Series or Stand-Alone? How to Decide

DEBORAH RANEY’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after 20 happy years as a stay-at-home mom. Her books have won numerous awards including the RITA, National Readers Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, the Carol Award, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Deb’s 23rd novel will release from Howard/Simon & Schuster Spring 2013. She and her husband, Ken Raney, enjoy the wildflowers and native grasses in the Kansas prairie garden in their large backyard. They also love traveling together to teach at conferences, and to visit four children and four small grandchildren who all live much too far away. Visit Deb on the Web at www.deborahraney.com.
I just finished writing a new stand-alone novel
after writing two different series (six books in all) over the past seven
years. I’d forgotten how different it is to have the whole of the story
contained in four hundred short pages. Having written mostly stand-alones
before this, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the pros and
cons for both.
SERIES:
Pros––
        

The first novel of any series requires a lot of work researching, creating a setting,
introducing main characters, deciding on a theme and mood for the series,
coming up with book titles that tie to each other, as well as a series title.
But once the storyworld is built, it’s mostly finished for the subsequent books
in the series as well.
        

Hopefully a series will not only keep your established readers engaged for the
space of three or more book releases, but will also build up a new following
for your backlist as well.

A series means a multi-book contract is a given.
        

Once all the books of a series are released, some publishers will combine them
into an omnibus (all the books bound into one volume) or create a boxed set
package––a new income stream toward earning out the advance.

Because readers are investing more actual hours reading a series, the chance of
characters becoming memorable “friends” is increased, which hopefully
translates to great word-of-mouth marketing.
Cons––
         

Too often, bookstores who carry Book 3 of a series may not have Books 1 and 2.
This can frustrate readers, and thwart sales. In this case, be sure to let your
readers know where they can order all the books in the series.
         

Some writers become bored working with the same setting and characters for what
can be years on end, especially when each book must begin with a brief recap of
the previous book(s).
        

It can be difficult to carry the excitement and novelty of the first book’s
premise through two or more stories. (How many murders can realistically happen
in a tiny town?)
         

If you don’t plan carefully, you might lock yourself into certain plot or
character details with the first novel that don’t work well for subsequent
books.
         

If the first book of a series doesn’t sell well, the series may be doomed to
poor sales––or worse, to cancellation of the contract, which could leave
faithful readers frustrated with no conclusion to the story and character arcs.
        

Some readers will not purchase series titles until all the books in the series
have been released. This can create deceptively low sales numbers for a new
series.
STAND-ALONE:


Pros––
         

Usually a stand-alone requires fewer characters; and plotting, research, etc.
is for only 400 pages, not 1200 or more.
        

For the restless writer, a stand-alone means moving on to a fresh new topic
more often.
         

If a stand-alone novel isn’t a huge success, the writer can quickly switch
gears with the next project.
         

Readers (and editors) may be more likely to take a risk on a stand-alone novel
by a new-to-them author, since it doesn’t require as large an investment of
time and money as a series.
         

Without having to recap the plot of previous books or set up the plot of future
books, the writer is freed to concentrate all his efforts on the plot, setting,
and characters of one story.
Cons––
        

If your stand-alone is a great
success, you essentially start from scratch trying to identify and duplicate in
your next novels the elusive element that made the previous book so successful.
         

You risk losing readers if your next stand-alone is significantly different than
the book readers enjoyed. Plus, there are some readers who prefer to only read
series.
        

If you are pitching stand-alone novels, the chance for a multi-book contract
may be diminished.
        

If you’ve been accustomed to writing series, it can seem a waste of research to
use a setting and characters for only one novel.
My most recent series, the Hanover Falls Novels,
were originally written to stand alone, but the three stories ended up being
much more interwoven than I foresaw––a pitfall of being a seat-of-the-pants
writer. Consequently, reading those novels out of order gives away too many
secrets that might spoil the surprises in previous books for readers.
With my Clayburn Novels series, the three books
shared a small-town setting. The buildings on Main Street of Clayburn served as
businesses and homes for a cast of characters who appeared in each book. But
each novel focused on the stand-alone story of one couple. You could read the
books in any order (or only read one book in the series) and not feel you’d
missed anything crucial to the series as a whole. Yet readers were delighted
when characters from the other books in the series showed up as secondary
characters or in cameos.
In this type of “stand-alone series” where the
books can be read in any order without spoilers for the previous books,
publishers are probably wise when they don’t number the books (as frustrating
as that can be for readers!), yet the books should have covers, titles, and a
series title, which clearly indicate that they are part of a group meant to be
read together.
Having written these two series back to back, I
believe the perfect compromise between writing stand-alone novels and writing a
series, is to write books tied loosely by setting, theme, or some other element
that allows each book to truly stand on its own, while still being part of a
whole. As a reader, and as a writer, I think that’s the best of all worlds!