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Series or stand-alone?

Series or stand-alone?

Many a literary agent, editor or publisher will tell you that long-running serials sell much better than standalones. Independent writers are continually told by industry insiders that if they want to break into the mainstream market, they stand a much better chance if they pen a manuscript ensuring that the main character will return (preferably on many occasions) rather than fashion a one-off tale.

But why is this? Why are series more appealing to readers and more successful? Why, therefore, do writers feel under pressure to go down this route? Here are my thoughts, examining the benefits and drawbacks of both standalones and series.

Standalones – the pros

By their very nature, standalones generally depict a very passionate story. The author has the chance to compose a tale based on a theme they want to pursue, a story they want to unravel and a message they want to transmit to the reader. They are free to express that story in any way they see fit, tying up any loose ends if they wish, exploring any theme or location to the limit, knowing they or their characters will never go down this road again. The shackles aren’t as much off; they were never on in the first place.

Authors can also lead their main protagonist down any dark alley they want to, even if the outcome proves fatal. The reader is on edge because they know that the character they’ve bonded with faces any degree of peril. The writer is doing it their way; they are pulling all the strings because they are under no pressure to sustain any part of the story or a character for a future instalment.

Whenever a media outlet releases a list of the greatest (or most popular) novels of all time, standalones are always there glowing in the limelight. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Catch 22, David Copperfield and many more – these are works that carry a central emotive core and bare the author’s soul; unbridled creations and unique artefacts.

That creative freedom also makes standalones very enjoyable to write, and for authors trying to pen a crucial ‘breakout’ novel, the framework of a no-holds-barred tale provides a strong vehicle for them to shake off their inhibitions and reach for the stars.

Standalones – the cons

Imagine if Ian Fleming, having written Casino Royale, had left James Bond and moved on to another project. Standalone books can produce great high-stakes tales but there’s the downside that stopping at one story prevents further development of a fascinating character, denying readers the prospect of enjoying this protagonist taking on more challenges, and also denying authors possible room to nurture their craft and advance their careers.

There’s no doubt that the huge cultural impact certain recurring characters have had on the world (Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe et al) has done wonders for crime fiction and duly rewarded their authors with much deserved adulation.

Another point to consider here is that sometimes a standalone can end up too long, possibly to the extent that the author may well have considered splitting it into a mini-series somewhere along the line but stuck with it anyway. The prospect of changing a book’s format long into the writing process is always a difficult one to consider. And sometimes the total freedom an author enjoys with a standalone can lead to self-indulgence on their part and a story/theme that winds out of control. That line is always close to being crossed, though, in a trade that ultimately depends on huge reserves of creativity and bravery.

Serials – the pros

Within the context of a series, particularly a long-running one, absorbing characters can be further enriched so they become legends, both literary and cinematic. There is plenty of room in standalones to develop and focus on characterisation (as there is setting and plot), of course, but with a series authors can give themselves and their readers more time with their heroes, or at least characters people are fascinated by and have formed a connection with.

Another good thing about serials, especially in crime fiction, is that the cream of writing talent often rises to the top; series formats have allowed some magnificent writers to forge thoroughly deserved successful careers. Not many publishers dish out multi-book deals to poor writers. There are some exceptions, of course, but it’s more a case that some writers have been luckier than others in the marketplace, rather than some outright dreadful ones being hideously rewarded time and time again.

Why are series more appealing to readers and more successful? Why, therefore, do writers feel under pressure to go down this route..?

The likes of Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Ray Banks have all developed as writers over the course of sticking with their returning characters, the pressures of meeting their regular instalments perhaps forcing them to harness their craft more quickly – and ultimately more confidently and effectively – than they otherwise would have done.

Serials also offer authors the opportunity to write a mini-series based mainly on theme rather than one principal character. With these, each book is often significantly different to the other in terms of timeframe, or minor characters becoming major ones in the next book and vice versa.

Series novels also tend to get talked about more in social circles (so I’ve noticed anyway), allowing more opportunities for readers to share their experiences and boosting the author’s profile in the process.

An extensive, consistent body of work seems to bring people together more than standalones appear able to, and anything that gets people talking about reading, whether it’s at home, work, on the beach or on social media, is a positive thing – not just for the author, but the industry as a whole.

Serials – the cons

The main downside of an author under pressure to publish a regular segment of a long-running series is the danger that they end up just churning them out. Just as their main character may have helped that author achieve fame, the repetitive process can also push them over the edge. Pumping out a novel a year to meet marketplace pressure can be a trap to penning prose unworthy of the writer and their initial career ambitions, and that’s a real shame.

This has also led to a worrying situation where too many new writers feel they have to launch their career with a main character that has ‘plenty of legs’. All too often this results in the creation of a cliché-ridden detective we’ve all read enough of. You know the type; divorced, has a troubled relationship with his teenage son/daughter who’s growing up too fast, despises corporate suits and bureaucracy, unwinds with a stiff drink in his hand and music anyone under 35 would scoff at. A new writer doesn’t stand much chance of hooking the interest of an agent with such dour and predictable characterisation.

Another difficult aspect of writing recurring characters – for beginner authors as well as established ones – is maintaining an engaging and distinctive plot in each book. As the stakes rise in the final third, we always know the main character will get out of this latest scrape relatively unscathed because they’ll be back for another adventure. It’s up to the writer to get around this issue as skilfully as they can, keeping the tension high and the story sharp. If they don’t, the plot swiftly loses its punch and the regular character loses their appeal.

Series are obviously easier to market – the industry loves them, often to the extent that a new release is promoted as a series right from the off. David Peace’s ‘Tokyo trilogy’ was marketed as such on the release of the first instalment in 2007.

After releasing the second in 2009, Peace drifted away from the concept and wrote Red or Dead, his standalone novel about the late Bill Shankly. At the time of writing, there’s still no sign of the final part of the Tokyo trilogy. Perhaps a sign that the desire for a series is more pressing for the marketing people than it is for the authors.

About The Author

Jeremy is the Managing Director of Troubador Publishing Ltd, owner of the Matador self-publishing imprint and of The Book Guild Ltd. Troubador also runs an annual Self-Publishing Conference, and publishes the Self-Publishing Magazine online.

From the editor…

As we enter the autumn, the publishing industry is gearing up for the great Christmas rush. For self-publishers, this is often a frustrating time of year, with many not realising the long timescales that retailers work to. If you haven't already got your book in production, it's looking likely that it won't be ready in time for Christmas!

Even if you do get your book ready well in advance of the holiday season, getting retailers to take notice can be difficult. There are so many big books from the established publishing houses that it can be impossible to get noticed. That can mean that you forsake what appears to be the best selling season in favour of a time when there are fewer big books around, so in the early spring, for instance.

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Yet that can work in your favour in fact... sell privately before Christmas, sell to the retailers afterwards when they are looking for new titles. A win-win for all!

In the next few months we will be altering the way that this magazine reaches readers, so watch this space!

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