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Monday, October 08, 2012

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

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.

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.

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.


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.

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!


  1. Excellent post, Deb. Thank you for specifics instead of generalities. :) They were most helpful.


    Harbourlight Books-December 2012

  2. Great advice! I am working on a new English historical series. It is a challenge, but I am enjoying it very much. It's fun for me to write a longer story and know that the secondary characters I am introducing in book one will go on and be able to tell their stories in books 2 and 3. Thanks!
    Carrie Turansky

  3. Excellent and very well written. It doesn't address one point, however. This is not the same decision for a brand new writer that it is for an established writer such as yourself. I like for all of my clients to show series potential in their proposals or to show that they have additional work available (could be more stand alone work). If a publisher spends the time and money developing a new author they like to know that there might be more available to take advantage of their investment. Proposals that show the potential of more are just easier for me to find a home for them, plus the fact that quite a number of publishers that I work with openly say what they are looking for is three book series. Once a writer is well established they no longer have to prove that they aren't a "one book wonder."

  4. Excellent point, Terry. Thanks for the addition. And I agree, Carrie, about not having to say goodbye to secondary characters who never got to shine in Book 1. ;)

  5. Great article, Deb, and I'm with you on loosely connected series where each book can stand alone. My Loving series was like that based on a town with people who knew each other so they reappeared in the books. I wrote seven and that was probably a mistake. Keeping track of details was very difficult.

  6. Phew! I think I'm good, then. I'm working on the second of a series where they are tied mostly by setting. Each story is its own. However, there is a secondary character who becomes more developed in the second. He has a longer story than the main characters in each novel.

  7. Excellent, informative post! And Terry's thoughts for new authors were helpful, as well. Tweeting this for sure.

  8. Wonderful article, Deb. Now I'm off to Amazon to buy your latest!

  9. Bless you for tweeting, Heather. Double bless you for buying, Ane. ; )

  10. I always love hearing your thoughts! Stand-alones are fun occasionally but I do enjoy stories that are somewhat tied together. I'll read a bona-fide series, but if the books are TOO connected and left somewhat hanging from one to the next, and they only come out a year apart, it's hard to remember what happened in the previous book by the time the next one releases!

  11. Great insights, Deb! And they come at a good time as I'm considering which new project ideas to prioritize. Thanks!

  12. Thanks again for stopping by Novel Rocket (a great site, BTW!) and for your encouraging comments.

  13. I like your description of a "stand-alone" series. I can see myself doing that with my books.


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