Series or Standalone: Which Do You Prefer?

Just for fun, I decided to count up the books on my physical shelf (so these figures don’t include my e-book collection) and figure out the percentage of series versus standalone novels. Because that’s what everyone does for fun, right? Right.

Anyway. It was no surprise to me to find that the large majority of the books on my shelf were part of a series, but what I found interesting was the enormous discrepancy between series and standalone books, at least on my shelf.

For context purposes, my shelf is comprised of 37% Adult novels (nearly all from one author, heh heh)  48% Young Adult and 15% Middle Grade.
And for more context, the genre breakdown is as follows: 62% Fantasy (of all types—Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, High, etc.), 17% Thriller, 7% Sci-Fi (Note to self: buy more Sci-Fi), 3% Contemporary, 10% Dystopian and 1% Horror.
Now the series figures. Are you ready?

A whopping 82% of my bookshelf are books that are part of a series (versus 18%, for those who don’t like math).
And out of the series books, 44% are part of a trilogy.
Out of those standalone novels, 73% are Adult.
Out of the trilogies, 77% were Young Adult and 23% were Adult. (The two Middle Grade series I’ve collected on my shelf are part of a longer series).
So this probably says a lot more about my book buying habits than it does about trends and the industry, but I know I’m not the only one whose noticed that as of late at least, series seems to be king. Particularly trilogies. And I’ve noticed that some people seem to be getting tired of it.

I read a post not too long ago that mentioned that years ago, the promise of a trilogy made it easier to sell a book. It makes sense—the promise of more books equates more money in the long run, however, the post also mentioned that nowadays, you’re about equally likely to sell a standalone compared to a trilogy. (I forget what post this was from, but if anyone recognizes it feel free to let me know. I like giving credit where credit is due).

As far as reading goes, I’m not sure that I really have a preference. I love trilogies, series and duologies alike, although the trilogy format always seemed to be a perfect amount to complete a full story arc to me (although I still love longer series just as much, *ehem* Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, Mortal Instruments and Percy Jackson). A series allows us to extend our time in worlds we love with characters we love, and I think that’s really special.

I’ve also seen a new trend of series comprised of companion novels, like the Graceling series the Losing It series, which I find especially interesting because they allow us to learn more about the story world an see aspects of that world that the original main characters couldn’t show us. And that, to me, is fascinating. As an added bonus—no cliffhangers! Every book has a fully completed arc from start to finish.

All that being said, I enjoy standalone novels just as much. The Fault in Our Stars was perfect on it’s own, as were some of my Adult favorites like Immanuel’s Veins, Thr3e and The Bride Collector.

As for writing, all of the manuscripts I’ve written thus far were written with a series in mind (although I haven’t written any sequels for reasons explained here). But with NaNo coming up and new ideas taking hold, I think I’d like to play with straight-out standalones in the future. With maybe an idea or two for companion books. Who knows?

So those are my thoughts, now I want to hear from you: when reading or writing (or both), do you prefer series or standalone novels? Why? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
When reading or writing, do you prefer series or standalone novels? Join the discussion at @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)  
To series or not to series? Writer @Ava_Jae counts her books, makes pie charts & shares series & standalone stats. (Click to tweet)  


Laura Rueckert said...

I like series better. I love getting to know the world and the characters and seeing them develop. One reason I began writing was because I would spin stories (books, tv, movies) longer in my mind if I felt they were over too quickly.

For both the last two novels I wrote, I intended them to be standalones, but one turned into a series when I was half-done with the first book ("it can't end like that!"). The other, during the last chapter ("uh-oh, there's way more..."), although that one would be more like a companion novel. Looks like I'll keep trying for a standalone.

Ava Jae said...

I do really like companion novels, so I suspect even my attempts at standalone will leave companion potential. We'll seeeee.

But I do hold a good series close to my heart. It's wonderful being able to spend extra time with favorite characters and worlds. :)

Melissa Maygrove said...

I like standalones. I also like series where the MCs are new each time (maybe secondary characters from a previous book) and the reader doesn't need to read the previous titles to enjoy the story. (Although, when I happen upon a series late in the game, I sometimes opt to read them in order.)

When it comes to series, including trilogies, I'm starting to read more of them, but they're still not my favorite. My problem with them is that the authors typically do not release them rapidly enough. (This is especially aggravating when there's a cliffhanger ending. Grrr) By the time the next installment comes out, I've moved on to something else and my memory is fuzzy.

One cure for this is to wait until the whole series is out and THEN read it.

I've started reading a few short works (novellas, novelettes), but I prefer full-length novels. If I'm going to invest time in getting to know characters and their setting, I want to sink into the story and stick with them for a good, long while. :)

Ava Jae said...

I also have a growing fondness for companion novels (the series you mentioned with new MCs every time), though I've only come across...two so far? Something like that. I hope to see more in the future.

You're right about the release thing as far as series goes, which is why I often tend to re-read the previous book before reading a new release in a series. That way, when I read the sequel, everything is fresh in my mind. :) Or you can wait and read them back-to-back. That works, too.

I haven't really read very many shorter works in a long while, as I also prefer full-length novels. Though I do occasionally read novellas related to a series. Those can be pretty interesting.

Lauren said...

As a reader I like series the best especially if it is a good book because it means I get to spend longer in their world with their friends and everything. It also means that plots are never rushed. I have read so many series as they came out and series like the Ranger's Apprentice Series almost always ended in a cliffhanger and I would have to wait at least a year to finish it but there were always other books I could read in the mean time. I am one of those people who has ten different series on her book shelf that I haven't finished yet so cliffhangers don't really bother me all that much. Standalone books always leave me wanting more!
As a writer I like series better because I have more times to make my readers really, really, attached to my characters which means that their problems matter even more in the last couple of books. Their (the readers) emotions tend to be stronger because they have had even longer to bond with the characters. My plots can also be more complicated because I have longer to develop them.

Lesley Whyte said...

This might sound stupid (and you may have mentioned it but I didn't spot it - long day and a headache, otherwise I'd reread) but with anything that was part of a series, did you count all the books in the series as one or each instalment individually? Can't help thinking that including Harry Potter as seven books would inflate the number of series ones.

Either way, I think you're right, there's a huge trend towards series at the moment and it's not one I totally agree with. I often find myself finishing a book and thinking I really liked it, then becoming annoyed when I find out there's a sequel. I just wondered from a geeky numbers perspective how you treated series that you owned multiple instalments of.

Grace said...

I like the idea of companion novels. (Is that what used to be called spin-offs, or does that term apply only to series and/or TV shows? Similar concept, though). I like series, though I often avoid reading them simply because I know it'll take a long time to finish (or, if it's a long series that's just begun, worrying that the author might give up and not actually finish it). Stand-alones often leave me wanting more, if I enjoyed the story. So I guess I'd have to say that trilogies and/or companion stories would probably be my favorite. And a trilogy is what I'm writing right now.

Shay Dee said...

I'm neither here or there about series or trilogies but probably because I haven't read one in ages, particularly a series. I used to read L.J Smith's Night world series when I was younger but too much introspection put me off.

The way I look at it, is if it's good writing I'll read it. If I sense padding, I'm out. And as Melissa said, waiting is no fun. At this point I assume the quality of the future books will be determined by whether or not the author had more in mind (meaning it's all planned out and ready to be written) or if once that contract was signed the words "Mwoar!!!" left someones mouth - this is usually where the padding comes in.

I don't think I'll ever write a series, but I know I'm capable of writing a trilogy, but this decision isn't based on the simple idea of writing a trilogy, but the word count of the story as a whole. I find it easier to write a story all in one go then split it if the word count is too high. At the moment I'm writing one book but still titling the sections "Part One" and so on. This way I know where to break the story for a potential trilogy (or just a sequel) even though the the word count may be enough to have the book do fine as a stand alone. It's nice to have options!

Completing a story in one go also means that I can still add things or cut things in my beginning should I have a different idea for my ending. Basically, nothing is written in stone if nothing is published.

I'll also add that with series and trilogies, some people seem to get annoyed at the mere suggestion of it. I hear the words "money making" a lot in book reviews. Yet in television series, no one seems to complain about this. Is it because watching something is less taxing? Hmmm....

wendynikel said...

I used to really enjoy series, but now I prefer stand-alone novels. It may just be because my reading habits have changed... I used to read less, so I'd want something that I *knew* was going to be something I'd enjoy, but now I read more, and a wider variety of genres, and I find myself more often choosing to read something *new* than something that's just a continuation of something I've read before.

Tex Thompson said...

Full disclosure: mine's a series. Not even a nice bunch of Babysitter's Club standalones, either - one of the annoying involved ones where you have to wait a year to find out who is or isn't Luke's father.

I tell you who got it right, though: Terry Pratchett. Three dozen + books in his Discworld series, and every one's a standalone - real proper "pick up any one you like and go for it" standalones, not "well technically you could start with the third book but then you won't get the various references and there are hella spoilers" standalones. AND YET - and yet! - when you finish one and are all, "That was AWESOME, what else do you have about the Night's Watch?" he's like "Why, these six right over here!"

That requires a hell of a knack, I think. Easy to build a road moving in one direction - very difficult to make a roundabout that people can enter and exit from any point.

Ava Jae said...

All totally valid points about series books. I agree on all counts with the exception of standalone novels leaving me wanting—thus far at least, the standalones I've read usually ended well enough that I was happy with the resolution. Though if there was a sequel, I probably wouldn't mind. :)

Ava Jae said...

Ok, so I actually did it the series as one at first, but then I decided that wasn't accurate because I wanted to count up the percentage out of the number of books I had, so I did it again counting every book individually and posted those numbers. But when I did the series, it was still a majority (though I think it was in the 60s versus 80s, if I remember correctly). I also (unfortunately) lost the majority of my HP books during a move, so the seven books didn't get counted, only one did. But four Percy Jackson and six Artemis Fowl books did end up in the count, so I do understand what you mean about inflating the series numbers. I suppose either way it'd be slightly skewed, but in both cases the series was a majority. So yes.

Also I don't think it's a stupid question, because it's one I struggled with myself when I was counting. :)

Ava Jae said...

Yes, companion novels are basically like spin-offs. They tend to feature characters that were mentioned in the first book (although that's not always the case), and they always take place in the same world as the first book, so they relate to each other. I think it's pretty darn fantastic. :)

Ava Jae said...

I find it interesting that people complain about using a series to make money, like that's a bad thing. As you said, TV shows and movies do it all the time (with pretty decent success), and after all, writing books is a large portion (or all) of a writer's income, so...I don't see the problem.

At any rate, I think padding is what most people who tend to end up disappointed with a series worry about. I haven't personally encountered a series (yet) where I thought oh, this is just a lot of padding, but I tend to be pretty easy to please if I'm enjoying a series—and if I've bought the sequel, it's usually because I'm enjoying the series.

Ava Jae said...

I can definitely see how changing reading habits can certainly affect series/standalone preference. I tend to buy books based solely on whether or not they sound interesting, and if it's a series, great. But half the time I don't realize it's a series until I've finished the book and see a "coming soon" type page at the end, or an indication of future books on Goodreads. Either way, whether it's series or standalone doesn't really factor into whether or not I want to read something.

Ava Jae said...

That's really great, to have a series where every book could be read on it's own but they all relate. I think it's part of the reason I'm really enjoying companion novels, even though I haven't found all too many thus far. But I see the appeal for sure.

RoweMatthew said...

I prefer and greatly admire stand alones. I feel trilogies are standard now and series are just as prevailant. Doesn't anyone know how to write a single self contained story anymore? Hardly, it seems. There's always plot points left open and some parts that don't make sense until you read book two. I'm tired of that. I'm not saying there are no good series because there certainly are, but I feel a series can never be a perfect story. It winds on here and there, characters from all over the place, by the time you get to the end, I wonder what happened at the start! However, a stand alone can be perfect. Write a brilliant hero, villain, supporting characters, introduce plot points, foreshadow, action, action, despair, action and the whole story wraps up completely. A nice concise story.

I realise this is a bit weird. Not long ago people were sick of happily ever afters and wanted stories to be more continuous like real life but in doing that we are losing the stories themselves. Stories become like real life and you've lost that fantasy element, the escapism, instead you have to mentally and emotionally cope with another ongoing struggle for people who don't really exist. I like a story that ends. It doesn't have to be like real life because I want a story; something more simple than life, more enjoyable, more fantastic.

Having said that, I often find when I am planning a story that I think there are too many ideas there and I will have to do a series. I haven't given in to that yet even though my first novel is part of a series..... But it just is that way by it's very nature. It was t a decision I made.

Ellen B said...

Great discussion! I've been working on the first book in what will be a series, but it won't fit normal expectations of a series... Each book is meant to stand alone, but will feature the same MCs.

I've read lots of series books (especially since beginning this project) but find that I just don't have the patience -- nor the means (we live full-time on the road, so I pick up books when/where we find them in bookstores along the way) to start at the beginning of a series and read them through.

For example, I read a lot of Nevada Barr but got frustrated because I wasn't reading them in order, couldn't keep straight whether she was in a relationship or out, what had happened, whether this was before or after one of her stints at national park A or B, and though they weren't key elements in any of the mysteries, I still felt a little out of whack with the story because the backstory was like shifting sand under my feet.

I like the idea of consistent main characters readers get to know, but because my target readers for my book are other travelers, I want them to feel as though they can pick up any book in the series and not feel as though they missed a huge chunk of something.

Does this make sense? Such a great group here, I can't help asking :)

Ava Jae said...

I wouldn't say that people write series or trilogies because they don't know how to write a standalone—it's usually a conscious decision made for several reasons. I do understand, however, the series fatigue that some people (including yourself) have mentioned. Trilogies especially seemed to have developed into a sort of trend, but now it seems more authors are exploring their options (which, I think, is why we're starting to see a rise in companion novels, which to me are the best of the both worlds).

Ava Jae said...

That does make sense! I actually think another commenter mentioned liking a series for that precise reason—the ability to pick up any book in the series in any order and enjoy it...yes, I just found it: Tex Thompson mentioned enjoying Terry Pratchett's Discworld series for that reason. :)

I think it's a neat idea, writing a series of standalones, so to speak. Very interesting.

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