When I was young and first reading science fiction and fantasy, short novels were the norm rather than the exception. Many of the books I read – indeed many of the famous books in the field – were relatively short, forty or fifty thousand words or under two hundred pages. In fact all the major science fiction awards still define a novel as work of fiction over 40 thousand words.
The reasons were varied but the low cost of mass market paperbacks versus other formats was a factor. As well, the readers of such books were more interested in plots and ideas and less in characters or literary style. This is not a knock against these books – a lot of them hold up today and are still read by a lot of people, which is more than you can say for some of their more literary contemporaries.
Sometimes, even shorter books would make it into print. Ace – which is still a major SF imprint – used to publish novellas as Ace Doubles. Read one story and then flip it over and red the other. Two ripping yarns and two exciting covers for the price of one. The format proved so popular that, when I was a teenager, I joined a book club that offered literary formats in the same style, though they were cheap hardcovers. I may have been the only 15 year old boy of my acquaintance who had read all of the Bronte sisters and most of Jane Austen. I sometimes think the format was the trick to suck me in – though it was the content that kept me reading.
Short novels were nothing new and not only in the genre fields. Two of the classics of the early twentieth Century – The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby – were not much longer than those novels by Heinlein or Norton. I’ve sometimes wondered if technology had something to do with it.
Hemingway described his writing process thusly. The first draft was written by hand (standing up) and the second draft corrections were made right on the page. Only then was a draft produced on a manual typewriter. Every subsequent draft had to be re-typed, usually by Hemingway himself. Revisions were made by hand, or sometimes, as he typed. By the time it was approved by the publisher he had typed the book five or six times. No wonder he kept his prose economical!
First novels were often (though not always) short in those days. Second and subsequent novels got longer, maybe because the authors could afford to hire typists. In those days, too, there was a significant cost differential for printing a small book as opposed to a larger one – while prices didn’t necessarily rise as dramatically.
Of course, there have always been long novels – War and Peace comes to mind – but what was termed popular fiction (Hemingway and many of his compatriots would not have been offended to have their work so labelled; they wanted to be widely read) tended to be shorter rather than longer.
In the genre field, short novels lasted well into the sixties and seventies. This may not be surprising, science fiction also retained a large market for short stories in mass market format – even as that most quintessential form of America writing was finding fewer and fewer outlets. Short story markets for non-genre short fiction still exist but generally don’t have as wide a readership as they once did and nothing to compare to that of genre.
But then came word processing. Suddenly the limitations on producing long novels were no longer a technical one but one of markets. And those markets were changing. More and more readers demanded more from their books than plots and ideas. Character and setting – world building – became a bigger part of the literature and books, especially in the fantasy world (which always did run longer than pure SF), began to lengthen. As printing costs fell, profitable books could be almost any length and the typical SF novel climbed from 60 or 70 thousand words to almost 100K. Novels of 150 thousand words or even a quarter of a million in fantasy became common place.
Some people complained that the new technology that allowed longer novels to be written with less physical effort had ruined the genre. It seems that someone or something is always destroying science fiction. But the market had spoken – as it always does in commercial fiction – and like it or not, longer novels became the way of the world. They were more popular and more profitable. Maybe that – rather than some quaint conspiracy theory – is the explanation of why some books are more popular than others.
So you might think that as a small publisher, I would be inundated with massive tomes and that I would eagerly publish them. Well, I do get a few but the longest I’ve published has been under 110K and most have been in the 75K range.
As usual, the reasons are various. First of all, I like short novels. The growing length of fantasy novels is one of the reasons – though not the main one – I mostly quit reading fantasy ten years ago. As well, the length I mentioned is an economic sweet point, the place where costs are not too high while the price I can charge maximizes revenue. A short book costs a bit less but the price is generally lower; you can charge a bit more for a big book (though not a lot) but the costs are also higher. Price is not a tremendously important factor in the sales of print books but it is a small one. It may be a factor in digital books – but probably not a determining one. Studies have been, well, inconclusive, no matter what proponents on both sides claim.
Still, short is one thing but SHORT is quite another. During my latest round of submissions, I received far more submissions under 60K words than I did over 100K which mark the limits of my preferred range. In fact, a lot of the books, quite well written ones at that, were under 45K words, some as little as 33 thousand. Many of the rest barely topped sixty thousand in length.
This too may have a technological cause or even a sociological one. Digital publishing – nearly all of the submitters of short books have tried their hand at self-published e-books – doesn’t care about length. While there is a cost in terms of editing and cover design, the cost of printing is irrelevant and distribution is relatively cheap (though as always marketing is the issue). People may well be as willing to buy a short novel (or novella) as long one in part because, for one thing, they aren’t confronted with the physical thinness of the volume.
And, then there is NaNoWriMo that encourages people to write 60K ‘novels’ in a month. Not everyone succeeds but many of those ‘failures’ still have a relatively complete 40 thousand word manuscript that they then polish and improve without significantly lengthening them. Having once won the 3-day novel writing competition, I would argue it is a lot easier to write a novella than a full-fledged novel. Expectations are lower so it is easier to meet them.
While the general rule is that most books benefit from having 10% cut from them – there is even a writing guide that focuses mostly on that process – these days short books almost always feel incomplete to me. Characters are not fully developed; plots have gaps, worlds and even ideas are sketched rather than painted. The final versions of these slim volumes are almost always ten or even fifteen percent longer – and are better books for it.
But adding 15% to a 35K manuscript still barely qualifies it as a novel even in genre terms. Add any more and it will either becomes bloated or turns into something the writer never intended to do. So, sadly, even though some were very good, I have almost always had to reject them.
Hmm, maybe I can look into the economics of publishing Bundoran Back-to-Back Books. It would at least save me the trouble of having to come up with back cover copy. Would you buy two short novels printed back to back?
In the News
Our next book is Transient City by Al Onia which will feature our first attempt at back cover art. We hope you will find it appealing. Watch on Goodreads for a giveaway in a few days or go to NetGalley to get an uncorrected proof review copy in PDF format.
A new report from Amazon suggests that while a lot of people are making a little money from self-publishing, only 40 have really hit the big-time in the last five years.