Monday, June 13, 2011

Story Length, e-Books, and the Salvation of the Novella

This interesting topic has come up again recently for me, and it's one that has seen quite a lot of heated debate since well, about as long ago as when stories were first published, or even invented.  How long is too long?  How short is too short?  What's the right length for a publishable work?  I feel like Goldilocks and the three bears just thinking about it.

Too short, and your story isn't publishable.  There's just not enough profit to be made over such a small story and it won't cover the costs it incurs.  And while short stories and flash fiction can be combined into anthologies and collections, with some exceptions, even those are not terribly popular and are difficult to sell for all but the most popular authors.

Too long, and your story is again not publishable.  No one will touch it because it will cost too much to put into print.  They won't have the profit margins they need to make the money they need to off the book.  They have strict guidelines in place to maintain profitability, and they need to in order to continue publishing.

But the problem lies in the stories themselves.  A good writer can tweak the story some to control the length of the work he produces, but a story is really exactly the length it needs to be to be told.  If the story is told as it should be in 30,000 words, then so be it.  That's the length it needs to be.

But how to you sell the thing at that length, especially if you don't want to pare it down to a short story magazines will buy, or pump another 20,000 words into it to market it as a novel?  After all, at those lengths, changing the story by that many words is essentially taking half of it away or nearly doubling it in length, and that changes a story to the point where it's essentially a different story altogether.

That's exactly my latest quandary.  I'm still toying with the idea of putting out an e-book, to experiment with the new market, and to gain more experience and a better understanding of the moves the publishing industry may be making in the near future.

I don't really want to put one of my novels out there.  I just don't feel it's the right move to make at the moment.  I thought about bundling 50,000 words of my favorite short stories and putting them out as an anthology, but I don't know about that either.  It might be a good idea, but I'm hesitant to put so many of them together and publish them all at once.  I don't really know why, other than the fact that I'm obsessed with doing things the right way the first time.

Which leads me to my novellas.  I have two of them so far that are sweet middle of the road lengths that are too long for almost every magazine and too short for publication as stand-alone books.  But e-books change the dynamic on things.  There's no length restrictions with e-books, because it takes no more resources to crunch a novella to the proper format as it does an epic novel.  Maybe a few more bytes of memory, and maybe a little more time to save the thing, but really, in today's age of gigabytes and terabytes, that's not an issue.

There may be additional editing expenses for longer works, but for a novella that's not the case.  On the surface it seems like the perfect solution.  If I want to push the envelope on my writing a little further and explore the e-book experience, novellas may be the perfect way to do it.  I can put those stories out for people to read in a medium that allows it, while saving shorter and longer work for the more traditional methods already established in the industry.  And if I ever want to go back and put the novellas in print, I might have a better shot at doing that by bundling two or three of them together as an anthology once I get my career off the ground.

I really, sincerely hope the advent of e-books have changed the dynamic of publishing so much that an entire market for novellas and novelettes has been created.  I hope the floodgates open for these mid-length stories and sales prove they're just as viable as works of other length in the marketplace, and just as important for the reader.  It would be nice to see that, because there's something to be said about a story of that length.  They're fun to read.  They let you in a little more than a short story does, and a lot more than flash fiction.  They allow you a little closer than just the quick peek of shorter fiction, but yet don't take the time and emotional commitment of a novel.  After all, when you buy a novel, you're committing both time and emotional energy to something you don't even know you you'll like.  With a novella, you can get pulled into a really great story without investing the time and energy necessary for a novel.  It's a happy medium.  It's not the day trip, nor is it the two-week family vacation, but the weekend getaway of reading, and I think there's a need for that.

We'll see how things turn out, but for now it looks like the evolution of the publishing industry may have taken a turn for the betterment of stories.  After all, if it allows the publication of those stories stuck in the no man's land of "improper" length, that's a win for readers and authors alike.


  1. Yeah, I'm right there with you.
    I at least have one short story at a publisher for consideration - but, it's a niche piece and I sent it to a niche publisher.
    As you can see in my blog, I'm working on memoirs of my military service. Can I find a niche publisher for them? Probably not now that I've put them up on my blog. So, what do I do in the long run?
    Any suggestions appreciated.
    But, thanks for the thinking points.

  2. As far as I can tell, anything serialized is going to be tough to publish. Stephen King did it, notably with the Green Mile, but it's very rare.

    Memoirs are publishable, and do get published, but there, unless you're someone famous and/or controversial, you're going to find a hard sell. Most publishers don't want to look at "normal" people's lives for print because they just aren't interesting enough to sell enough.

    Your blog is interesting to me. It brings back a lot of memories of my own, as we share a common military background. I've been on the old Fort Ord many a time back when it was an active military base. Now it's a ghost town thinly disguised as housing developments and a commissary/PX/gas station complex.

    Is it publishable in any other form? I really don't know. I'd suspect not, at least in today's market. Who knows where e-publishing will take us in the future? Will it someday be viable electronically as a serial work? Could well be.

    I'd consider writing fiction based off those experiences, if that sort of writing is your thing. It's not for me - I just don't do military fiction well. Wish I did. I'd continue them as a serial on the blog, though. At least I'd hope you did, as I think they're interesting and will attract a like audience.

    Best of luck.

  3. Yes!! I think the novella is a great fit for e-pubs. Short, sweet, cheap - a great way to entice new readers to check you out. And build a following for more traditional publishing. Great post :)

  4. Thank you, Shiela. I am very apprehensive about putting any of my work out there self-published, by whatever medium. I absolutely don't want to jeopardize my future ability to acquire a literary agent with lackluster sales based on a failed experiment.

    But, like many others, I think the e-book is changing publishing, and doing something like this may well be the wave of the future. And I think that if my work is professionally edited and has a professionally designed cover, it stands a very good chance of success.

    And yes, with the novella, I think it gives the perfect opportunity to experiment this way. Not too long for a larger commitment (of time, money and energy), and yet, not too short so as to make someone apprehensive of spending money for just a short story.

    Not 100% sold on doing it this way yet, but I think it just might be the thing to do.