Series Sensibility

Lately, I've been in the mood for "comfort reads," many of them books belonging to series I've enjoyed for some time. From Eve Dallas and Roark's capers in J.D. Robb's In Death series to Mma Ramotswe's latest adventures (if you could call them that, since not a lot ever happens) in Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series) to Harlan Coben's Myron Bollitar, I've been tending toward known quantities in a time of uncertainty.

None of this is to say that I don't love and enjoy (and generally prefer, in fact) stand-alone titles. I've just been in a mood, that's all, and it's extended to my writing, where a secondary character from next month's release Beneath Bone Lake stormed into my head and demanded a book of her own. I'm editing that manuscript, called Hangman's Bayou, right now, and it's got me thinking about the pros and cons of writing a series.


1. Can save the author time on research, world-building, and character development.
2. May build reader loyalty as people enjoy revisiting "old friends" or need to find out what happens to characters in which they already have an investment.
3. Sells backlist titles with each new release.
4. Allows author to enrich fictional world with each addition to the series.
5. Gives the publisher an opportunity to "brand" the series, release titles back-to-back, and keep backlist titles in print.

1. Increases the chance for errors, as author may forget details from manuscripts written years before. (Many authors keep detailed series' notebooks to help keep things straight.)
2. Some readers won't pick up any books in a series until it's completely written for fear of being burned by dropped series. (Series are often dropped due to weak sales or other factors.)
3. Many readers won't start with the author's current release but insist on beginning with the first book in the series. (As I reader, I tend to do this.) So unless the series gets off to a very strong start and the publisher keeps the backlist readily available, sales of each title may drop off.)
4. Author has little control over gap between publication of the titles, backlist staying in print and in stores, etc. Without strong publisher commitment, even a terrific series will fail.
5. Author can get "trapped in" a world that loses its freshness. Readers may reject any other offering from this author, possibly requiring her to use another name and start over if creative needs take her in another direction.
6. Readers (and author, see above) may grow tired of the series (especially if characters never significantly grow.)

I often see unpublished writers make the mistake (or what usually turns out to be a mistake) of writing sequels to their unsold projects. The trouble is, beginning writers (if they're any good) improve so much with each manuscript that by the time they complete a saleable manuscript (this often happens around Book Three) the first one looks godawful in comparison and may never sell. Also, as my brilliant agent warned me, when writing series, authors tend to hold back "the good stuff," saving it for future books. But there won't be any future books in the series unless you put your very, very best into the first one.

So what are your views on reading and writing series? Are you loyal to any of them? Have you written or are you considering writing any? Why or why not?


Suzan Harden said…
I love series that have a definite story arc and (I know this is blasphemy to some) a definite end. Rowlings' Potter comes to mind.

On other series, as long as the writing's fresh and the characters are growing (Jim Butcher's Dresden Files), keep 'em coming.

I have to admit I accidentally started writing a series, simply because the characters would not leave me alone, though I try to make sure each book stands alone. And there is an overall story arc, i.e. a definite beginning, middle & end, to the entire series. It may never see the light of day, but I'm having fun and learning a lot while typing away.
Joni Rodgers said…
I would really love to write a series. You're so spot on when you call certain books "comfort reads", and I think there's such a thing as "comfort writes" as well. Fiction is the sanctuary I retreat to between nonfiction projects, and it would be lovely to people that place with old friends.
lark said…
Since the next book in my favorite series (JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood) was released today, this is an especially interesting topic to me.

I love series but, except for the BDB, prefer each story to stand alone. Jayne Ann Krentz's Arcane Society series seems to do that as do several of the historical series--Lisa Kleypas and Mary Balough come to mind. In those, a secondary or related character from one book becomes the star of another. Or they all have some sort of family tie. They're a little better read in order but are completely satisfactory on their own.

Your observations about the pros and cons are dead-on. And food for thought.

I agree with Suzan--a series with a continuous plot thread needs to have a definite end. As much as I love Elizabeth George's Lindley series, I'm sorry to admit she wore me out 2 books ago. And while we're at it, how many bad days can Jack Bauer have?!!!!
jfrank14 said…
I am continually surprised by how much I love Lee Child's series--it's the only one I've read in years. I've said this elsewhere--after reading a Reacher book, I just feel like I can kick some bad ole you-know-what!

Other than that, I tend toward stand alones, although I love what say, Harlan Coben or Tana French do with their books, where the setting becomes the recurring character instead of the protagonist, and you get these prismatic views of people and things in the story world from one book to another.
Authors sometimes forget how invested readers feel in series. I was infuriated recently when a suspense author, pretty much without warning, *blew up* a character I'd followed through not only that novel but a number of books - having him die in the arms of a wife who'd suffered bigtime to get some little crumb of happiness. I've never been so disappointed in a book - ruined the whole series for me. I wish she would have let those people be and simply started a different series if she felt she had to.
Suzan Harden said…
I must admit I was totally wrong. In an inerview on Bitten by Books, Jim Butcher says he does have an overall arc to The Dresden Files and has the last three books plotted.
A little late on this, but... as an author, my best successes have come with series rather than standalone books, so I continue to write series. I enjoy it also because I can explore the world more fully, plus spend time with old "friends."

That said, I think series should have a definite end at some point. A series can go on and on long after the readers are tired of it at a publisher's insistence (and perhaps the authors are being paid well to keep going--why take the risk of doing something new and untried?). I like to start series with an end in sight, and do the very best job I can while I'm writing each of the books. For me, depending on the series, I prefer three to ten books (shorter for romance series, longer for mystery or fantasy series).

As a reader--I shamelessly love series! Most of what I read are series, with the occassional foray into the standalone.

In fact, one of the few standalone authors I read is--Colleen Thompson. Which is because Colleen delivers a rich, full, fulfilling book that can stand strongly on its own. Standalones like that are simply wonderful. Not that I won't rush out and buy book two of Beneath Bone Lake! Cause I'm already looking forward to it. :-)
Thanks so much for the kind words about my books, Jenn! You're definitely the voice of experience on series. I loved your Capt. Lacey historical mystery series, and you're off to such a great start with your Mackenzie series. I've been tell everyone I know about THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE, and we're looking forward to your visit to the blog in a few days.
By the way, my manuscript, Hangman's Bayou, has been retitled TOUCH OF EVIL. Though it wasn't my idea to do so, I like it a lot.

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