CONVERSATION: On Series
DISCLOSURE: In addition to reviewing for DA, I am a writer of romance manuscripts. I wrote a standalone in the past and my current project is part of a series. -Janine
Janine: A while back Rose, who was once a reviewer here at DA, suggested that “series vs. standalones” might be a good topic for a conversation post. It sounded good to Jayne and me, and I decided to add a few other questions on the topic of series and invite Rose to participate. These were my questions to the group:
What do you see as the pros and cons of a romance (or romance-adjacent) series vs. a standalone book? Do you have a preference between the two?
When it comes to series, do you prefer for them to have a set endpoint or to go on indefinitely?
There are multiple ways of connecting books in a series. The main character can be siblings, friends, members of the same community, share some other kind of connection, or the series can follow the same central character(s) from book to book. Do you have a preference among these? Are your preferences different from genre to genre?
Sirius: If the romance is central theme with the same romantic couple front and center I vastly prefer stand alone. I am not talking about let’s say Ilona Andrews “Kate Daniels”, because those series have had fantasy/adventure storyline front and center and romance worked for me as part of the whole, but in the m/m world I am yet to read series that have worked for me.
I however feel like no-one writes stand alones anymore (of course cannot account for every single book written, but that’s how it feels), especially if the book had a little bit of success, my God, sequel and another one is coming.
Kaetrin: Stand-alone books seem like rarities these days but I like them too.
Rose: I remember seeing complaints about series and connected books in old AAR reviews (+15 years) but it does seem to have gotten more extreme – longer series, and so few standalone novels. I sometimes recommend Sonya Clark’s Good Time Bad Boy as a standalone, and that was published in, what, 2015? I’m well aware that there’s a marketing component to all this, but at some point it’s time to move from one series to the next.
Janine: Absolutely. I like to read series from beginning to end so that I can follow the characters’ growth arcs. That’s true for me even with series where each book is about a different couple. The growth and development of the characters whose books are coming up is important to me and I don’t want to miss a piece of it or read about it out of order. There are authors I will probably never get to because to find a proper starting place I’d have to backtrack twenty books.
Layla: My two cents: I like stand alones and I like series! But I’m not the type of reader who feels a compulsion to keep reading books in the series if they are not good. I also read things out of order!
Series that Follow the Same Couple
Sirius: By all means, if you have enough material to stretch the relationship of the same couple for several books – go for it, but more often than not I feel like the author does not have nearly enough material for good believable tension between the couple and we get the conflict which does not feel genuine and believable instead.
I remember SFF/ mm series by Jean Burke and Kelly Jensen that we reviewed here. I consider both of these authors to be good writers and I loved the first two books in the series, but then as much as I liked the characters, I could not help but think why is it still going on?
“Adrien English” by Josh Lanyon is an example of perfection as far as series about the same couple go. Nothing else however comes to mind.
Janine: Manufactured conflict can be annoying, I agree. If I care about the couple then I want them to reach a point where they can be adult enough to make it work.
Rose: It’s a matter of how much story there is to tell and how much tension can be sustained. Some of it may come down to whether it was meant to work as a multi-book arc or not.
Janine: The first three books in Ilona Andrews’ Hidden Legacy series are an example of a same-couple series that works but I think that’s partly because there’s a clear structure leading from Nevada and Rogan’s first meeting to their HEA. I never feel the authors are extending the series to sell more books or that they don’t know where they want this relationship to go next.
Sirius: Janine I agree the Hidden Legacy series works because there is a clear structure in it.
Kaetrin: For Urban Fantasy (Mercy Thompson, Alpha & Omega, Kate Daniels), I’m happy with a long arc featuring the same couple because the romance isn’t the main thing (even though it’s entirely why I read it!). I loved the Hidden Legacy books too but I’m all about the HEA so I prefer when the couple are together and happy at the end of each book. I’m allergic to cliffhangers and romantic cliffhangers are the worst!
Sirius: To go back to Kate Daniels I believe they mentioned that they extended the run of the series with two books or maybe three but they did it mostly because they build up Roland too much and needed more time to deal with it so it worked for me. They also very openly talk about starting to write for commercial success so [though] I tend to believe them that these series were extended more for plot specific reason I guess commercial success didn’t hurt either.
Example of what kind of series would not work for me would be quite popular mm series where I jumped the train as soon as I read that author mentioned that series were extended because readers were asking for more. That’s nice but if you didn’t have the plan for your couple in mind eventually you won’t have any conflict between them to work with.
Jayne: My preference for a series, regardless of whether or not it’s primarily a romance, is for it to have a definite end point.
Kaetrin: I’m probably in the “never say never” camp really. It depends on the story and whether it deserves more than one book.
As an example, one of my most anticipated releases of 2022 is The Long Game by Rachel Reid. I absolutely think there’s more to Shane and Ilya’s story and I don’t get the impression the author plans to split them up – I think the story will be about them coming out as a couple and I’m so here for it. Could be famous last words I suppose!
Rose: I think KJ Charles always planned the Will Darling books as a trilogy, and it works. I don’t think Diana Gabaldon planned to write ten Outlander books, and the more recent entries in that series are so meandering I’ve lost interest. This isn’t to say that something that wasn’t planned can’t work, but in my experience a lot of the time it doesn’t feel necessary, and it may require retconning characters.
Series that Focus on a Different Couple in Each Book
Jennie: The historical series I’ve read that come to mind are like those of Kleypas and Balogh – families and friends series that might go on for seven books, tops. The obvious pro in this is if you like the family the author has created, you’re happy to dive back in; it feels comfortable, you know what to expect, and you’re glad to see “old friends” again. The main con is too many deliriously happy couples hanging around by the end of the series.
Rose: We’re all romance readers, so we obviously don’t object to happy endings – but the premises in romance novels can be outside the common experience. So if you have a group of siblings/co-workers/friends who all have meet cutes, meet Dukes, or fall in love while spying or investigating crimes… eventually it becomes too much to suspend disbelief.
Here too, some series likely started out as either single titles or trilogies, and authors may have used their best ideas early on. I think the Bridgerton books are a good example of this – the second half of that series is weaker, with the exception of When He Was Wicked. Pamela Clare’s I-Team also comes to mind; the early books draw a lot on her work as a journalist, which was a really cool premise for romantic suspense and felt authentic. As the series progressed, and in her later work as well, it became less original and often more far-fetched.
So I tend to like series that conclude within a set amount of books (like Miranda Neville’s Burgundy Club) without spinning off a new set of friends, the next generation or the previous one, or having a parade of past characters with their many children.
Layla: I loved Lisa Kleypas Wallflower series, and I’m not a huge fan of her current series which is itself a continuation or return to that original set of characters. I loved MJP’s old series, the Fallen Angels books. Generally I’m a fan of a series that is connected through friendship or about a series of friends, more than of family ones. I did like two out of the three of the Evie Dunmore series (or trilogy) which is about female friends (that does seem rare, I mostly recall books about male friends like the MJP ones.) I have been a fan of Jo Beverly’s Malloren series, and Miranda Neville series also.
Jayne: If authors merely include information about a past couple and their fecund happiness, that’ll do me just fine. I don’t need every past paired off character to actually be in sequential books. If an author wants to build on the success of a series (and milk it for all it’s worth) then pivot to friends or coworkers rather than unearthing more relatives. There are no large families like some of these series ones who are wildly happy in every way.
Kaetrin: For me it depends. I tend to like series in historical and contemporary where each book is a stand alone but they are connected by family or friends – like in the Westcott series by Mary Balogh or the Hot & Hammered series by Tessa Bailey.
I also love the books by Susanna Kearsley which have connections to other novels that many or may not be overt because ultimately they’re all set in the same world. Finding all those Easter eggs is part of the fun but you don’t have to understand them to enjoy the books. They’re just extras.
A really cool thing that Elle Kennedy and Kristin Callihan did in their respective Off Campus and Game On series’ (& subsequent spin offs) is to include mention of each other’s characters so they’re inhabiting the same world. It was a fun hat tip. Both series have the same vibe as well so it fit together even better.
Jayne: I agree with what Kaetrin says about Kearsley’s “Easter egg” placement of characters from past or future books.
Layla: I like paired books and trilogies more than series–for example Mary Jo Putney had two books about twin brothers that I liked a lot (and they were themselves related to an older historical she had written). I love that the heroine in one of those books was a descendant of a hero in the previous book, and the way that connection was made was lovely little pleasure for me as a reader.
Rose: I also enjoy characters interacting within a believable fictional world rather than being part of an official series. Sherry Thomas is someone who does this really well, and it makes sense that these characters would know each other from school, social events, gossip etc. I agree that when it’s more of an Easter egg, it can be fun.
But as I wrote – clearly this is working from a marketing and sales perspective, or authors wouldn’t be doing it. I just wish there was more out there for readers who don’t go for long series with equally long spinoffs :)
Jennie: The only series I can think of reading that has just gone on and on is Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling series. And though I haven’t given it up, through – is it 20something books now? – the nature of the series and of Singh’s style means that there’s a lot of repetition and characters that feel somewhat recycled. About the only way she’s branched out is in Changeling species, and that’s not always been successful (I mean, I liked the bears more than Janine did, but still…). I don’t anticipate giving up on it before it ends (if it ever ends?) but I can see why other readers might have had enough.
A pro that can become a con – again in my experience mostly in historical romances – is the Anticipated Hero. It’s great to have an anticipated hero; everyone is looking forward to his book (I don’t think this happens nearly as much with heroines, but that’s another post). But more often than not, there’s a letdown, mostly I’m guessing due to high expectations but also maybe somehow authors just have trouble delivering when there are those high expectations? I don’t know. I remember The Legend of Lyon Redmond by Julie Anne Long being a prime example of this.
Rose: Sam and Alyssa in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters books were highly anticipated, though as a couple rather than Alyssa individually.
Since I mentioned Pamela Clare’s I-Team series earlier, I think a lot of readers were looking forward to Holly’s book.
Janine: Since you brought up Nalini Singh, Jennie–recently I realized the difference in my feelings about her Psy/Changeling series and her Guild Hunter series has to do with the expansiveness of the worlds. The Psy/Changeling world doesn’t lend itself to many conflicts—it’s pretty much one brain-related impending death after another. Things were a bit better when the psy and the changelings were at war, but not much. With the Guild Hunter books, the possibilities are wide open because of multiple factors. The only thing that’s consistently repetitive is the presence of the series’ biggest villain. I’m still excited about what’s going to happen next in a way that I haven’t been with the Psy/Changeling series since the wait for Kaleb’s book (an anticipated hero if there ever was one).
That makes me think about how the first few books in a series determine, to an extent, what readers can expect from it, and after that series is locked in a way, and the author can only venture as far as the range he/she/they have given themselves. Series can be wonderful when the author finds a good balance between freshness and familiarity.
What about you, readers? What do you view as the pros and cons of a series vs. a stand-alone? Do you have a preference between the two? Do you prefer for series to have a set endpoint or to go on indefinitely? Would you rather read a series about friends, family members, community members, and/or the same couple? And how does the genre affect your preferences?