff, the fabulous Cathy Speight and venerable Mr. BigAl, who are here representing readers. In this series, we’ll pose your questions to them for their take and encourage other readers to weigh in with their thoughts.

First the question from the author:

An author asks, “Do readers like series with the same characters or should I be looking to start fresh with each new project?”

I think the answer to this question is dependent on the characters more than the readers. Do the characters still have more story for you to tell?

Or maybe the answer depends on your goals as an author. One answer is potentially the better financial decision than the other.

Or …

You get the idea. There are a lot of factors in making this decision which have nothing to do with the reader that are much more relevant in deciding what to write, at least this portion of that decision, anyway. There are significant numbers of readers who will be okay with either decision. I’ll talk a bit about what a reader is going to perceive as positive or negative with each potential choice. In my view, there are actually more than two choices. While I could subdivide them several ways, I’m going to talk in terms of four book types. I’ll start by explaining each of the four possibilities.

A True Standalone

The characters and story world are unique to this book. Nothing in this story is going to help you understand backstory or anything else in another book.Sometimes an author thinks this is what they’re writing, but when it is time to write their next book they realize they were writing the first of a series.

One Big Story

This is a series that could be viewed as a single long story, starting at one point and following the same set of characters over a period of time (also known as a serial). Understanding the import of what is happening in book #5 might require knowing about an event from book #3. While some backstory can be integrated in subsequent volumes to help clue a reader in who has started reading mid-series, there is going to be a lot that reader misses.

Several Overlapping Stories

This and the next possibility fall somewhere between the first two. While both are series, they have some of the qualities of a standalone.

This variation is a series, in that each book has the same characters and same setting as the others, but normally each book can stand alone. Each of the books in the series focuses on one or two of the characters with the others serving as secondary characters. Done well, what little backstory is needed from prior installments can be integrated into later books, so the books can be read as standalones without the reader missing anything important.

This is the only way I can picture having a series in the romance genre. Each of a group of friends experiences romance, finding their own happily-ever-after, with a seperate book for each character.

Standalone Episodes

In this kind of series each book focuses on the same protagonist. Often the setting is the same from book to book. However, each book stands alone. While the main character might change over the course of the series (growing older, more experienced, or whatever), these changes are subtle and not needed to understand the story. Reading a series like this in random order isn’t going to be much different than reading it in the order the books were written. The books in this kind of series tend to be written to a formula. (Think Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys as examples.)

Now for the Pros and Cons

Each of these choices has some positives and negatives.

A series of the “One Big Story” type has the advantage that if a reader likes your characters, they can get more of their story. After a while it becomes comfortable, like hanging out with old friends. You know what to expect and, since you keep coming back for more, must like it. A character can change more, hopefully improving for the better, while retaining the author’s credibility if it happens over a longer period in a series. It is easier for a reader to make the commitment of time and money implied by the purchase of a new book if it is a book in a series they’ve already begun because they have a better idea of what they’re getting. If they liked the first one, they rightfully believe the odds are better of liking the next than some other random book, even another book by the same author. (This last item has some positive and negative connotations to authors in marketing and promotion of subsequent books.)

A “One Big Story” series also has some negatives from the standpoint of a reader. If each installment doesn’t have a complete and satisfying story arc of its own, they may feel left hanging while waiting for the next book. Depending on the overall story arc of the series, there may be some significant threads left unresolved that will bother a reader who has to wait for the next book. Add to that the possibility that the publisher might drop the series or a self-published author could decide not to continue it or introduce a significant delay between books for artistic or business reasons, and a reader is taking a risk committing to this kind of series (if they realize in advance). Some might not be willing. (I have one friend who has been burned so many times that she won’t start reading the first book in a series until the complete series has been released. Then, if she remembers and is still interested, she’ll binge read the entire set.)

A standalone book’s pros and cons are just the opposite of the “One Big Story” series. Less risk and commitment, but also no way to get “more of the same” if you really like the book, depending on what it is that appeals to you. The same characters, you’re certainly out of luck. Even another book of the same genre by the same author might be much different.

The two other series variations, as you’d expect, have pros and cons for a reader that fall somewhere between the standalone and “One Big Story” extremes. The risk and commitment is like a standalone. However, if you like one book, you’re able to spend additional time with the characters in subsequent books. The opportunity for growth in characters isn’t as great with this kind of series, but this is offset by not needing to start from the beginning and the option of skipping around in the series, picking the books that have plots you find most appealing based on the description. Although a series can have any number of installments, from two to hundreds, as a practical matter the “One Big Story” type has a limit (the story can’t go on forever) and the overlapping stories type is limited by the number of characters to focus on. The episodic series type can go on forever. As I mentioned above, these have a tendency to follow a formula which, if enough readers like the formula, isn’t an issue. A more likely problem is for the series to turn stale as the author, constrained by their formula and characters, runs out of unique storylines that fit.

Are We There Yet?

This is a lot of words with no definitive answer. There are readers who will be happy with any of the possible choices. There are marketing benefits as well as detriments to each for an author. My advice would be, write what you’re inspired to write, but maybe some of the discussion above will inspire something new.

If you have a question you’d like considered for our “What Readers Want” series, drop us a line by using the contact form. Please put “What Readers Want” as the subject line. Cathy and BigAl will choose from the questions submitted for future posts. Please make sure to let us know if you want to remain anonymous. If you’re lucky, they’ll both answer your question. Maybe they’ll even agree with each other.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

28 thoughts on “What Readers Want – Series vs. Standalone Books”

  1. Good analysis of the many options. As a reader, I’ve always preferred the “true standalone.” A unique story, unique characters, with a unique beginning, middle, and end specific to THIS book. As a writer I’ve been drawn to the same.

    For whatever reason, I have never been attracted to series books. Although I can appreciate a great television series and the framework of that set-up, a book series feels more like movie sequels, where we’ve already been introduced to the main character(s) and their backgrounds, and now we’re just going to get another installment. Sequels, to me, are rarely as good as the first movie, and in the few cases I have read series books, the same has held true:

    For example: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was essentially a three-part series, with the first book being an excellent standalone, the second being a weaker sequel that was actually just the first episode of a two-parter that included the third of the trilogy. Confusing? Yes. If you didn’t read #2, #3 made no sense.If you didn’t read #2, you had no idea how #2 really ended. But neither #2 or #3 were anywhere near as compelling as the first book of the series. And that was the last series I read!

    I also think it also becomes a marketing decision for authors. I’ve seen several writers posing the question to writers groups (“should I or shouldn’t I write a series?”) and, for them, your analysis will resonate. Putting aside my own opinion, I do have readers in the house who ARE series fans, so if one grabs a reader, yeah, it seems like a wise move for an author!

    Me…guess I’m just a standaloner. 🙂

    Thanks for breaking it all down.

      1. Thanks for the comment, Lorraine. I find myself liking both. Kind of like socializing where you want to meet new people, but also catch up with new friends. (At least that is how I should do it, not how I actually do.)

  2. Really great post. I wonder if readers are sick of series? There are so many these days and not enough solid one stories. There is something speical about getting satisfaction from one complete book. I wrote a series. Felt I needed the extra books to complete the ongoing ‘drama’ but looking back one book might have been the best way to go.

    Personally I am a bit sick of the series. It’s nice to meet up with the characters but there are just too many on the market and most are not as good as the first. Though, as in my case the writing gets better. If I were to do it all again I would write mine as one big ‘wow’ of a book.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Brenda. I’m sure there are always readers who tire of reading series and stop reading them while there are others who do the opposite. Kind of like writers and what they’re inspired to write or what the muse tells them to do. From a purely financial point of view, I think a series can be better because it is easier to sell. If the first book is good a percentage will come along for the second, third, and so on. I was listening to a podcast last night that made a case for three being the magic number. (The number of readers dropping out apparently picks up speed about that point.) Maybe trilogies are the way to go. 🙂

  3. Like you said, series and stand alone, each have their strengths and weaknesses.

    I think whether a person writes a series or not depends on how much story they have for characters and how much they enjoy hanging with the characters themselves. If when you write a novel, you’re done and you want to move on to something new and different, then you’re not a key candidate for any kind of series. You like new and fresh each time. If you find yourself lingering over characters and wondering what they might be up now, then serials are something you might want to give a try. So you offered up some good advice for writers curious what to do.

    I think readers all want a good story. While readers may have personal preferences about whether they’re keen on serials or not, if a book is really good (and recommended by the right person), they’ll give any story a try.

    1. I think you got it, RJ. If you aren’t excited about it or, if we want to get mystical, your characters aren’t insisting on being heard, then you won’t be into it and neither will your readers.

  4. As my other half says, “It’s a de-lemon”. Personally, I love series because I get attached to characters. But I do not like being left hanging after a book in a serial. Each book still needs to resolve the main story arc of that particular installment, even if it does not complete the entire arc of the series. Don’t give me a cliff hanger and then make me wait for the next one to see what happens. The other problem is that libraries often don’t carry the entire series. I’ve had that happen several times and been very frustrated.

    1. Definitely a de-lemon, Yvonne, if the series is an ongoing story. Not to mention the publisher (who could be the author) deciding to drop the series before completion. I have one friend who has been burned by that so many times she won’t start reading until the series is done.

  5. I love series — both reading them and writing them — *but* things that some authors do really tick me off. I want each book in the series to have its own story arc, and I want that story arc resolved by the end of the book. IMHO, cliffhangers are for comic books and end-of-season TV shows (curse you, “Dallas”!). Luckily, most of the fantasy series I’ve read have steered clear of the cliffhanger ending.

    Al, I agree with your assessment of series in the romance genre. The vast majority of romance readers are all about the courtship phase of the relationship, and I just can’t see how an author could stretch out the story past the HEA without things getting either boring or ridiculous.

    1. Thanks for the comment Lynne. (Also thanks for saying I’m right. I can’t hear that enough. 🙂 ) I heard a rumor that Bobby Ewing didn’t really die either. WTHeck?

  6. I have recently made the mistake of starting Hugh Howey’s latest series, Beacon 23. I absolutely love it, and I absolutely hate that there are only 4 installments and I’ll have to wait I don’t know how long for the next one. I have now firmly migrated to the camp of waiting until the entire series is done before I start one. Being brought to a halt in a book I’m loving, only to be faced with the empty space of having NO book to read, then finding one to fill the void, is no fun. Give me stand-alone (or one complete BIG story) any time. Following a series–no thanks.

    1. -grin- I’m reading it too, Melissa, and I have the same issues with it. In the past, I waited until all of Wool/Shift/Dust was written before reading. That said, however, Howey literally made his name via his serials so there must be an awful lot of the other crowd out there as well.

      1. I’ll add you to my list of friends who feel that way, Melissa. 🙂

        A.C. makes a good point about Hugh making his name that way. With Wool, I had friends who would literally buy the next installment as soon as they heard it was out and sit down to read it immediately. If I noticed a few people had disappeared from the internet, I’d know what happened. Personally, I don’t like to be left hanging.

  7. If I like a character and can’t get enough of him/her, then I’ll devour the next book and the one after that. But they do have to stand alone. If a major incident changes that character’s course in one book, a few short references to it dotted around the beginning of the follow-up is all it needs. I don’t like unanswered questions…I refuse to be forced to read on for the answers. It smacks of arrogance. It says…you enjoyed my book so much, you’ll certainly want to read my next one in the series, so you’ll buy it, of course, won’t you? And if a book ends ‘To be continued’ you’ll have lost me for certain.

    1. I think you nailed it, Cathy. If you like the characters and their story, you’ll keep reading regardless. But cheap tricks will just p*ss people off. (Unless you’re a rock band from Rockford, IL, of course.)

  8. “…My advice would be, write what you’re inspired to write, but maybe some of the discussion above will inspire something new.”

    Those are words every author should live by!

    Thanks for another excellent post, BigAl.

      1. I write both series and stand-alone novels.

        The series are easier to promote as I, along with other contributors to this thread, can offer the first novel at a lower price or free.

        My DCI Jones Casebook series, for example, has an ensemble cast set in the fictitious Midland Police Serious Crime Unit. To keep the series fresh, I have a different narrators in each book – think the 1970s TV show ‘The Virginian’–DCI Jones isn’t always the lead character..

        I use the stand-alone novels as experimental pieces and to keep my interest levels up. If I receive good feedback from a standalone, I consider extending it into a series–if a decent story comes to mind. 🙂

        Bottom line, I write what the muse tells me to write and hope the readers enjoy the results.

  9. As an author with a series, and with one standalone book, I can attest that marketing a series has the advantage of making one of the books free, either permanently or intermittently to help draw readers.

    As a reader, I like stand alones but only because I’m sort of late to series books. The only one I remember reading is the Clan of the Cave Bear series. Oh, and Flowers in the Attic, and that was years ago when I was in school. I don’t make my purchasing decision based on whether a book is a series or not, but based on the plot if the blurb intrigues me. If I like the book, I will buy the next.

    I have about four unfinished manuscripts for standalones that I keep abandoning because readers write wanting another book in my series. However, I know that readers drop out along the way, so I feel like I’m writing for a smaller and smaller audience–and it’s really difficult to promote the later books in a series.

    I’m trying a spin-off series, hoping to draw new readers to the series, but while my intention was to make it work as a first book in its own series, with only some background from the original, in reality, it’s more like the original series, just with the main character from the original taking a back seat to the newer character. I’m finding just as hard to promote as the fifth book in the original series was.

    I am toying with the idea of putting the next book on hold and just working on one of my abandoned manuscripts. Maybe a Christmas romance I started. Or the dystopian.

  10. I think that to make a really strong book, you have to pick a main character at a key turning point in his or her life. This means that a standalone will be more powerful, and a series often contains potboilers, just like TV series do, because most characters, having solved their main life problem, do not immediately find another.
    My solution (learned from Anne McCaffrey and the Pern series) is to create a world and a set of characters, and move from character to character in each new serial. The main character of the old book takes a supporting role in the new one, thus having the best of both styles.

    1. Excellent point, Gordon. While I enjoy the potboilers, which is what you often have with a lot of series books in what I called standalone episodes (mysteries, police procedurals, etc), they are almost never as compelling as as a stand alone. They’re comfortable, because you know in a general way what to expect, but I don’t find I get as emotionally involved as with others books.

      Hopefully she’ll forgive me for using her as an example, but I’m going to use M.P. McDonald’s series as an example, looking at it based on your comment. In the first book of her series, her MC went through that key turning point. Without going into too much detail, nothing he experienced in subsequent books could possibly compare. It became more like a potboiler in that at a high level you knew what what coming, even though the specifics vary.

  11. My problem is that I’m too easily distracted. I set out to write a series of theatre murder mysteries but after two books I came up with a shiny new idea for a post-apocalyptic story and wrote two of those, and now I’m being tempted by an even shinier option for a glamorous crime series… You get the picture. I really should buckle down and complete a trilogy or two at least – something that’ll look respectable as a box set. Sigh.

    1. LOL. I’ve heard about authors like you, Bev. Too many ideas. Personally, I struggle to come up with a couple posts subjects each month. I don’t know how people like you do it.

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