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.