I've been wondering lately, do we know where the idea of releasing books that were meant to be read together (such as a trilogy or longer series) came from? It's my understanding that really old literature was generally stand alone; books might be related, but it wasn't intended that you read them in any specific order. Even recently this has been common; there's L Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz books for one. The Chronicles of Narnia weren't imagined as a series, and C S Lewis couldn't care less what order you read them in. J R R Tolkien saw the Lord of the Rings as one book in three parts, not a trilogy. However, these days, if books exist in the same world, there will be a "first", "second", "third", etc. almost every time.

If I had to make a guess, I would probably suggest the serialized nature of radio broadcasts as a factor. Does anyone know for certain?

Edit: As noted in the answers/comments, this question was phrased rather poorly. My intent was to find where the modern tradition of publishing books in numbered series came from.

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    This is an interesting question, but it might fall to the "it depends on the definitions" category.
    – o0'.
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 16:33
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    You do have to bear in mind that many early novels, that we would now consider as single works, were published as multiple volumes (e.g. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen was released as 3 volumes) or as serialised articles in periodicals (as with much of Charles Dickens' work).
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 16:44
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    Err... Homer following up on the success of the Illiad with the Odyssey?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 18:20
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    How about Scherazade's 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights? Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 1:47
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    @jamesqf I think Homer should not count - at first it were spoken (or sung) tales. Homer (even if he really existed) did not intend to write the stories down (not only because he was blind). This would be ok, but the OP has narrowed down the topic to "books"
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 7:08

5 Answers 5


James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales are among the earliest examples of serial publishing. This was not originally planned as a series, nor did Cooper set out to publish a set number of novels. However, the profitability of these novels led Cooper to revisit the main character and his family several times over.

The incentive to publish serially increased in the 19th century, as books began to develop a mass consumer base. Before this, authors might revisit a written work or character for artistic reasons, but now authors and publishers would publish works in a series in hopes of maintaining their large and profitable readership. This is similar to the dynamic that had developed centuries earlier around popular characters in plays (like Falstaff, who Shakespeare revisited twice). Of course, plays had developed this dynamic first because they had developed a mass audience first. No mass audience and no commercial publishing would remove many of the incentives for authors to write serialized novels.*

The contemporary model of a pre-announced number of books intended to cover a predefined story progression within a given world is often attributed to E.E. Smith's Lensman series of the 1940s and 1950s. Incidentally, the Lensman was a work of science fiction, and may have set an important precedent in this genre. Book series are popularly associated today with sci-fi and epic fantasy.

* And in most cases, the pressure for sequels and series is more commercial than artistic. Publishing houses know that most novels lose money, so their revenues depend on funding as many surefire hits (i.e. sequels) as possible. Hollywood works the same way.

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    @fdb: Anyone looking for precedents can find phenomena that vaguely resemble much older phenomena. You can play the game of firsts endlessly. But Homer and Sophocles have next to nothing to do with why--in the 20th century--publishing houses massively increased the number of series they published. That's what I took the question to be about. Rabelais and Shakespeare are maybe a little more relevant. But there is a much stronger and direct link between marketing lessons learned from E.E. Smith and the now-endless pursuit by publishers of the next Wheel of Time, Shannara, etc. etc. series.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 20:23
  • I'm sorry for the lack of clarity in my question; it came from my ignorance on this topic
    – Jozomby
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 21:19
  • What about Dziady by Adam Mickiewicz? It is 1822.
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 5:48
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    @PieterGeerkens: I didn't call the books classic, I called them influential in the history of publishing.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 4:09
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    @PieterGeerkens: I'm not disagreeing with you or Twain. I just don't see what Cooper's lack of artistic merit has to do with the quality of my answer. Cooper sold a lot of books for his time, and publishers took note.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 14:00

Rabelais wrote five consecutive novels about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel. This was between 1532 and 1564. A bit later Shakespeare wrote Henry VI part 1, 2 and 3. A thousand years earlier Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonnos. And some 500 years earlier Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. All of this is long before James Fenimore Cooper.

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    @twosheds: where does the OP say anything about novels?
    – user438
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 20:11
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    You're right, I had forgotten all about those examples. While this does prove that the idea of a series of stories pretty much predates history, it's also interesting to see where the modern tradition has come from, as described by two sheds. Thank you both!
    – Jozomby
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 21:18
  • @user438. Why is (for example) the Iliad not a book?
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 21:20
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    Since you are considering "older" sources, you might want to add... the Old and New Testament, which both constitutes the Christian Bible. Pretty popular through Western European's (Catholic's) History. Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 6:30

The story of Scherazade and The 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights is the classic example of the captivating quality of a serial.

Doomed to marry the Sultan one day, and be executed the next as punishment for his first wife's adultery, Scherazade concocts the most brilliant scheme to survive. In (presumably) the afterglow of being deflowered, Scherazade begins to relate a wondrous tale to the Sultan, but falls asleep at the cliff-hanger before she can finish it.

Desperate to hear the end of the tale, the Sultan grants a stay on the execution for a single night so that the story can be completed. Scherazade manages to wind that into a second story that again she cannot finish before falling asleep, leaving the Sultan desperate to hear the ending.

This goes on for 1001 nights, Scherazade each night so entrancing the Sultan with the bewitching nature of the tales she relates, and the cliff-hangers that she is able to endlessly concoct. Finally, after nearly 3 years, the one thousand and one nights of the title, the Sultan relents and permanently revokes the death sentence.

This tale is precisely the classic notion of an endless serial, which serialized novels simply attempt to instantiate in a different medium. OP asks for the origin of the marketing concept of publishing a serialized story; a set of novels on a single storyline that will captivate the reader and entice additional sales because the reader simply must find out how the story ends. The earliest origin of that concept I believe to be not the 1001 tales themselves, but the backstory behind them - the story of Scherazade, and the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights.

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    Thank you! I wasn't very familiar with these stories, and you're right, that does seem to show the same attitude we currently have towards novels
    – Jozomby
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 3:00

The Bible is an example of such series of books. The books have mostly chronological order and share characters. They are intended to form a compact story and should not be treated alone.

The first part is "Torah", written by Moses. As Wikipedia says,

According to dating of the text by Orthodox rabbis, this occurred in 1312 BCE;[19] another date given for this event is 1280 BCE.[20]

Even if its authorship is disputed, it in my opinion does not affect the answer.

Then several authors added their parts, forming the Old Testament.

Then, about 1st century AD the process of writing was finished. Also, some other authors tried to include new things, however it was not commonly accepted.

It looks there will be no official sequel to the Bible, as the Bible itself says:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. (Revelation 22:18, NIV)

  • It looks there will be no official sequel to the Bible, as the Bible itself says: unless the citation provided will be retconned.
    – Cthulhu
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 12:49
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    Certain parts of the Bible could definitely be seen as sequels to each other; the 5 books of Moses, 1 and then 2 Kings, 1 and then 2 Chronicles, and Luke and Acts. The Bible as a whole, though, is a collection of various writings grouped rather artificially. In the Old Testament you have the 5 Books of Moses, then the History, then the Songs, then the Prophets. They were organized this way by ancient Jewish scholars, not by the original authors. In this way, the Old Testament is much like a modern textbook.
    – Jozomby
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 3:04
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    As for the New Testament, you have the Gospels, with Mark being the first written (likely around 60 AD), with Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source. John present a different (and often conflicting) view of the events of Jesus' life. After the gospels (and Acts, which was written as part 2 of Luke), you have the Pauline Epistles, most of which were written before the gospels. Both sets of epistles are organized by length, not chronologically, and the authorship for many of them is disputed. Most of them were written to specific audiences, and never intended for inclusion in a larger work.
    – Jozomby
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 3:08
  • @Jozomby I know all of this, and it does not say that Bible is not ok to the question. For example, both Luke gospel and Act of Apostles were letters, not books at first. I understand that this do not follow all modern rules of book series, but what is valid, that "Moses" has written first part, then somebody has written Joshua, as a continuation. I understand that authors could have not in mind this would be "a book series" (maybe they even expected that this is going to be the only book in the world, because it shows the Truth, the only Truth, so other books weren't necessary).
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 5:53
  • So I agree this is not (as a whole) "idea of a series of books" (OP's words) in modern way, but in my opinion at least Torah and other historical books are a series, the question might be "When people begun to treat Bible as a book series?"
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 5:57

The story of Amadis de Gaula may have first been told in the 13th or 14th centuries.

The earliest known printed edition was printed in 1508, revised by Garcia Rodriguez de Montalvo, who wrote the fourth volume. It was so popular that Montalvo and other writers wrote books V through XI published from 1510 to 1546, so this could count as an early novel series.


Amadis de Gaula was a medieval romance of chivalry, and hardly the first.

Earlier medieval romances include the Vulgate Cycle.

The Lancelot-Grail, also known as the Prose Lancelot, the Vulgate Cycle, or the Pseudo-Map Cycle, is a major source of Arthurian legend written in French. It is a series of five prose volumes that tell the story of the quest for the Holy Grail and the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. The major parts are early 13th century, but scholarship has few definitive answers as to the authorship. An attribution to Walter Map is discounted, since he died too early to be the author.

The Vulgate Cycle adds an intriguing dimension to the King Arthur tradition, perpetuating Christian themes by expanding on tales of the Holy Grail and recounting the quests of the Grail knights. During this period, material takes on even more historical and religious overtones with tales that include and deal both in the death of Arthur and Merlin (drawing all the way back to Nennius's Historia Brittonum).

The Vulgate Cycle combines elements of the Old Testament with the birth of Merlin, whose magical origins are consistent with those told by Robert de Boron, as the son of a devil and a human mother who repents her sins and is baptized. Merlin is transformed into a prophet and given the ability of seeing future events by God.

The Vulgate Cycle was subject to a 13th-century revision in which much was left out and much added. The resulting text, referred to as the "Post-Vulgate Cycle", was an attempt to create greater unity in the material, and to de-emphasise the secular love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. It omits almost all of the Vulgate's Lancelot Proper section, but includes characters and scenes from the Prose Tristan. This version of the cycle was one of the most important sources of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.


So it took me just a few minutes to look up and copy data about two medieval series that could be considered to be book series. Depending on how closely one considers them to fit the definition of a modern book series, they could be the first novel series ever, or possibly centuries later than the first ever novel series.

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