Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Stand-Alone Books vs. Series

Young adult authors can't stop with just one. It seems like every successful book out there nowadays is followed up with a sequel, then often more books after that. If there's not a straight sequel, then you often find companion novels (such as Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door or Leah Cypess' Mistwood and Nightspell). Stand-alone novels are becoming as rare as penguins in Florida.

Why So Many Series?

If you want to be cynical, and I often do, you can answer this question with one word: Money. If a book is successful, subsequent books with the same characters probably will also be successful. Ka-Ching for publishers, authors, and booksellers.

Of course, most of the authors I've met do enjoy eating. And with the dominance of Amazon and the rise of e-readers, it's harder and harder to earn enough off a book to put dinner on the table. Who can blame them for trying to make a living?

The temptation to write more than one book is motivated by more than money. Authors love their characters. It's hard to say goodbye after just one book. Plus, many authors are like me in that their intention to write three paragraph quickly turns into three pages. If they put their plot ideas into one book, it would be 2,000 pages. Better to break it up.

Series: Bad or Good?

A lot of bloggers note stand-alone books with admiration. They stand out due to their rarity. But being a series is not necessarily a bad thing.

On the Pro-Stand-Alone side, it is a talented author who can fully develop characters, build a world, and craft a plot from beginning to end in a single novel. Three or four hundred pages isn't that much to make readers fully understand the characters' world. Authors must be able to pack a lot of information into relatively few words.

Back to the "it doesn't really matter" side...As much respect as I have for a well-done stand-alone novel, for many story arcs it simply isn't practical. For example, could the Lord of the Rings be fully set out in one novel? Could Harry Potter? Could Twilight?

Pro-series: A series can be so much richer than a stand-alone novel. Assuming the plot and characters develop more with each novel, the reader becomes immersed in a world for a much longer period of time. Let's consider Maggie Stiefvater's The Wolves of Mercy Falls series as an example. We got to know Sam, Grace, and the idea of the werewolves in Shiver. Alone, Shiver is a wonderful book. But it becomes so much more with Linger and Forever when Isabel and Cole become main characters and the idea of a cure for the werewolves becomes a possibility. Plus, the romance between Sam and Grace has time to be challenged and to grow stronger.

Too Much or Not Enough: The Challenge of Finding Just Right

So you're an author and you're going to write a series. Do you write two The ideal number of books in a series is tricky. Write too few and you might as well snatch my slice of chocolate cake out from under me when I've only had one bite. Write too many and you've served more and more cake until I'm ready to throw up and swearing that I'll never eat cake again in my life.

I think three is the ideal number. At two books, the reader is just getting to know the world and the characters. You end the series just as I'm primed and ready for more. For example, I was particularly disappointed that Once A Witch and Always A Witch by Carolyn MacCullough was only two books. I loved the characters and wanted to hang out with them longer. On the other hand, more than three books risks over staying your welcome. Like a TV show after eight seasons. Every plot point has been done to death and there's nothing new to learn about the characters.

There are series that demand more than three books. Harry Potter could not logically have been concluded in less than seven novels since it followed Harry through each year of school. Another series that I love, The Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita stretched out to six books. Six books weren't necessary for character development, but it did have multiple story lines that made each of the six novels unique and interesting.

On the negative side, I don't really think Twilight needed to be four books. Breaking Dawn definitely has a strong plot line and lots of character development - and unlike many people, I like the book. But I think the story-line could have been adjusted so that Bella became a vampire and she and Edward lived happily ever after by the end of Eclipse, and readers would have been perfectly satisfied (or perhaps more satisfied given the controversy of Breaking Dawn).

In another realm, are the sitcom books. Think the Babysitter's Club or Goosebump series. There can be hundreds of books. These series are the Seinfeld's of the book world. While there is some character development throughout the series, each book is mostly a stand-alone novel. The authors have every reason to keep writing these books as long as people will read them, even if they have to recycle storylines.

Types of Books

Paranormal Series and Stand-Alone

Series are most prevalent with paranormal novels. I can hardly think of a single paranormal romance novel that doesn't have at least two books in the series. Most have three or more. The only stand-alone book that comes to mind is Sunshine by Robin McKinley. Can you think of others?

Stand-Alone: Sunshine by Robin McKinley
Series: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer; Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead; Wolves of Mercy Falls by Maggie Stiefvater; Caster Chronicles by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl; The Mortal Instrument series by Cassandra Clare; The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa; The Wings series by Aprilynne Pike

Fantasy Series and Stand-Alone

Fantasy also commonly has multiple books. The reason behind this is the same as paranormal - usually the author has created a detailed world and an evolving storyline and characters. One book won't do the plot justice.

Stand-Alone: The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab; Princess Academy by Shannon Hale; Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine; Coraline by Neil Gaiman; Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
Companion Books: Mistwood & Nightspell by Leah Cypess
Series: Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce; Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Contemporary Series and Stand-Alone

Contemporary is where you most commonly find stand-alone novels. This is understandable. We all know the world that a modern 16-year-old girl (or whatever he or she may be) lives in. We need to be introduced to her family, her friends, and all the various challenges she faces...but it doesn't take a map and a list of characters to familiarize ourselves with the world. Similarly, the plots typically aren't complex enough to require multiple books. When there is more than one book, it's often another episode in that character's life, rather than a continuation of an ongoing plot.

Stand-Alone: Sarah Dessen's books; Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard; Elizabeth Eulberg's books; Epic Fail by Claire LeZebnik; Justina Chen Headley's books; Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Companion Books: Anna and the French Kiss & Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins; If I Stay & Where She Went by Gayle Forman; Perfect Chemistry books by Simone Elkeles
Series: Dairy Queen books by Catherine Gilbert Murdock; President's Daughter books by Ellen Emerson White; Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita; The Daughters series by Joanna Philbin; The Mother Daughter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Frederick

Historical Fiction Series and Stand-Alone

Historical fiction also usually has stand-alone novels. The reason is similar to contemporary, although I think that multiple books might be required to adequately establish a historical setting. And many significant events in history have plot lines that need multiple books. But typically the books come one at a time, unless there is a paranormal element to the novel (think Libba Bray or Michelle Zink). Perhaps money is the reason that there aren't more historical series. Historical fiction doesn't usually sell as well as other genres.

Stand-Alone: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys; Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; Eva Ibbotson's books; Ann Rinaldi's books
Companion Books: The Upstairs Room & The Journey Back by Johanna Reiss
Series: The Royal Diaries series; The Dear America Series; The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen; The Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer

Do you prefer stand-alone novels or series? What are some of your favorite stand-alone books? What are some of your favorite series? Feel free to supplement my list


  1. I struggle with this on a daily basis.. I love stand alone books..I want an ending that I do not have to wait for. Recently I read The Near ended..I was happy..we all lived happily ever after. On series I go back and forth..I am one of the Breaking Dawn didn't need to be written, it just kinda went out in a bizarre twist ( don't be hating on me people..we all have our opinions ) Also as much as I love The Mortal Instruments I should have stopped with the 3rd one. I hated hated the ending on the 4th book, but you better believe I will be buying the 5th to see what happens. In the Wolves of Mercy Falls, I should have stopped with the 1st one. I was happy with the ending, got mad in the second book I mean really? After all that goes on in the first book and its tied up sweetly at the end and then BAM its messed up again. I know, where is my sense of adventure. I think if you are having a series 3 books give you plenty to tell a story and then wrap it up, I can go 3 books, but I will always love the stand alone book! My gosh I ranted..sorry =o)

  2. I think it really depends, but a lot of times I love series. I love the feeling of getting attached to a little world and the characters in it and I like to stay immersed as long as possible, well, if it's a good world. Just give me the completed series though - I hate waiting.

    I've noticed with myself that I often like later books better than the first and I think that has a lot to do with the attachment that comes from being immersed in a book for so long as well as most often you see more realistic growth in the characters.

    I never actually finished Breaking Dawn - I thought it drug on too long and was bored by it all by then. I think that it definitely should have been cut down to three.

    Interesting and thought provoking post!

  3. I like both. I wish there were more stand-alone books. But, I also love being with my characters for long periods of time.

  4. It depends. I prefer stand alone novels for the most part. I don't like waiting a year for a new installment. Also, I have a short attention span. I can love a book and not finish the series. I just like so many different things. I don't like committing to a series.

  5. I used to be a huge fan of series, but lately I've grown a bit weary of them. Part of it is that I've read several trilogies that I really feel would have worked better as a standalone (Wolves of Mercy Falls especially). I think series can work well (Vampire Academy and Soul Screamers being two great examples) as long as it's necessary and the author manages to keep the story fresh. And I do enjoy companion books (Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth series is a good example as well as the Perfect Chemistry series, IMO) but it's nice to get to the end of a book and know that you got the whole story and don't have to wait another 1-3 years to read the next installment.

  6. I did a post about this subject a couple of weeks ago myself. I was getting sick and tired of reading series that weren't going anywhere, which was why I was thinking about reverting back to stand alone novels. Great post.

    Felicia @ Livin' Life Through Books

  7. To be honest, I like my series. For me, it's hard to say good-bye to a book's beautiful world and it's great characters. But one of my favorite stand-alone books is Entwined by Heather Dixon and Instructions for a Broken Heart by Kim Culbertson. One of my favorite series is Harry Potter (of course), Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series and Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series.

    Thanks for the interesting post. Happy reading:)

  8. I think the issue with series is that there are just too many of them - I would love them if they were rarer. As it is, I'm wary of starting new series as it can get confusing keeping track of them all, not to mention expensive, having to buy anything from between 3-7 books to have the whole story.

  9. I am in the habit of sampling series. It began when I was the librarian in a school librarian for K-6. There was no way I could read every book for those sixth graders, so I'd read the first book in a series. And stop. Then move on to another series.

  10. To me it all depends on the series and how well planned it was from the get go. A good example is the House of Night series, I honestly haven't read the last two books, because I just lost interest (I think book 10 is about to come out.)
    I love other series like the Iron Fey, Harry Potter, and Vampire Academy, these were well thought out and planned as a pre-determined number.

    My issues with series is that 1) they are too many, 2) it's hard to keep track of what book comes out when (if you din't like the first way do you keep going?), 3) its expensive to buy all these books in order to know the 'end', and 4) I have to wait a whole year for the next installment. Now, I'll be honest and confess that a year later I don't remember some of the details of the previous book and I don't always have time to re-read them.

  11. This was brilliant. After Top Ten Tuesday last week, I've had a lot of ideas rolling around in my head on articles for my blog. This was one of them, but there's no way I can top what you wrote! You hit everything and you did so with style. I love it. Thanks!

  12. I was just thinking about this topic the other day, while I was organising some of my books.

    I think standalone's are definitely more prevalent in adult novels than YA - but they certainly are becoming a rarer occurrence.

    I think that it also has something to do with genres - Crime, for example seems to work well with opened ended long series, that I don't think would quite work in other genres.

    I also agree about what you said about Twilight and really there are a few other series out there that could have been done with wrapping up before they just started dwindling. I haven't finished the true blood, Sookie Stackhouse books yet but I know that loads of my friends have all said the later books just aren't near as good and this series might benefit from being finished. But then they sale well...

    Very interesting post and lots to think about.

  13. The deciding factor for whether or not I enjoy a series is how each story ends. If each book is a complete story in and of itself AND contains subplots that weave the series together, then I usually enjoy them. If the series is just three books to tell one completely story, then it generally drives me crazy. :)
    As for series length...three to seven books is enough. Longer than that tends to get rediculous, especially if authors are juggling huge character casts.

  14. "Authors love their characters. It's hard to say goodbye after just one book." <--This sentence really resonated with me. As an aspiring writer, I am so attached to my characters it isn't funny anymore. They end up being almost as real to you as your real world friends. Then there is the allure of creating popular characters that readers identify with and love. Affirmation is a powerful motivator and I imagine it's also a big part of what pushes a series along. Besides the $$$. I subscribe to the cynicism newsletter too :)

  15. This is a really great post. I would say my preference is series. I appreciate that the author give us more of characters I've spent time getting to know and invested in. Then, the series has to end sometime and it can be harder to let it go then that at book one. So there are draw-backs. Also, I usually find book 1 is excellent, 2 good, 3 ok, 4 not so good - etc. It's rare all books are of a great standard. Shah. X

  16. I love stand alones but my favourite genre is Thriller/Suspense which I find is easier to write as a stand alone. If there is a series it is only with the continuation of characters but the case is complete which works for me.

    I have learned to love a trilogy but I am not interested in more then 3 books, I would choose not to read them.

    I started a Challenge last year "I Want More" and a rule is that the books cannot be part of a series, I didn't realise how hard it actually would be.

    Favourites are:

    Dan Wells Trilogy - I am not a serial killer
    Michelle Zink's Trilogy - Prophecy Sisters
    Lisa McMann - Wake Trilogy
    Tess Gerritsen - Rizzoli and Isles series

    I am happy to recommend stand alones but would want to know in what genre.


  17. I am more prone to find a stand alone book to read now . I do think that its about the money and characters now. I haven't been invested in a series as I had with Harry Potter and Twilight. But with certain books ie Divergent, Matched..I am more invested in those. Just tired of long series now.

  18. This is a very good question! I struggle with series cause it starts off good then gets repetitive. Or it remains good and I have to wait a long time for the next one.

    I like stand alone cause it does finish, but sometimes I am left with a what happen to the characters now?

  19. I personally am a huge fan of series. I get very attached to my characters and I like knowing there's going to be another book where I can go back and visit that world and spend more time with them. I don't always love cliffhangers though I know they serve their purpose and do what they're intended to do: make me pick up book 2, but I do appreciate a book in a series that concludes one storyline while leaving a larger arc open to be continued. I can't even remember the last stand alone book I read!

  20. I like to mix it up, because sometimes I just want my story to end & not have to wait another year (or two) to see what happens. Some of my favorite stand alones are Jellicoe Road & The Sky is Everywhere, which are both contemporary. I also really liked Possession by Elana Johnson. It's impressive to be dystopian & stand alone!

  21. I can understand the dilemma. But honestly, I enjoy series, except for waiting for the next book. Like a good movie, or TV show, it is sad to see the characters go away. Sure, you could always reread the book, but I like seeing the character progression as they move forward.

    Stand alones are fun. But they also feel like a short run. I enjoy the ride.

    I do agree about balancing a fine line though. To many books can push the reader away. Goosebumps was a little different when I was little. The stories where all different but wrapped around the same author and name. I used to watch an Anime called Bleach though, and there are way to many episodes to keep my attention. I have a short attention span. Cowboy Beebop is more my thing, perfect length.

    Hippies, Beauty, and Books. Oh My!

  22. It depends. I read a lot of series, which is fine, but I see two main problems with series. Firstly, I hate waiting for the next book in series. Secondly, one needs a lot of money if you buy books of an entire series. On the other hand, stand-alone books are so hard to come by nowadays, especially in ma favorite genres, which are exactly those you pointed out as "serial" - paranormal, fantasy and historical fiction. Most of all, I like both kinds, if the content is good.

  23. John Green's books are standalones. I enjoy that they are. So are most of Maureen Johnson's books. Both of these are contemporary.

    Personally, I like series that are actually going somewhere. Books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games couldn't be contained in one book, but I feel that Twilight could have ended at 3. Not that I like the series, but I might have enjoyed it more had there not been a fourth one. I keep hearing bad things about Cassandra Clare's decision to continue with the Mortal Instruments series. I think 3 books can successfully carry an arc of a story without losing any momentum.

    I personally like companion novels where we get to see some familiar characters, but the story isn't about them. Like Perkin's work. I think it was smart that she wrote a story about a different character, but still had familiar characters show up for a glimpse of how they are doing. I just feel that most of the tired series can gain new life and momentum by adopting the companion novel style.

  24. Just a quick note that 'Finnikin of the Rock' isn't a standalone. Book 2, 'Froi of the Exiles', is coming out in Australia in October and early next year in North America. =)

    Anyway, I love series that are well crafted. You're so right about Harry Potter. And I just read all 10 Morganville Vampire books that have been released, and even though I loved some more than others I still enjoyed them all and can't wait to read more about the characters. That definitely takes talent.

    The books I hate most are the ones that feel like the first 1/3 or 1/2 of a book, which I find most often in paranormal books. I think a lot of times those books could be one longer book, because it's not like Book 1 does anything except introduce the characters and the problem. And to me that's not a well crafted book.

    I enjoy standalones and I enjoy trilogies and series. But when I see a trilogy or series I want to see well-crafted plots and developed characters in Book 1 that make me look forward to journeying more with the characters instead of just a cheap cliffhanger gimmick to try and entice me to read Book 2.

  25. I think it depends on the type of book. I think contemporary novels are better as stand alone (like Anna and the French Kiss) but paranormal books (such as the Iron Fey series) are better as series!

    You wrote a great blog post by the way :)

  26. The only paranormal standalones I can think of are The Tear Collector and Low Red Moon, and unfortunately I didn't like either. I like both series and stand alones. However, I don't like really long series, mostly because then I can't convince myself to read them when they're already on the 6th out of 9th book. Just too much work. i don't know exactly what makes series work and what makes stand alones work. I like when authors write stand alones because then I get to explore their writing in all kinds of different situations. But I like series because the characters are just so well developed. Also, I've grown to love companion novels. I used to hate them but now I love them. (Kristin Cashore's Fire made up my mind about that one.)

    Great post.

    - Amanda

  27. I'm such a hypocrit when it comes to this subject: I am someone who really admires when an author can create, develop, and wrap up a story in one go. That's impressive! And yet, I am also someone who, if I've come to love the characters enough in that one book, really does not want to let go of them. Sure, I can always revisit them by rereading the book but I almost always want to see them come back for another adventure!

    I know what you mean though when enough is enough. Some series are just dragged out ridiculously long and the only explanation that I can think of is money because the series is so popular in the beginning. I always hear of the Sookie Stackhouse series especially and how it should have been ended books and books ago but hasn't because of the popularity of the TV show.

  28. I'm a big fan of series, although I do like to intersperse my series reading with great stand-alone books - sometimes I just want a great story that starts and finishes within a couple of hundred pages. I do agree that some series do just drag on and on to the point where the later books lose their interest for me - a big culprit of this in my opinion is A Series of Unfortunate Events, I managed to get to book 9 or 10 but got a bit bored of waiting for plot resolutions. Some series, however, I just can't get enough of such as Alex Rider, Artemis Fowl and Young Samurai - I would keep reading new books in these series to the day I die! I only wish J.K. Rowling would write another 7 books!

    I think, at the end of the day, a mixture of series and stand-alones makes for healthy reading, it's a bit like a balanced diet. And too much of a bad thing is never good for you!

  29. I'm no longer a fan of series books. Mainly because it seems like everything I read is part of a longer series. Most book end on cliffhangers, causing a great deal of trouble for me to remember all the charaters and plots when the next book may not be coming out until the following year.

    I just would like to read stand alone book. A good book which can be read and enjoyed without the hype of another book coming out. I guess the whole series thing is like breeding rabbits its easy for things to get outta hand.

  30. The amazing amount of thought put into this post is much appreciated Alison.

    I have to say I like spending time with well developed characters or lost in worlds that have substance just as much as the next book lover, but sometimes you can totally tell a series book was forced out and it's the kind of bad apple that ruins the tree. Yanno?

  31. Generally, I much prefer stand-alone books, largely because I am extremely impatient and don't want to have to wait to find out what happened! But when it comes to a book I really love, I'm always glad to find out that there's more to come :)

  32. I really don't mind series as long as if they are justified- there is a plot to each book, growing character arc, etc. The "Fallen" series by Lauren Kate seems as if it could be one book (I haven't read the latest one so I can't tell). I'm tired of having an unnecessary book 2 which is only filler until I reach the conclusion of book 3.

  33. I'm getting really weary of series. At this point, I'm wrapped up in so many that are really similar, and I forget the original book while I wait for the next one to come out. There are certain series that I love, like the Sookie Stackhouse books, but overall I just want them to move on.

  34. What a thorough post! I'm torn between stand alones and series. I've read a few books that I'm certain are singles, but I would love to seem them become part of a series. That's hard when you feel like there is more to the story after reading the book. On the other hand, some series tend to lag forever it seems until the conclusion. That's really frustrating. Or, the story just seems regurgitated and stale. That's even more frustrating.

  35. I can't tell if it's my love for contemporary or my love for stand-alones made me love the genre (or vise versa). I feel I start but don't finish TONS of paranormal series (like more than 20) but it's always nice to finish a stand-alone awesome contemp book. I love your post, it's thorough and thoughtful and thanks so much for posting it :) Team Stand-alone? :P

  36. Thanks all for your wonderful comments! You brought up a lot of things about series v. stand-alones that I hadn't thought of. Especially about the difficulty of waiting for the next book, the cost, and how I often forget the previous book by the time the next one comes out.

    @Tee I like City of Fallen Angels but I think The Mortal Instruments easily could have ended with book 3 and perhaps should have.

    @Marce Thanks for the series suggestions!

    @Ashley Thanks for telling me Finnikin of the Rock has a sequel. I'm curious. I hope it's not as disappointing as Sapphique was after Incarceron.

    @Amanda Thanks for the series suggestions! I didn't realize that Fire was a companion novel. I still need to read it.

    @Lyrical Brown Thanks for the suggestions. I've been wanting to read Alex Rider and Young Samarai

  37. Great post, Alison! I do love me some sequels but that's just because when I get attached to characters, I just want to keep reading about them. But I definitely do like standalones...and you're right, I do really admire an author when they can capture everything in one book.

  38. I don't mind series. In most cases, the first book ends well enough that if you don't feel like reading on you don't have to. But for the fans who really enjoy the world and characters, it's nice to come back to them.

    I still don't understand what a companion novel is!

  39. I like a mix of both. The reason why is because I usually blow through a series. I've done this with nearly every series as of late because I've been disappointed mid series. Stand alone books are my chance to breathe a little after gasping though a series.

    Companion novels I haven't decided on. I like them if they are fantasy or historical. The Forest of Hands and Teeth companion (and suddenly series) was strange.

    Great post! Love it :)

    ♥ Trish

  40. Wonderful discussion, as always :)

    I don't mind if a book is part of a series or if it's a standalone. What matters most to me is that the book is told in the right amount of books for the story it is telling. I start to get bothered when it feels like a series is stretched beyond its natural limits or when a standalone is so open that I really want more story to help fill in the blanks.

    I do give out a sigh of relief when I read a standalone now though, but that isn't because I don't like series. It's just that I'm impatient so I want to read the whole book NOW and I have a bad memory, so I can't remember all the plot points between each book's publication. I'm loving the new trend some publishers are doing where they publish all the books in a series a few months apart. Like The River of Time series. That's great for me.

  41. Great post!
    I do like series but sometimes I feel a book has ended so nicely that I know I will just leave it there and not bother with the second book!
    With other books I like to read more and feel the story can go more places so will read the second in the series.

  42. The challenge with stand-alones is satisfying the reader. Can the story be self-contained in just one book? Does it strike the balance between leaving the reader wanting more, yet accepting the story that was told, and the ending? Hmmm.

    I love series - GOOD series. My pet peeve is authors who do not know when to quit. I read the Wayfarer Redemption series by Sara Douglass and cried my way through the second trilogy because frankly, all the characters she hadn't killed off were ruined, and the storylines were just ridiculous.

    A good example of the debate is Myra McEntire's Hourglass. This book was everything I wanted - mystery, romance, timey-wimey, inspiring - all in the one book. It could easily have stopped there, but the author is planning at least one sequel - and the story is well-told, so I will read the sequel gladly!

    But I'll tell you...there is nothing quite like an exceptionally told stand-alone. The Time Traveler's Wife, for example. Gorgeous story, and when it was over, it was over. And I was changed for having read it!

  43. Great post. Very concise. It would have taken me forever to write it.


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