Blurring the Lines – Serial Shorts, Serial Novels, and Book Series Explained

As a reader, I love reading book series. There is nothing quite like getting engrossed in a group of characters and following them through adventure after adventure over the course of a multi-novel series. I often discover my mind wandering after reading a book, wondering what was going to happen next, what had happened in Character X’s life to make him/her act the way he/she did. There might be tiny tidbits of information throughout the series that alluded to an even greater mystery, information that I would roll over and over in my mind, trying to decipher the meaning of it all. I would become greatly invested in the characters, their lives, their adventures, eagerly devouring novel after novel, falling ever more in love with the characters and their world.

With the steady influx of self-published authors over the past few years, I am finding that the lines of serial novels, serial shorts, and book series are becoming greatly blurred. Not only that, but I am quickly discovering that a lot of authors do not understand the difference between the three, resulting in mislabeling of their works and subsequently upsetting many of their readers.

In today’s article, we discuss the difference between a book series, serial novels, and serial shorts.

First, let us discuss the book series. A book series is generally a series of books written about or around the same group of characters. Each book contains its own story with a beginning, end, and resolution of some smaller, immediate problem in the story. The books may or may not have to be read in a certain order for the reader to be able to follow along.

Some examples of book series is Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles or the Harry Potter series. While Harry Potter was an on-going saga that really required the reader to read the books in order to get the full picture of the main characters’ lives and how they grew and matured, each book was a complete story in itself. The Vampire Chronicles did not necessarily have to be read in order but was a series around several of the same characters. Many of the characters’ stories entwined throughout the series and oftentimes gave rise to a new novel that told about a previously minor character’s life or other adventure. What they all had in common is that each book was a complete story with beginning, middle, end, and most importantly, a resolution to the immediate problem. Additional examples would be the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton, and the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer.

Where a lot of people get confused is that a book series can also encompass a much larger problem/adventure. While each book contains its own story, the books together could tell of a larger story.  Many readers are getting the idea that such a series is actually a group of serial novels, and a lot of the confusion is being created by authors who do not know the difference between the two, or who are mislabeling their works. Take for instance my own Before the Sun Rises series. Each book contains its own story with beginning, middle, end, and resolution to the immediate problem presented in each book. However, because the books hint at a much larger problem that is not immediately rectified in any one book, some readers wrongfully consider them serial novels.

So exactly what are serial novels and serial shorts?

First, I will discuss the serial short. Think of these as TV series, or comic books. They are generally based around the same group of characters in an on-going adventure. Serials are not necessarily meant to have a conclusion and are generally written until the demand for the characters and their decline.  Serial shorts, like their name imply, are generally about the length of a short story, usually under 15K words or less.

Since the serial is not really meant to ever have an ending, the storyline may seem to ‘wander’ or not have any sense of direction. There may not seem to be a ‘larger problem’ hinted at that needs to be resolved, or, if there is, once the problem is solved, a new one just crops up, much like you see on season finales of TV series when the ‘larger problem’ that the entire season was escalating towards just leads to another problem.

With serials, many times the next installment in the serial will pick up right where the last one left off, or it will switch up between several groups of characters with each new installment in the serial depicting an adventure for one specific group of characters. The entire serial could be written so that each installment bounces from one group of characters to another, oftentimes entwining their stories.

The main difference you will notice as a reader is that each installment is incomplete; there is not a beginning, middle, end, or resolution to a problem. The installments will have to be read in order from beginning to end in order for the reader to get the full adventure.

Finally there is the serial novel which oftentimes gets confused with a series. As discussed previously, books in a series will be a complete story in itself with a beginning, middle, end, and resolution to a problem identified in the book but the series as a whole may present an even larger problem. The main theme is that each book will contain its own story with a conclusion. A serial novel, however, can get a bit tricky.

First, there is the serial novel that is much like the serial shorts, the only difference being the length of each installment. The installments might be the same approximate length of a full novel or novella, usually 20K words or more. Like their shorter counterparts, the serial novel can be an on-going saga that the author never really planned to end, rather, was just writing until demand for the characters and storylines naturally declined.

However, the most common type of serial novel is a novel that, when finished, represents a complete story in itself. Basically it is just a full length novel that has been broken up into installments but, when combined, represent one complete storyline with a beginning, middle, end, and resolution to the problem presented in the story.  For example, the third book in myBefore the Sun Rises series, Clan of the Claw, is being released in installment, or episode form. Once finished, the installments will represent one whole, complete book with beginning, middle, conclusion, and resolution of a problem that arose during the telling of the story.

So as a reader, you may wonder why authors would purposely decide to write serial shorts or novels. Many readers feel cheated when they get to the last page and realize that there is no conclusion, no resolution to the problem presented in the storyline, and with good reason. Many readers think that an author’s primary reason for doing this is to earn more royalties since having more items for sale could translate into higher earnings. While this may be true, and I will have to leave the discussion of math and royalties for another article, there are other reasons for authors to decide to release serial shorts or serial novels.

For myself, I decided to release book 3 in the Before the Sun Rises series in episode form not because it would garner me more royalties (the number of installments I have planned and their price point will equal out exactly the same for readers whether they decide to read the installments as they come out or if they decide to wait and purchase the entire book), but because I did not want my readers to have to wait for months, possibly even a year or longer, before they would have access to the next book. As I work a full time job outside the home in addition to writing, it takes me a bit longer to produce a final product than it does for those writers who have the luxury of writing full time. Because of this and the sheer number of new books being released each and every day, I knew that forcing my readers to wait a year or longer could very well be career suicide. From a business stand point, I knew that I needed new material coming out every few months but as a working writer holding other jobs, it just is not feasible for me to produce a new novel every few months. For myself and other authors like me, deciding to write a novel in installments and making those installments available to the public as they are written means my name stays out there in the mix, allowing me to continue to bring in more readers.

While it is true that some authors may decide to write an entire novel and then break it up into installments and sell them individually to garner themselves a larger royalty check, there are additional reasons that authors may decide to release serial shorts or novels. Some authors may only have a vague idea of what the ‘bigger picture’ is when they started writing, and instead of trying to force it into a novel with an end, they choose instead to post it  as a serial short and just let the story and characters go wherever they may.

I feel that serial shorts are no different than a TV series. It’s understandable that some readers may get miffed to learn that the $4.99 they just spent turns out to be a mere 10K words in an ongoing saga, and rightly so, but other readers may not mind paying $.99 for an ongoing  adventure with characters that they have an emotional investment in. Again, it’s no different than getting caught up in a TV series such as The Walking Dead or Supernatural. While I may not be directly buying the TV series from its source, you can bet I will pay whatever premium package price is asked by my satellite provider to keep my AMC channel. Who I pay makes no difference; the simple fact remains that I am willing to pay to keep watching because I am emotionally invested in the characters and storylines.

Still other authors simply prefer to read on-going serials such as comic books etc. and will naturally gravitate to write in this form as well. As with everything else dealing with the literary world, it truly is a personal choice. As readers, while we may not like the idea of wasting endless amounts of money on an on-going saga, we can also cheat ourselves out of some wonderful adventures and characters by not giving these serial novels and shorts a chance. As one reader said, “If I fall in love with the character and story, I’m going to read it no matter HOW it is released.” This simple statement holds true for most readers.

However, as authors, we do need to keep in mind that in today’s economy, and especially with so many authors giving away the milk for free so to speak, our readers are being forced to be more economically conscientious than ever before.  Our best bet is to continue to provide the highest quality product we can at a fair price. After all, at the end of the day, whether you are a reader or an author, a good story truly is in the mind’s eye of the reader.


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