Is the Stand-Alone Novel a Lost Art?

Wheel of Time covers Is it just me, or does it seem like almost nobody writes stand-alone works of fiction any more? At least in my favorite genres, science fiction and fantasy, every book that comes out these days is number something in the so-and-so series. Don’t get me wrong: I have enjoyed many series, and they can be rewarding in their depth and scope. However, sometimes I really enjoy reading a single book that is complete and self-contained; there’s no need to remember what happened in earlier installments and no frustrating wait for the next sequel.

I suspect part of it is that once an author has invested himself or herself in the creation of a world and populated it with interesting (hopefully) characters, the temptation must be immense to make use of all that work in subsequent books, rather than going through the whole creation process again. This is probably especially true in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which generally requires a lot of such world-building.

However, I also like to blame it on what I think of as the “Hollywood syndrome”, which can be summed up as: once you create something successful, repeat it over and over rather than taking a chance on something new. In the world of publishing, I don’t know how much of that is pressure from the publishers on the authors to repeat what sold before and how much is the authors either wanting to capitalize on what made them some bucks (and who can blame them) or fearing failure if they try something new.

As in most things in life, it’s probably a combination of all those influences and others I’ve not thought of, applied in varying degrees in different circumstances. At least my favorite living author, Sir Terry Pratchett, though mostly writing books in his “Discworld” series, has the the decency to have each such book be a stand-alone story that can be read in isolation, and he jumps between a number of story arcs with each new release, so it’s not like reading a linear, closely coupled series of books such as the late Robert Jordan‘s “Wheel of Time” series.

I do wish, however, there were more modern authors like my all-time favorite, Roger Zelazny, who could spin out a wonderful series (see his “Amber” novels) while also creating marvelous stand-alone books, epitomized perhaps by Lord of Light

Hey, if there are any authors out there who both write series and for some reason read this blog, too, how about leaving a comment here to let us know what your rationale is for serialization?

4 thoughts on “Is the Stand-Alone Novel a Lost Art?”

  1. I find myself of two minds. For example, I remember the endless wait for each of Stephen King’s ‘Dark Tower’ books, (and the “Oh yeah – that’s where we were” as you get back into the story). On the other hand, a friend gave me the first book of Preston and Child’s ‘Pendergast’ series, and I was thrilled to see how many more there are, (I’m on the third, the best so far). Maybe that’s the secret; stumble upon an older series. 🙂

  2. (This is a response from author David Dalglish, printed here with his permission.)

    The market rewards it, and for the most part, readers want it.

    Some anecdotal evidence: A Dance of Cloaks was originally a standalone book. I marketed it as such, referred to it as such. I started getting reviews demanding a sequel. I had people angry at the ending, thinking there should be more loose ends tightened up. So I decided what the heck, it is selling well, I’ll make it a series. So I did, renaming it and adding a series to the end of the title, as well as a book number.

    Sales increased by about 30%. I went from hanging out in the 700-800s rankings to about the 500s. People were suddenly curious. And when I released the next book in the series? Now it is in the 200s in ranking. Same book. Same cover. Same description. As a standalone, it never got below 700. As a series, it flirted with 500s. Now that there’s more to the series, 200s.

    Considering how readers are my boss, I’m gonna give ’em what they want until that’s not what they want. Might seem simple, but I’m quite content.

  3. I can’t really think of other genres that this true for besides SciFi and Fantasy. I read a lot of mysteries which are series but they are always stand alone books. The characters may change and develop a bit over the series but there’s not an overall arc to the story as in SciFi and Fantasy.

    I prefer to wait until the entire series is out before starting one. I read so many books that a year or two later I won’t remember a lot of details from the first book. That’s why I haven’t read The Name of the Wind or its sequel yet, even though it’s gotten fabulous reviews. I’m holding out for the last one.

    I like series but I wish more SciFi and Fantasy were stand alone.

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