Standing Alone


I had an amusing thing happen this week.  A reader posted a review on Amazon, stating that my book was a three-star read.  It’s not the number of stars that makes it funny – as far as I’m concerned, three stars is great, and I’m perfectly grateful.  No, the funny part was that she would have given it more stars if only I had more books in the series available, because she wanted to know more about what happened.  Now, please don’t misunderstand.  As I said, three stars is wonderful and I’m absolutely not complaining.  I’m also tickled that I told a good enough story that she wanted more – every writer hopes her readers will feel that way.  But her disappointment with my only having the one novel available has made me wonder how readers these days are looking at stand-alone novels, the kind that tell the whole story in one volume.   Is her feeling indicative of the market?  Can you sell a genre stand-alone these days?  Do people want to read them anymore? 

When I was younger, the library was my treasure house.  My parents drove me over almost every Saturday, and I’d come home with an armful of books.  I read novels from the adult section and from the kids’ shelves (no such thing as YA back then) but as I recall, the only books that came out in series were things like Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins and The Happy Hollisters, and even those weren’t technically series, since you could read them in any order and it wouldn’t make a difference.  The first actual trilogy I ever read was The Lord of the Rings, when I was in middle school.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s that I remember books being released in chronological series (Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries, for example, and Louise Cooper’s Indigo saga).  On the other hand, some of my favorite books are stand-alone novels.  The Anubis Gates, Snow Crash and The Keep** are all incredible books that deliver everything within the pages of one volume.  

These days, everyone seems to be writing a series, and I understand why.  Readers get involved in the lives of the characters, and want to know more.  Readers wanting more makes publishers happy, and they contract for more of the same.  That’s wonderful, because it gives the writers a little job security.  I love some series, but I’m also somewhat fond of a perfect ending.  I love a book that ties up every loose end by the last page, so that I close the back cover with a happy sigh and a sense of completion.  Series don’t always offer me that satisfaction, especially when the book ends with a monster cliffhanger.  I’m not the kind who gets upset at having to wait for future volumes, but I do sometimes forget what was going on by the time the next book rolls around.  Not to mention there may be a limited number of stories that can be told with one set of characters.  When books go on and on and on, readers can lose interest.  Choose a long-running series, and look at its reviews on Amazon.  I guarantee you’ll see that some readers have gotten bored.  Worse is when a series is suddenly interrupted by lackadaisical sales.  One series I was very committed to has apparently ended in midstride, and I hate knowing that the story won’t ever be completed.  

I’ve also heard that stand-alones work because they are more plot-driven, while series are character-driven.  I tend to disagree with that thought, only because I think that the best books, whether stand-alone or series, is going to be driven by both plot and character.  Besides, if that is true, it also suggests that people are still buying books in a series just to keep hold of the characters they’ve grown to love and not because they care about the individual story within its pages.  How depressing is that for writers to think about?

There’s not really an answer to the question of which is better, because stand-alones and series all make readers happy.  I’ve only released one book so far, but I have a second in revisions and a third in outline for the pirates, and the western I’m working on also has enough story to take me through at least two books.  As long as the writer has plenty of good ideas, writing a series is a great thing to do.  I’m just a little worried that the stand-alone is slowly becoming extinct.  So what do you think?  Will you choose a stand-alone, especially if you know ahead of time it’s the only book with those characters?  If not, why not?  And if you will, log in to the comments and share the titles of some of the better stand-alones you’ve read.  Let’s help the stand-alone books stick around a little longer. 


**Yes, The Keep is now part of the Adversary Cycle, but until 199o, when Wilson released Reborn, the first three books of the Cycle, the first of which was The Keep, were individual stories that were only scarcely connected to each other.


17 comments to Standing Alone

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Interesting topic. Thank you. I definitely do have stand-alone books that I love (Deerskin by Robin McKinley, and The Jaguar Princess by Claire Bell are the two that come first to mind), but looking back over my growing-up and reading habits I do see that I’ve read *lots* of series, in Fantasy, SciFi, and Historical fiction. The largest chunk of stand-alones I can remember reading were a bunch of the Dean Koontz novels, and I really enjoyed being able to find many good stories from the same author, even though the characters don’t overlap (Tick Tock is awesome). However, I would *like* more fantasy stand-alones, and I’d especially like some satisfying UF stand-alones. The UF that I read a lot of tend to be very character-driven series, but I get frustrated sometimes that the series format means I *really* lose track of the individual plots of each book, depending on the story-telling strengths of each author…

  • Rhonda

    When I’m looking for a new book I tend to be biased toward stand-alone books, and away from series. Partly it’s the size of what I’m getting into when I don’t know if I’ll like it yet, that keeps me away from series.

    This makes it rather hard to find new books sometimes, and I’ve often ended up with the first book in a series where the rest haven’t been published yet, thinking it’s a standalone.

  • Interestingly, I’ve been hearing rumors that in YA editors are starting to lean more towards stand alones. I think part of that is that there have been a lot of great YA series that have started off with a bang only to fizzle as more and more big series are released. There have also been some complaints that some series would have worked better as stand alones and that the story was “stretched” to make three books (I know that a lot of authors have submitted what they thought were stand-alones only to be asked to turn them into series if possible). The benefit of a series is the growth model for them — publicity for each new title works on the backlist of the series as well. The problem is that you’re going to lose readers with each new book that releases — the first in a series will always be the biggest seller.

    As for which I prefer to read? I actually don’t have a preference, though oddly, I rarely find myself reading all the books in any given series. Usually that’s just because my TBR pile is so huge and I’ll often pick a book in a new world or by a new author because I like to see what’s out there.

  • quillet

    I see a lot of series on my bookshelves. I do love them when they’re done well, but like you I sometimes have trouble remembering what came before when I pick up a new instalment. I love me a good stand-alone novel, and for much the same reasons as you. I love a story that is complete in itself, with an ending that fully satisfies. I certainly loved Mad Kestrel on its own (though if you’re giving us more I will NOT complain!!!).

    Let’s see…some stand-alones I really loved… Nation, by Terry Pratchett. Quite a few by Guy Gavriel Kay, including Under Heaven and Ysabel, two of my (recent) favourites of his. Almost everything by Patricia McKillip, who is a truly fabulous writer. The Death of the Necromancer, one of my favourites by Martha Wells, which is loosely tied to other books set in the same world but can be read alone. Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, and also Swordspoint, which gave rise to sequels but still stands on its own. Um…The Hobbit was originally a stand-alone, does that count?

  • I like both, and I think I’m one of the rare folk who loves the shameless cliffhanger too, if done well. I may go, “AAARRRGGGHHH! You suck!” but I guarantee I’ll be one of the first in line to pick up the next book the day it’s out, wanting to know what happens next. It’s true, you wouldn’t want cliffhangers at the end of every book in a series, but I also want something to be at least a little cliffhangery, a little mysterious in those to have me coming back wanting to know more. Who was that shadowy figure watching the hero? What did the old seer mean, “your greatest trial still awaits?” Sometimes, just learning a little more about the characters amidst their latest trial or VotW (villain of the week) in each book isn’t enough for me to stick with a series. I kind of want that, *what happens next!* feeling that makes me rush out to get the next book, trying to find out what that thing was I only got a glimpse of in the last book. Sometimes series’ stall for me because they don’t have enough of that continued mystery in them to draw me into the next book. And I absolutely adore the cliffhanger in extended story arcs, or serial, like trilogies and such. I always like to have one in my extended works, even if overall, book one has a satisfactory conclusion, I still like to have that bit of uncertainty over some aspect in the story. Enough to hopefully draw readers to the next book. And I’m a mean writer. I like to add ’em in chapter endings. Make the readers glance at the clock in the middle of the night, mumble “dang it!” and read “just one more chapter.” 😉

    As for stand-alones, I have two or three written or partially written, but I think one might be better served as a duology. Even when I write them, I’m always thinking of the *what if* and planning accordingly within the story. What if the novel takes off and I’m asked to write a sequel? Often, that even gets me thinking on possible plots for a sequel, should the *what if* actually happen. So I like to plant some seemingly unrelated/unimportant bits in but actually have a purpose that I can go back to later and expand upon.

    I have a lot of stand-alone novels on my bookshelves. I also have a lot of series’ and serials. They’re all good by me. 🙂

  • sagablessed

    Each Darkover novel was written to be a stand-alone. But for the purposes of this post, I think my fave 2 are LavenderGreen Magic by Norton, and The Shining by King.
    Series, though…..there are too many good ones.

  • Yay to the webmaster for fixing MW! For those of you who have had problems accessing the site for a few days, the problem seems to be fixed now. 🙂

    Misty, I am currently loving The Edge series by husband-wife writing team Ilona Andrews. It is a series of stand-alones, all set in the world of the The Edge. I am loving it because it is the best of both worlds, stand alones and series. I get snippets of and vistas into the lives of the characters I adore, but I also get totally new characters who are tangentially part of the lives of the others, each with their own separate story. It is like being slowly introduced to an extended family.

  • I also like both. I like series because I get attached to characters, but I also enjoy the satisfaction of the standalone.

    As for my own work, I’m a little bit like Daniel in that I brainstorm the what ifs, and I honestly can’t help putting energy into worlds and thinking about the other stories in them and the places I’ve created. But picking up on what Carrie was saying about YA trilogies, the YA I just finished was originally a standalone that I broke into 3 (books 2 and 3 are still in progress) simply because it was too big on its own. And I am determined to make each part work well enough that it doesn’t come across as stretched.

    Some standalones that still stick with me: Bad Prince Charlie by John Moore, Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, and Discord’s Apple by Carrie Vaughn.

  • I also enjoy both series and stand-alones, although I have to admit that right now I’m mostly looking for stand-alones when I want something new. Because I’m one of those people who can’t stop reading a series, even if I end up reading them with a grim sense of duty rather than enjoyment, I have so many series to keep up with that I’d prefer not to start a new one. Problem is, as Misty says, mostly everyone seems to be writing series these days, so it’s sometimes a little difficult to avoid starting a new series when I want to try a new author.

  • ajp88

    Snow Crash was a fabulous standalone! I really enjoyed the novel Talyn by Holly Lisle. It’s a fantasy stand alone of sorts. She’s written another title set in the same world, Hawkspar, but it wasn’t involved with any of the plot from the first.

  • Carrie, thanks – I had not heard those rumors so it’s good to hear that stand-alones aren’t completely endangered!

    Quillet, thank you. *blushes*

    Faith, I’ll have to check out that series. It sounds intriguing.

    SiSi, that “grim sense of duty” is the last thing I would want a reader to feel with one of my books!

    Y’all, I’m so excited. My husband preordered a book for me for Christmas that only just came out today. It’s by a new author, R S Belcher, and it’s called Six Gun Tarot. And yes, it appears to be a standalone. 😀

  • I like both standalones and series, although, as an avid reader longer is always better. I won’t start a new series, though, unless at least three of the books are published and available. I’ll buy an entire series and treat it as one long book if I can. I really HATE having to wait until the next installment.
    My favorite standalones are The Hobbit and Tigana.

  • Razziecat

    Patricia McKillip’s Fool’s Run. Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt. Kay’s Under Heaven. Three great examples. Sorry, have to type fast because the site keeps timing out 🙁

  • I tend to prefer stand-alones or short series (no thirteen-volume series for me…) because I’m a relatively slow reader — each book I choose is a huge time investment for me, and reading time is my most limited asset, professionally-speaking. In fact, I often read only the first book in a series, even when I love that book, just because there are so many things out there clamoring to be read… Hmm… Looks like Evelyn Wood Speed-Reading classes should be in my future 🙂

  • Megan B.

    As a reader: What Rhonda said. I prefer stand-alones because I know I’ll get a complete story without committing myself to reading 3+ books.

    As a writer: I have mixed feelings about the whole issue of stand-alone vs. series. My current WIP could be a stand-alone, but I’ve written a follow-up novella. I have no idea if I have any hope of publishing it that way. And I’d hate to be asked to stretch it out. In general I bristle at the thought of being told how long my story should be. I believe a story should be as long as it needs to be, and should not be artificially lengthened or broken up.

  • I should also add that I read VERY fast. Faith’s latest only lasted two days!

  • I love Sarah Addison Allen’s books. She writes magical realism (The Sugar Queen being my fav) I love Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson series though her latest book shouldn’t have been a novel, more like a novella to the main series. (I love Mercy. I was really in to Sookie Stackhouse books until Mrs. Harris introduced us to the fey plot line and things got silly from then on out. I’m twelve deep into Stephanie Plum and I haven’t gotten bored yet. You got D.U.F.F. by Kody Keplinger, Sophie Kinsella’s books are really funny, Such a Rush,Jennifer Echols is amazing.

    I’ll stop now. 🙂