Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between a series and a serial. In the past year, I worked with three different authors who intended to write a series but ended up writing a serial, so this is not an uncommon issue. Typically what I see is wonderful, engaging novels that end abruptly. The conflict that drove the whole story is left unresolved. If I ask the author what happened to the ending I am likely to hear, “Don’t worry about it, it’s a series.”
But that’s not what a series is.
A series is a collection of books that have the same or related characters and are set in the same world. Each book is a complete story on its own, with all the plot lines resolved and contained within the book. Each book also develops the characters fully, giving the reader any important backstory or details. While a series might be better if you read them in order, that’s not necessary: a reader can pick up a book from the middle of a series and still understand what is going on. A good example of a series is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
A serial is one, larger story released in sections or episodes. The story isn’t complete in any one of the books or releases. To make sense, a serial must be read in order, because the plot develops and resolves over several installments instead of in each story. It’s a bit like a soap opera, where each bit ends on a cliffhanger, motivating the reader to tune in next week to find out what happened.
The main thing to remember is that a novel, even one in a series, is not a serial. Readers expect the satisfaction of a complete story. You can release a novel in serialized form, but you cannot write a book, decide to finish it later when you write another book, and call it a series. It betrays your reader’s trust, and they see it as a scam to get more money out of them. I have seen this happen over and over again in the self-publishing world and readers are brutal. Making this mistake will cost your reputation as a writer, big time.
If you intend to write a series (which are very popular right now) write it one book at a time. Make sure every book can stand on its own and that every story line is tied up at the end. You want your readers to have such an enjoyable experience with the first book that they keep coming back for more, so you give them the emotional satisfaction of a complete journey, from introductions through the tension of conflict to the release of a resolution.
Nothing against serials. If you want to release your story as a serial, go for it. But do it the right way. Start by writing the entire story, or (in very long series) at least enough installments to be published while you continue to write. Then make a plan for publishing. Serials are typically put out in bites of about 10K words, and they come out on a quick, regular schedule: say one chapter each week. You can ask readers to pay for each installment, or you can sell the entire “season” or story for one price. It’s very important when marketing your serial that you make it clear to readers that each release is only one part of a larger story, or you will be dealing with very angry, vocal readers.
PS -- But what about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter? an author asked me recently. OK. There is one exception to these definitions, and that is in the kind of sweeping, epic narratives mentioned. Sometimes a story is just too long to release as a single book. It might be 300 to 400K words up to a million or more. In those cases, the story can be broken into sections, where each section makes a complete story in itself, in order to make publishing and reading easier. There may be one overarching theme or conflict, but each book also has multiple supporting story lines that are resolved completely, just like in these examples. The books must be read in order. This is a trilogy (or tetralogy or sextet or however many books you end up with.)