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Series vs. Serial: What’s the Difference?

by Tom Ashford

I’ve seen the same question pop up on our YouTube channel and Facebook groups quite a bit recently: what’s the difference between a series and a serial? I hadn’t really given it much thought before. There were standalone books, and there were books that shared a universe – whether those books could be read on their own or had to be consumed in the correct order.

But of course there’s a difference between a series and a serial. It’s just that sometimes the lines between the two get blurred.

Put simply: a series is a collection of books that all belong to the same “franchise” but can be read in any order (because they’re each a different, self-contained story – even if they connect with one another), whereas a serial is an ongoing narrative which the audience has to read in the correct order so as to follow the plot (so a different kind of series).

Serials first became popular in the nineteenth century, as printing costs grew more affordable and reading developed into a more popular pastime. Stories began to be published in magazines and newspapers but for obvious reasons, it wasn’t realistic to include a full novel in every issue. Instead, they’d publish the book bit by bit – in serial format. This also meant that an author only had to write the story one part at a time, and could write the next ‘episode’ according to their readers’ reactions to the story.

Charles Dickens famously published some of his books in this manner, and a long time later Stephen King revived the format for his novel, The Green Mile.

Nowadays, it’s a lot more fashionable (and often profitable) to write books that share a fictional world, or characters, or some sort of overarching story. And with self-publishing, there are certainly fewer barriers to getting one’s book out there. The ‘traditional’ serial format has somewhat grown out of fashion now that publishing in smaller instalments is no longer necessary… but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still writing in it, often without realising.

I certainly didn’t. Even though I have three books in a trilogy with ‘Volumes 1, 2 and 3’ in their titles, I just assumed it was a series. More fool me – one could argue that I’ve actually published one extra-long book in three parts!

Luke Jennings did a similar thing with his novel, Codename Villanelle (which was adapted for television under the name Killing Eve). Once a serial of four self-published novellas, they were later put together and released as a single novel.

Let’s look at a few more examples to separate the series from the serials (or the modern equivalent of a serial, at least).

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are all set in the same fictional world and a lot of characters crop up in different books, but all of the books can be read completely on its own (even when a book technically follows on, chronologically, from another). For that reason it’s a series – the books belong to the same “franchise” but are independent narratives. The same can be said of the James Bond novels – they’re a series because even though the titular character and some of his foes appear in multiple stories, they can be picked up and read in any order.

The Harry Potter books are an example of a serial, in that if you were to read book six without reading any of the others, you’d likely be a bit lost. You’re expected to read them all in order, to eagerly await the next book to find out how the characters and story will develop. Even though there are seven Harry Potter books, there’s only one story across them.

The latter is still a series, but it’s a serial form of that series.

It can be important to inform potential readers of which kind of series they’re getting themselves into, as some readers prefer their books to each have a clear resolution at their end. Cliffhangers were a key part of the original serials, because it left the readers wanting more (and therefore ensured that those readers would buy the next issue of the magazine or newspaper in which the story was appearing). And there are plenty of readers who still love a cliffhanger, who don’t mind a story not being wrapped up entirely by the final page. Once they’re invested in a franchise, the anticipation for the next instalment becomes part of the appeal.

But not everyone feels that way, and some readers are wound up when they reach ‘The End’ only to realise that they now have to spend another four dollars to read the rest of the story. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with writing a serial, by any means – it simply means that your reader needs to know what it is they’re buying. Are you selling them a standalone 80,000 word story, or are you selling them an 80,000 word instalment of that story?

That doesn’t mean explicitly spelling it out in your blurb or title. After all, if we as writers don’t always know the difference between a regular series and a serial, why would our readers? A serial is technically still a series, anyway. And people love a good serial – just look at the sheer number of successful film franchises which require prior knowledge of the fictional world. As with every book, make sure you’re targeting the right buyers, because satisfied readers lead to positive reviews.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.