Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Novels could shrink

Cover of
A very brief interview with an author and a traditional publisher I listened to yesterday got me thinking. (I can't find the link - I'll post it later if I do).

One of the men being interviewed was a midlist author who issued his languishing manuscripts solo. Neither his publisher nor any other he contacted would have them, despite his better than average midlist success, because they were not in his regular genre. So he put them out himself - timing the launch very cleverly with Christmas sales in 2010, when we all   know there was a Kindle explosion - and he sold something like 7,500 ebook copies over the holidays.

Courtesy of KAM
But that was not the most interesting thing he had to say. You and I both know that some authors are doing phenomenally well with independent publishing of eBooks, so that is old news to us. This author, whose name I wish I'd remembered*, went on to say how the manuscript length was another issue his publishers could not grapple with. His successful eBooks were smaller than your average paperback novel - as small as 45,000words.

Now this is exciting. I can hear you getting restless. I can see you reaching for your keyboard. I'm reaching for mine. The prospect of being able to write and sell short novels opens up new possibilities. Imagine being able to try shorter lengths. This opens doors to experimenting with new genres, new audiences, and topics whose research and writing time seems daunting for a 125,000 word volume. The publisher on the interview agreed the extra-long novel is likely to disappear, because of publishing constraints, financial restrictions and reader habits.

The author on the interview said people with electronic devices no longer perceive novel length to be a factor. It does not represent value for money in the same way it does when viewing a paperback in a shop. Readers purchase eBooks differently - the length of the novel is not immediately visible, and matters less than quality, author name, or genre. People with electronic devices read on small screens, in shorter bursts of attention. Shorter novels, novellas and the short story are packages that suit the new limited attention spans readers can devote to fiction.

Pic from
The novel might shrink. We need not contemplate the difficulty of novels similar to Gone With the Wind, War and Peace or Poor Fellow, My Country. That kind of length is not only difficult to plan for an author, but daunting to tackle for today's busy reader, even though eBooks can feasibly be of any length. Long or short - it doesn't really affect the way electronic books are downloaded or stored.

Think what this can do for the serial writer. Think what it could do for the author's time, and the reader's ability to purchase a series rather than a single volume.

* Yay! I have remembered - his name is Stephen Leather and you can see another interview he did here.

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  1. That's very interesting, Rosanne. Thanks for sharing the information. I've gone shorter without planning to, as my stories just . . . are shorter. But I've gone from 120-140,000 to about 70,000 for a modern novel and 100,000 for a historical saga. I've never tried 45,000. I wonder what it'd be like . . . going off, thinking furiously.

  2. Yes, I know Stephen Leather, Rosanne. Well, I don't know him in the biblical sense, but we are Facebook friends, which means we don't know each other at all, except through a clicked button. However, he lives in Thailand and so do I, and he's been known around these parts for quite a few years.

    He managed to hang ten right at the forefront of the giant ebook wave. It was a perfect storm of being in the right place at the right time with the right product. First off, Stephen is an excellent writer. So his books will go far beyond the niche audience that many Indy writers enjoy who aren't such good writers.

    I think that because ebooks are what they are, as you describe, there will continue to be all lengths of novels. As Stephen King says in "On Writing," you write until the story is done (paraphrased). My stories go between 90 and 120,000 words. That's just how they play out. I wouldn't plan a story to be shorter or longer.

    Many writers can and will do this, I believe, because they really don't write for economy of words to begin with. They may write a 100,000 word tome, then chop it back to 60,000 words because all their words didn't really count in the first place. I suppose you could do that with War and Peace, since at first blush it's made up a dozens of little stories that seem to have no connection to the main thread. If that had happened, all the insights of Tolstoy's brilliant mind would have been lost.

    I believe in this new era of digital publishing (ebooks), that there is room for every conceivable length, style, and genre of book imaginable. There is no "This is the way it's going to be."

  3. Anna, Stuart - I agree. Authors have so many more choices than say, ten years ago. We can corner a number of different markets. All we need is TIME!