Series vs. Standalones

Why are all the SF/F writers doing series these days?  What ever happened to the good old standalone novel?

I can’t give you a thorough answer on that one, but part of it is simple economics.  Let’s start by comparing Goblin Quest and Stepsister Scheme, and please forgive me for geeking out with math and graphs.  Nothing here is all that complex or life-changing, but I tend to obsess a bit.

In the first six months, Stepsister is kicking goblin butt.  This is a good thing.  We want every new book to do better than the last, so this should make my editor happy.  But with Goblin Quest, DAW released the sequel six months later.  So lets extend our graph and see what happens next.

There’s a clear jump in sales of Goblin Quest when the second goblin book came out.  That jump and slope back down to previous levels indicates hundreds of extra books sold.  The same thing happened with Goblin War.

The release of Stepsister Scheme did not have the same effect on sales of the goblin books.  I’m sure some people read Stepsister and gone out to buy the goblin series, but it wasn’t the dramatic spike you get with the release of a new book in the same series.

Nothing profound or exciting.  If you have a choice between a new standalone book that will sell X copies or a sequel which will sell X copies and also sell Y copies of the previous book, it’s a pretty straightforward choice. But what about people who aren’t willing to start in mid-series?  That sequel actually sells X – Z copies, where Z is the number of folks who would have picked up an original standalone but don’t want to dive into the middle of a series. So long as Y > Z, you’re still coming out ahead.

Eventually, one of a several things will happen.  Sometimes sales fall off, and the publisher ends the series.  A lot of my friends have had series cut short after 3-4 books because the publisher thought something new would sell better.  On the other extreme, you get the Harry Potter phenomenon.  The first book got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t until you had the cumulative momentum of the first 3-4 books that it became so obscenely successful.  In my case, I think the goblin books were somewhere in between.  The third book did seem to build some momentum, but it obviously wasn’t Rowling levels of success.  Heck, I doubt my sales add up to a milliRowling.

Everything up to this point has been about sales and numbers.  Much as I’d love to someday achieve a centiRowling with my sales, I’m more worried about story.  In the case of the goblin books, I had three stories I wanted to tell, showing the development of Jig and the goblins.  A fourth book might have helped the sales snowball, but I didn’t have another goblin story I felt I needed to tell.

As a reader, I like novels better than short stories because I’m able to get more invested in the characters and their situations.  I suspect a lot of people enjoy series over standalones for the same reason.  Greater investment, greater payoff (hopefully), and familiarity with the characters and the world.

I’m running out of time, and I suspect I’m just rambling now anyway.  So I’ll leave this with a question for everyone.  Is the series as different from the standalone novel as the novel is from the short story form?  (And yes, I know there are different kinds of series.  Run with it however you’d like.)