Would Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby work out as a series? Well, to an extent, I can see possibilities. A book as long as Moby-Dick, some 206,000 words, could supply a bounty of plots and subplots for a series. And Gatsby? It’s short, just 47,000 words, but oh the characters! I can envision prequels and plenty else. Consider how, in Gatsby: My Story, Michael Spindler brilliantly fleshed out Fitzgerald’s work even if his Gatsby differed radically from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.
Just the same, I’d hate for standalone books to be on the decline, and I appreciate Moby-Dick and Gatbsy as finished stories.
The standalone-vs.-series issues arises by way of a KBoard post where the writer asked: “From a sales perspective, is there any point in writing a stand alone horror novel? I know it seems like everyone who is successful in indie publishing writes series, and I’m currently writing one, but many of my other ideas as ‘one offs’ that I don’t feel could be spun into a series. Would it be a waste of time (in terms of potential financial earnings) to write a few stand alone novels too?”
Yes, I know—“from a sales perspective.” But in an era where lines are blurring between the commercial and the literary, who knows what’s ahead?
If nothing else, will the long-term move to e-books exacerbate the problem? E, after all, makes series more attractive. Without hassles, you can carry all the installments everywhere and easily refresh your memory about books read earlier. No masses of pulped wood to mess with. Just a thin slab of plastic in the form of a cell phone, tablet or dedicated reader.
I say “problem” with a quote in mind from the late Andrew Turnbull’s biography of Fitzgerald. Turnbull tells how Fitzgerald’s second published novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, differed from his first, This Side of Paradise. He writes: “Fitzgerald, with the instinct that distinguishes an artist from a self-repeating hack, had tried something new.” Will the current popularity of series make writers more reluctant to grow with new characters, new plots and new mileus?
That said, it isn’t as if series are inherently trashy. Look at all the proof to the contrary. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, hardly limited Sherlock Holmes to one book. He even featured the master detective in plays.
So what’s your own take on series vs. stand-alone book—in literary terms as well as commercial ones?
Authors who are writing books as a series, whether print or digital, are in many cases making an excellent adaptation to the flood of self-published books on the market.
In the ‘good old days’ your publisher labored to get each of your books into bookstores where, hopefully, they sold. Today, many authors don’t have a publisher with agents visiting bookstores. They’re stuck with what publicity then can generate with their own resources and must face the millions of titles now displayed online.
One trick to catch more fish-like readers is to spread a wide net. Create a half-dozen books and you’re increased by about 600% the chance that a reader will discover one of them and, from that, all of them.
That’s independent of whether the books need to be read sequentially like a Moby Dick broken into four volumes or can, like Sherlock Holmes stories, can be read in almost any order. It even works with non-fiction. I’m now working on the fourth book in my hospital series. Each is different in theme and intended audience, but someone who likes one may want to give the others a try.
There is a catch. It’s not hard, in the each of the later books in a series, to make reference to earlier books. The one hitch is that there’s currently no easy way to have the earlier books refer to the later ones.
There is an answer though. Amazon (Kindle and Createspace), Ingram (LSI and Ingram Spark), and Apple (iBooks) could add a feature that’d let authors and publishers add content to existing print and digital books. For print on demand books, it’d go on the last, left-hand page where on-the-fly printing data is already placed. For digital books, the HTML-like code for the book could reference one last chapter-like document that could be updated any time an author/publisher wants to do so. The retailer would simply replace that existing chapter file with a new one to be downloaded.
The one downside to starting a series is what Conan Doyle experienced with Sherlock Holmes. He grew tired of his detective even as his fans grew more enthralled. He tried to kill off Holmes, but was forced to bring him back. Most authors would be delighted to have a character so popular, they can write book after book about him, reaping the rewards. But some might find that enthusiasm a trap they cannot escape.
There is an upside to creating a popular character like G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective. When GKC’s wife told him the family’s bank account was a bit short, all he needed to do was write another easily sold Father Brown tale to replenish it. Most writers would love to be in that position.
Of course, mention of Doyle and Chesterton brings up an issue. Most of their serials were short stories published in magazines and only later included in books. It’s easy to create a series of short stories than a series of books. Unfortunately, today the market for magazines with short stories seems to have been replaced by an Internet that pays authors little or nothing.
It’s worthwhile to remember that a lot of the literary “greats” published their work serially – not just short stories strung together but entire novels published one magazine at a time.
Regarding series of short stories vs series of novels; keep in mind that one advantage of ebooks is that you are not necessarily pressed to write everything to be book length. Only 4 of the Sherlock Holmes stories were long enough to be considered novels, and even they were relatively short. A series can be connected by characters, over arching plot, or even simply set in the same Universe and the individual stories can be the length that the author feels they need to tell the story. I would infinitely prefer that to the door stopper syndrome that appears to have taken over some genre fiction today.
I would be sad to see stand alone books minimized though. Honestly, I can think of quite a few books that were intended to be stand alone novels that were hurt (in my mind anyway) by the sequels and prequels the authors wrote.
Years ago, a particular author wrote great standalone sci-fi type thrillers. I loved them and read them all. We lived in same area at the time, and so when he held a book signing at the local mall, I was there to get my books signed (which I still treasure), and to talk with other fans of his books. My one and only fan thing.
Then the ‘series’ craze began (and this was before ebooks), and he moved to a series. While good, I never enjoyed them as well as his standalone books and eventually quit reading them. However, I’m in the minority as his books took off and are well received by most of the reading public (and that’s why I’d rather not name him). His standalone books I wound up buying for my Kindle and have re-read them all.
@Kaylin: I remember short stories strung out in magazines and even newspapers, and always read them even if they were junk. ha ha