There are a lot of positives to writing a series. Series mysteries offer a writer the comfort of some set parameters. The tone of the novel, the narrative style, and many main characters have already been decided upon in the first book, although new facets of the old characters should be revealed as they venture into uncharted territory.
But then there is the lure of the standalone. After writing my third book in the Claire Montrose series, I was ready to try my hand at a standalone. A standalone is often characterized as an author’s “break-out book” (or at least authors hope it will be). Many standalone books are thrillers, rather than true mysteries.
The way I think of the difference between mysteries and thrillers is this: At the heart of a mystery is the solution to a crime, often why someone was murdered. At the heart of a thriller is not “Who did it?” (although that might be one question) but rather whether the main character will still be alive at the end of the book. By its very nature, it’s hard to turn a standalone into a series, as many of the main characters will be dead – or revealed to be traitors – by the time the last page is turned.
I think there are some real pros and cons to writing a standalone. What follows is based on my personal observations, plus gossip with other writers.
* How many books will the publisher make an offer for?
When a publisher buys a series mystery, they will almost always offer a two-book deal. Standalones are more often bought as singletons. However, the advance for a standalone may be higher.
* Will your book come out in paperback?
Not necessarily a given for the standalone. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some houses are cutting back on their paperbacks. With a series mystery, the publisher has a greater stake in seeing that the first book comes out as a paperback as a way to drive sales for the new hardback in the series.
* Will your books stay in print?
There might be more commitment to keeping your backlist going for a continuing series. A stand alone will live or die on its own terms, with only a certain amount of cross-over from readers of your series books.
* Will a television or a movie studio be interested?
There’s only the slightest chance that your book will make it onto the big or small screen. From what I’ve observed, movie studios are most interested in standalones, or occasionally the first in a series. But when it comes to the second, third, fourth, etc. in a series, then there will likely be little movie interest. However, series are occasionally optioned for TV. If a TV series were to be made based on the characters in your series and if it were to air for five years, then it could be syndicated. That’s a lot of ifs, but my understanding is that in the long run, residual payments for a series turned TV show can far outweigh what an author might get even for a book turned movie.
With my first series book, Circles of Confusion, I got quite a few movie nibbles. My favorite was a producer working with Drew Barrymore. When I questioned the idea (At the time, Drew was a good 15 years younger than Claire Montrose), the producer’s voice turned huffy. “Drew,” she said, “has emotional baggage that makes her older than her years.” Very true. Drew still passed. The subsequent books in the series have not attracted much movie interest, although there has been the occasional TV nibble.
With my standalone, Learning to Fly, there was a great deal of interest, beginning with book scouts before the book was even in manuscript form. At various times, there were producers, various screenwriters, and production companies attached.
* Should you write under a pseudonym?
If you are already published as a series mystery author, there may be a couple of good reasons to write under a different name. You carry all your old baggage – good and bad – with your new book written under your same old name. If your series hasn’t been widely reviewed, or has been pigeonholed (cozies for old ladies who like tea and cats), or has had poor sales, then these things can affect how your new and different book is received.
If the tone of your standalone is quite a bit different than your series novels, readers who are expecting a PG-rated romp might be very surprised when they pick up your gritty R-rated serial killer thriller. And it’s possible that readers who know you write PG-rated romps and only like edgier books may never pick up your standalone, even if it has a foil-embossed blood-stained knife on the cover.
Another reason to consider writing under a pseudonym is marketing. A new name creates the opportunity for the publisher to promote a brand new author to bookstores. You won’t be a slave to the chain store computers that know exactly how many your last book sold and order only that many or fewer.
After writing the fourth in the series, Buried Diamonds, I've been sticking to stand-alone thrillers, only now for young adults. It’s a wonderful way to stretch my wings – just like I did with Learning to Fly.