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Writing Fiction: Series or One-off Titles?

Read Time: 3 min

Recently we've been talking a lot about writing books, including Karen Wiesner's recent release on writing fiction series. Today I'd like to delve a bit further into the decision we make as authors between pursuing a one-off novel versus looking for series potential. Both have their place. So let's look at the pros and cons of both.

Here are some of the most obvious upsides and downsides of writing both one-off novels and series, followed by some of the marketing considerations that have helped me make my own decisions about the role of fiction series in my long-term publishing plan.

Pros and Cons of Writing One-off Stories

With a one-off novel (or novella, short story, or whatever kind of fiction you want to write), you have a single storyline and a single set of characters in mind. Your book can stand alone and it doesn't rely on any brand recognition, unless you happen to already have a strong author brand. Here are some of the biggest pros and cons of that approach.

Pros

  • More freedom to play with new characters or even genres
  • No rush to release a follow-up book
  • Freedom to pursue any story that strikes you

Cons

  • Starting from scratch with every book
  • Less likely to have a built-in readership for subsequent books
  • More difficult to build author name recognition / branding

Pros and Cons of Writing a Fiction Series

When you write fiction series rather than one-off stories, they're intertwined in some way. They might share characters. Shorter stories might share themes. When it comes to novel series more specifically, each novel becomes a story within a larger story. Again, this approach has its good and bad sides to consider.

Pros

  • More time to flesh out and get to know your characters
  • Books in a series help to sell each other
  • Easier to develop a loyal following of eager readers

Cons

  • Bored readers if the stories feel too similar
  • Potential to get bored with your own characters
  • Becoming known for a single series can make it difficult to move into other types of fiction or even other series

The Marketing Appeal of Writing a Series

I've toyed with the idea of one-off stories and books before. I've outlined a few, and have one in the horror genre practically drafted (from several years ago -- I hesitate to even look at it at this point). But in the end I keep coming back to writing series instead, both with novels and short stories.

For me, the decision comes down to marketing. After all, I write for two reasons. First, I love it. Second, it's my chosen profession. I take the business side of writing seriously, and that means I'm always looking out for better ways to market my work.

Focusing on a story's series potential is a no-brainer given the kinds of stories I'm interested in writing.  I've even overhauled my publishing plan recently to take some one-off book ideas and seek series potential in them. Here are a few examples, based on what I'm writing this month:

  • Mystery novel series -- The first book in this series is being drafted for NaNoWriMo this year. The series will follow the lead character in a cozy-style series, along with her assistant and a few friends. The characters and the amateur sleuth's profession are what tie the stories together.
  • Horror short story series -- These stories won't feature the same characters, or necessarily even be a "series." They're designed to be a collection of similarly-themed tales instead. While not exactly the same thing, collections of similar shorter works offer many of the same benefits of writing series.
  • Children's picture book series -- This series involves a primary character telling tales of his youth to his grandchildren. His involvement in each storyline is what ties them together.

Those are the main series ideas I'm working on now. One will be a traditional "light" murder mystery series. One will be a collection more than a series. One will be a shorter series for children.

In each case, there's marketing potential. If kids fall in love with the characters from the children's stories, it makes it easier to sell the follow-up stories. If people enjoy the way my amateur sleuth solves mysteries, they'll be more likely to pick up the next book to follow along as she does it again. And if someone wants to curl up for a creep-out session with some horror short stories, a collection with a common theme might keep them focused and more interested (especially as I'll sell the stories individually before they're released as a single collection).

The branding element is probably the most important thing to me marketing-wise. I'm writing under three different pen names, which means author branding will be a challenge. Any additional brand recognition I can push for will be a good thing business-wise.

What about you? Would you rather write a one-off novel or a series? Why? Can you think of other pros and cons authors might want to consider? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

11 thoughts on “Writing Fiction: Series or One-off Titles?”

  1. I’d rather write one-offs but the hard truth is that series sell better. I have found that it takes a LOT for readers to get bored with a series, so I’d only really worry about that for something really long running.

    To avoid becoming known for a single series, you can write and release more than one series at a time (which is what I’ve done). While some readers will fall in love with your author brand and cross over, I’ve found that at least 50% will be loyal to a series only. Freebies can help close this gap, but beware–if your second series is too different from your first, then you will get some negative reviews.

    Reply
    • Some great feedback Yo. Thanks! 🙂

      When you’re publishing multiple series at once, what has your experience been with frequency? If we’re talking full-length novels, do you think one book each year in each series is enough, or do you feel like the e-publishing revolution has made readers more impatient? I know you’ve published novellas. Do you think those are a better option for the sake of more frequent releases?

      Reply
  2. I don’t think it’s that the readers are more impatient, but that they have more choices and more noise competing for their attention. If you really want to be a big seller, I would try for at least 2 books per series, per year. It’s different for me since I don’t market like you probably will, so I have to release much more frequently which is why I focus mainly on serials. Of course, many consumers don’t like the serial releases and instead wait for the omnibus, but in the interim they still see me in the charts, on Facebook and on blogs getting reviewed–so they’re still thinking of me.

    The SP authors who are hitting NYT and USA Today are often releasing books every 2-3 months and sometimes have the help of a publicist. Ultimately, it just depends on how big a part of your business you want this to be and how good you are at marketing fiction.

    Reply
    • In my case, that’s where I’m hoping I have an edge. I am the publicist, and I have experience with this kind of marketing and PR specifically. We’ll see! 🙂

      Some more good things to think about. Thanks Yo! 🙂

      Reply
  3. As a reader of novels I love both… if I like the writer. And ultimately although the story is critical, it’s the way the writer writes… that’s what makes it for me, series or not.

    Reply
  4. Hi! I love this article. I’m a Kindle publishing coach. I tell all my students write a series — it will make you more money faster and build you a true name on Kindle. I always stress that ANY book can be a series no matter what it’s about.

    I agree with all your series ideas. The biggest piece of advice I have is to market everything ahead of time and keep your readers always begging for more. The wait builds up the money on your end.

    My best advice for branding would be to use facebook and twitter to brand your pen names in advance. Branding for a series is harder in the beginning stages but once you get those first two books out and you have a set readership and a list of loyal readers every book will sale well.

    Great posting!

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting Chimica. You bring up some good points. In book marketing and PR, I’ve always taught authors to focus on promotion well before they have a book ready for release. Waiting until you have one (or more than one) out there is really too late. That’s why we emphasize things like building a writer platform here so much. It never hurts to get your name out there and build your network.

      Reply
  5. I’m writing and developing a children’s picture book series (a portion of proceeds will be donated to animal shelters), but I’m also writing a one-off middle grade novel. The middle grade novel could turn into a series, but I need to finish the first book. I MUST put it on my schedule.

    The pro of writing a series is that you know the characters, to a certain degree. If you struggle with creating characters, a series could work for you. Why? Because you’d only have to create a couple of secondary characters for the new story. The con is that you could get annoyed with your characters and series. You’ll want to outline a new book.

    Reply
    • I hope you’re able to work the novel into your schedule soon Amandah.

      I agree completely on characters in series. It’s one of the most important things for me. I figure if I’m going to create these people, I want to spend some time with them. A perk with the murder mysteries at least is that if I get sick of any of them, I can always kill them off.

      Reply
  6. In my fiction writing, Adrienne pinpointed weak areas quickly and offered excellent suggestions for improvement, which helped me get my first publication credit in an anthology of short stories. Adrienne is a wonderful, inspiring writing coach and teacher.

    Reply

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