What's the deal with series, anyway?

| Friday, September 21, 2012
Today's Tune: Bedlam

I just want to make it clear, up front, that I don't have ~*secret insider knowledge*~ about this. It's just my pet theory. I could be totally wrong. But I don't think I am because I am usually right about ALL THE THINGS, naturally!

Anyway: it's pretty easy to walk into the YA (and even the Early Readers or MG) section and realize that there are a lot of series out there. Trilogies are supposedly the big thing, but really, it's any series. To be fair, it's not like series are a new thing. Fantasy and science fiction have been doing series books for an awfully long time. But what's the deal? Why does it seem like series are so popular and encouraged?

Here are my theories.

Most authors don't get "discovered" and become popular off of their first book. They usually have to release several books before their readership grows to a point where people are recognizing their name in the bookstore as an author they enjoy. As such, you don't see a lot of breakout success stories with standalone novels by newer authors (authors with several books under their belts, perhaps, but not newbies). Standalone books also have the issue of being, well, standalone. A reader doesn't need to buy more than one. If they like the author's style, they may try some of their other books, but there's no reason out of hand to buy more than one.

Series authors, on the other hand, have these things naturally built into their book deals. Instead of one standalone book every few years, they're releasing series books probably once a year. They're getting that whole "multiple books" thing done more quickly. If readers get invested in one book of the series, they're likely to want to continue. That means built-in book sales. It usually takes a new series a few years to really pick up speed, but once the readership has grown and word of mouth has spread, the sales and popularity escalate rapidly. You have the "been there since the first book" audience, and then you have additional reader numbers that grow with each subsequent book. New readers can't just pick up the latest release. They have to start at the beginning (usually). With series, readers typically know exactly what they're getting -- a world and characters they already know they like. Not like picking up a new standalone and not knowing if they're going to like protagonist Joe Blow more than protagonist John Doe.

Some people like familiarity. They like community. They like the feeling of already being a part of something. That happens in series. It also happens occasionally in standalones, but it's a lot more rare. There's something sort of appealing about being able to get MORE of a book you enjoy. It's all very commercial (you're unlikely to find many literary series), but that's kind of the point. Series books are good for sales.

So what does that mean? Write series to be successful? Standalone novels aren't worth it? I don't think so at all. I just think that when it comes to younger readers (and older readers, honestly), many tend to gravitate toward series because of the accessibility, familiarity, and immersion. None of that means that standalone novels can't also be incredibly successful, or won't find readers. In fact, I think there's a special place for standalone novels for those readers who don't want to invest a bunch of time in an overlong series, or who enjoy a lot of variety in their literature.

What do you think?



{ Matthew MacNish } at: September 21, 2012 at 9:03 AM said...

For me, as a reader, it's all about if I like something, I want as much of it as I can get.

As a writer, I'm just too long winded to tell a story in one book.

{ Old Kitty } at: September 21, 2012 at 11:21 AM said...

Oh I do hope there'll always be a mixture of both! I like my series but I do like my standalone novels too!

Take care

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: September 21, 2012 at 12:06 PM said...

Great point, and we agree. But we also suspect that part of it is the publishers trying to find/imitate the success of Twilight and Harry Potter...

{ Andrew Leon } at: September 21, 2012 at 12:19 PM said...

My impression from what I've read from people like Jim Butcher, traditional publishers really want and push series. He got his first book deal -only- because he had more than one book already written. His agent had previously rejected him based on the first book as had everyone else, but, when she found out he'd -already- written three, she snapped him up immediately thereafter. Basically, even if the agent/publisher doesn't like your stuff so much, but you can show that you have the ability to keep producing, especially in a series format, you stand a better chance of being picked up.

{ prerna pickett } at: September 21, 2012 at 7:19 PM said...

i enjoy a good series but it's so frustrating when you start reading them from the beginning and have to wait YEARS for them to finish up. I try to stay away from them until it gets close to the release of the last one.

{ Rachel } at: September 22, 2012 at 10:34 AM said...

I agree with everything you said, but would add one more bullet point. For me as a reader and a writer, standalones in their current format don't cover a long enough time period to delve into true character change.

This is especially true in YA where books tend to run between two weeks to six months (I know there are plenty of examples of longer stories, but in general...). To really see a person struggle / face their demons / change you need a longer time period.

You also need a larger word count to amp up the conflict and have the character face increasing challenges to their selves (culminating in the climax of themselves as a person - HP did this really well). Depth of character struggle is hard to achieve in 65K words because so few struggles can be given scenes. But 400K written over four or five books? - much more satisfying.

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