The Pros and Cons of Writing a Series vs a Standalone Novel | Advice from a Professional Book Editor
Professional book editor in the UK provides the pros and cons between writing a series of books vs a standalone novel, helping aspiring authors to choose a path!
Writing a book is exciting. Perhaps when you’re working on your book, your mind wanders to the future. What will happen when you finish the book? Will you move on to a different project, or write sequels with the same characters and settings?
Sometimes it can be hard to say goodbye to the story and characters you love. But sometimes, it’s fun to dive into something completely new.
So should your book be a standalone, or the first in a series?
Let’s examine the pros and cons of each.
Pros of Writing a Series
Pro: Better for Business. A series has potential for greater business. It’s simple mathematics. More books means more potential money you can make.
A series will also allow you to build an audience of dedicated fans. If you can hook your readers with the first book, they’ll keep coming back for more. There’s less pressure on you to market each book individually. With each new book, you’ll attract new readers to the story, while keeping the original fans.
By growing your fanbase like this, your success will increase with each new book you write.
Pro: Metanarratives. You can create longer and more complex story arcs with a series. Every book in the series will have its own plot and character arcs that rise and fall over the course of that individual book. These arcs can build off of the ones from the previous books, allowing your characters to grow and change over the entire series. This allows for greater depth of the characters and the world.
Writing a series also allows you to explore multiple story threads at once. Each book has its own plot, but then there’s the metanarrative weaving all the books in the story together. What is the overarching story? In a series, you can explore a richer story and a more complicated world that expands with each book.
Consider the example of Harry Potter. The first book is fairly simple in its story, but it creates a greater narrative that carries through the rest of the series. Each sequel expands the world-building and continues the overarching story. Over the course of seven books, Harry and his friends grow from kids to adults, and the villain comes out of hiding, accrues more power, and creates the culminating conflict of the final book. Within each book, there’s a separate conflict that ties into the overarching story but still wraps up at the end.
Pro: So Many Options! There are lots of ways to write a series. You can write a duology if your story is a little too long for one book. You can use three, or five, or seven books to explore your world, characters, and conflicts.
Or, if your audience is invested in the series, you can create a much longer series. You can continually add more to an ongoing saga. You can spend your whole career on one never-ending story or write a series of episodic conflicts that don’t necessarily connect with each other.
Here’s just a few examples of the many options out there:
The Rise of Kyoshi and its sequel is a duology. At the end of the first book, the main antagonist has been defeated, but Kyoshi’s journey isn’t done yet, and there are too many questions to be wrapped up in the falling action. A second book allowed the author to take more time with finishing the story.
The Hunger Games is a great example of a trilogy. The first book works almost as a standalone. At the end of the first book, Katniss has achieved her goal of surviving and returning to her family, but she is still in a lot of danger. In the second book, this danger comes back to face her, and everything completely falls apart. In the third book, she’s finally able to pick up the pieces and resolve the overarching conflict. The series wouldn’t work if it had any more or fewer books.
For a longer series, consider Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Series” of mystery novels. With one book for each letter of the alphabet, the series had a clear end to work towards, but with 26 letters to use, the author had a lot of flexibility to tell all the stories she wanted to. While Grafton unfortunately passed away shortly after publishing the penultimate novel, her work is a great example of a career made of one series.
Cons of Writing a Series
Con: A Bigger Risk. Selling a book is hard whether it’s a series or standalone. In some cases, a series may be harder to sell to a publisher. A publisher cannot guarantee a series will be successful before the first book is published, so they may hesitate to take on the first in a series. But this isn’t the case for every publisher. Many publishers prefer a series, since it means more books which means more money coming in.
A series also poses a risk because it may be hard to build an audience. It’s possible that readers will read the first book, and not be interested in continuing the series. Writing a series can be a gamble because of this.
Con: Continuity Matters. Writing a series is complicated. You have to ensure continuity from the first book to the last book. This means the writing style, tone, and narrative voice should all stay consistent.
Depending on the complexity of the series, you’ll also have to ensure continuity in world-building, rules, locations, time periods, and more. The characters should feel like the same characters from one book to the next, though they might change over the course of a book. Plot threads started in one book should be addressed in the subsequent books. It’s a lot to keep track of, so make sure you’re prepared to make this kind of commitment.
Con: Hard to Move On. Many authors of series find that the books they write after the series has wrapped sees less success or acclaim than the series that was so popular. Your series may achieve great success, but that doesn’t guarantee that readers will want to read the next thing you like, especially if it doesn’t include their favourite characters anymore.
Pros of Writing a Standalone
Pro: Less Work. A standalone is much less work than a series. It’s one book, not two or seven or twenty.
They’re also much less complicated. You don’t have to keep track of series threads, overarching themes, and world-building from book to book. Instead, you can wrap everything up at the end and make it nice and neat.
Many readers prefer stories like this as well, so they don’t have to commit to a long series. Life of Pi is a great example of a standalone book that wraps everything up neatly at the end. Very often it’s standalone novels that achieve literary classic status.
Pro: Low Commitment. Once you start selling books in a series, your publisher and readers will expect you to continue the series until its natural end. If you start a series, then give up on it, it may have negative consequences on your author platform and audience.
But writing a standalone doesn’t come with this commitment. Your publisher and audience may still expect more books from you, but you don’t have to commit to writing them if you choose not to. You could write one book and switch careers to become a whittler, if you wanted!
Pro: Flexibility. Writing standalones offers you the flexibility to choose other projects. Once you finish a standalone novel, you can write something completely different, if you choose. You could switch genres. Writing individual books allows you to dabble in a lot of different kinds of writing. Without expectations, it can be very freeing to write whatever catches your fancy.
Cons of Writing a Standalone
Con: Consider Length Issues. A single novel has a set range of acceptable lengths, usually between 50,000 and 100,000 words depending on the genre. This limitation may interfere with the story you want to tell.
If your story is long and complex, editors and publishers might expect you to cut large chunks of your manuscript. Not only is this hard to do, but it can also completely change the story. So, consider how long your story is. If it’s nearing 200,000 words, for example, you won’t be able to sell it as a standalone.
If you don’t want to make significant cuts to that length, you might have to consider making your story a duology instead of a standalone. This issue applies to series as well. Make sure you aren’t stretching a story out for the express purpose of writing a series, because that will make the story sag and lag.
Con: Harder to Build a Dedicated Fanbase. Writing single novels might make it harder to build an audience. Readers who like your book might not care about other books you write that don’t feature the same characters or world.
Different novels will have different audiences, so you may not be able to keep the same readers from one standalone novel to another. I know I’ve read a book by an author that I absolutely loved, and then I read another of their books and felt disappointed by it. It’s not a reflection on them as an author; it just shows that writing different stories or genres can be risky.
Your readers won’t love every book and may lose interest in buying all of your different books. Of course, many authors find success writing only standalone novels. John Green writes exclusively standalone novels and has an audience who will read anything he writes. Just keep in mind that this success may be harder to come by than if you wrote a series of novels.
The Middle Ground
There are ways to compromise between writing a standalone novel or writing a series.
One option is to write your novel as a standalone but leave the potential for a sequel open. You’ll have to wrap up enough of the loose threads that the reader can put it down and feel satisfied, but leave a few threads still hanging, in case you ever decide to revisit the story in the future.
As an example, consider The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. This book was a standalone for many years, and eventually got a sequel with The Next Person You Meet in Heaven. The first book still works completely on its own. But the concepts and characters introduced in the book were interesting enough that there was always the potential for the author to expand on them with another book, which he did.
This is something you can do with your book, too. You can give your characters a “happily ever after,” but leave a little “but…” in case you decide later on to write a sequel.
Another option is to write stories in the same world, but not as a continuous story from the first one. You could write a new story from the perspective of one of the side characters or write a prequel for the first story. You can stick with familiar elements, while also writing something completely new. A spin-off, if you will.
Consider Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Familiar settings and characters appear in or are referenced in each book, but very few of the books directly build off of another one as a sequel. Terry Pratchett jumped all over his made-up world with his books and didn’t feel an obligation to follow one character’s long arc for all 41 books in the series.
There are many options to write something sequel-adjacent, without it being an official sequel.
It’s useful to know, when writing a book, whether it will be one book or a series. But try not to get caught up in this question.
There are lots of pros and cons to each option, and as you’ve seen in this article, many of them even contradict each other. This is a decision you don’t have to make right away. Focus on finishing your current project first, and then see where you stand.
Does the ending lead naturally into a sequel? Would you rather dive into a completely different project?
Try to enjoy the present, and don’t put too much pressure on the future.
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!