After attending a couple of geeky conventions last month, a thought occurred to me: Does everything have to be a series? Are standalone novels not good enough? The idea of a series isn’t new and isn’t restricted to any particular genre. However it seems as if over the last few decades there are more series and different types of series.
Personally I’d like to see more standalone books. I have enough books to get through that if I see something is part of a series, I hesitate. Unless I somehow manage to get in on the first book and like it, I’m not so inclined to put in the time. Also, there’s a higher chance of books within a series being hit or miss. What if books 1 – 3 were great, but 4 and 5 were meh, do you give up or do you keep plugging on in the hopes the ship can be righted?
Before I delve deeper let’s briefly define the different types of series.
Character – A character-based series is what it sounds like. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc. You get the idea. The stories revolve around a central character that may or may not have a recurring cast of minor characters.
World – This type of series is one in which the stories take place within the same world, whether made up or real. Probably the best examples of this are quite a few fantasy novels such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, A Song of Ice and Fire, and even Harry Potter. While the characters are clearly the center of the story, the world is just as important as it provides its own rules. Sometimes a series will be set not in a made up world, but are connected by the same geographical area.
Time Period – More likely to be seen within historical fiction, this is a series where the stories revolve around a particular time and place. For example, Sharon Kay Penman’s trilogy of books that takes place in thirteenth-century England and Wales.
Theme – A themed series is one which could revolve around a holiday or some other kind of unifying idea.
Trope – One kind of series which seems popular in the romance genre is a series of books revolving around a particular kind of character like a billionaire, athletes, cowboys, royals of all ranks, you get the idea.
I enjoy reading some series but most of the books I seek out are standalones. My biggest reason why I steer clear of most series is reader fatigue. How many of us have started a series and wished it would just end already? The opposite problem is when a series does finally end, readers are upset, so years later we get the inevitable prequel or continuation. Rarely does a series just ends.
Another reason I stay away has to do with feeling as if publishers view it as potential cash grab. Don’t get me wrong, as an author I’m clearly all in favor for writers making as much money as they can off their writing. We labor years and decades for pittance. A series provides a fantastic opportunity to build an audience and provide a steady income. It can also allow a writer the joy of continuing to play in a world they’ve spent years creating. But with the extreme commercialization we see of hit movies and TV shows at what point does it become more about dollar bills and less about quality product?
I think a series can lead to fatigue not only for readers but for the author as well. We’ve all been engrossed with a series only to admit at least one of the books wasn’t as good as the others. Usually this seems to occur in later books which indicates to me the author struggled. This makes sense. It’s difficult to keep coming up with fresh ideas and then we see stories hit a wall. Other times an author gets sick of character. Agatha Christie eventually grew to loathe Hercule Poirot. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he wanted to work on other projects. Holmes’ resurrection came about due to money and an audience that begged for more.
I do wonder if this need to serialize everything has to do with having a gazillion TV channels, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Streaming services, Crackle, etc. all with shows which transport us to another world filtering over to the book world. Is the publishing industry following the example of movie studios seeking out the next big franchise that they seek out manuscripts with series potential? Or is it because we as writers don’t want to give up a world and people we’ve spent so much time with we might honestly know them better than some family members? That comfort we get from the known and the fear of “Oh, shit. I might have to go through this process all over again?”
As with everything else, the answers are nuanced. I think the overwhelming majority of writers start a story not intending to expand it beyond one book. Then as they get into the world, the story, and characters, their minds blossom with possibilities. Others start out believing their idea can and should be a series. Still others have the concept for one book, send it out to agents and publishers, only to be asked if there would be a way to turn it into a series.
On a writer level I can’t see myself doing a series. That’s not to say I don’t have ideas for one or two or that I won’t change my mind. If I did tackle one it wouldn’t be to follow a particular character or made up world, rather it would exploring a particular time period. I worry about limiting my freedom to work on other ideas. Should I ever be lucky enough to earn a steady income I don’t want to be hampered by the pressure to produce another book in a series as soon as possible when my muse desires something else. I also fear I won’t have the creativity to maintain a certain standard. But I certainly understand and can appreciate the appeal of a series for both reader and author.