What’s the deal with novellas?

All I knew about novellas when I first got back into the writing game was — I could write a fairly decent one in 3 days.  (Funny.  That’s the amount of time I had every time I wrote in the 3 Day Novel Contest.)

So, I’d write a novella in 3 days, then work hard the rest of the YEAR to make it something else.  Because novellas, generally speaking, do not sell. (That’s what everybody kept telling me, anyhow.)  They are an odd size — too short to be published on their own (due in no small part to the fact that a publisher can’t make a profit on them), but too big (unless you are an established author) to ram into a anthology, or into a magazine.

But I keep writing the things — because I LOVE that length.  I love working on one storyline, and seeing where it goes.  (All right, now you know.  I have NO idea how my stories will end.  Secret out.) I love the limits inherent in the size.  I love working from one character’s point of view. However, I didn’t love the idea that novellas are the children no one wants.

So I started asking people what they thought of the novella length.  I stopped talking to the people in the industry — because all they did was shake their heads and say “Nobody buys novellas.”

Instead, I turned to regular people. Busy, busy people who used to love reading — but just don’t have the time in their lives to dedicate to large books anymore.  These are the ones the publishers lost.  They read once, then stopped.  Had to be a reason why.

What they told me: they would like something that they could read on a flight somewhere.  Or something they could read while waiting for their children.  Everybody seems to wait for their children.  Or they’d like something to read while they are having lunch at work, or waiting for the dryer to finish, or waiting while the dog is clipped.  These are the minutes they can scrape from their schedules for reading. One or two hours a week, if they are lucky.  They don’t want to start the “big” books, because a person can get stuck in an endless loop of “what DID happen the last time I was able to read?”  They got tired of going over and over the same chapter, trying to catch up… so they stopped reading.

However, they seemed to like the idea of a short book.  Something with only one or two storylines, so that if it gets put aside, they don’t have to reread the whole thing to remember where the heck they left off…. something that fits into their amazingly busy lifestyles.  They weren’t looking for short stories, because they are too short. They were looking for — well — short books.

Luckily, there are publishers out there who are starting to look at novellas as a potential income stream.  (See Absolute XPress and ChiZine, for two.) There may be more, and they may have been publishing novellas forever — and I might just be finding them now. I must tell you though, I have been looking for potential markets for quite some time.  Remember, novella writer here!

Of course romance has always played in this field (see Harlequin) with their 50,000 word novels.  (A bit bigger than a novella, but no where near 100 – 150, 000 words — or more that you can find elsewhere.)  These too are written for busy people.  True, they are romances, and have other rules in place besides just the length — but they are being read.  In droves.  Is it something about the shorter length?  Or what?

Ryan McFadden (one of the writers from Women of the Apocalypse) came out here recently, and picked up a ChiZine novella (Chasing the Dragon, by Nicholas Kaufmann) for the flight back.  After Ryan got home, he emailed and said he saw a couple more people on the flight with novella length books.  (He also said he finished the book he’d bought.  On the flight.  And he liked it. A lot.)

So, how can we talk more publishers into taking a chance on publishing novellas, or even, like “Women of the Apocalypse?” novella anthologies?  And how do we talk former readers into taking a chance, and seeing that sometimes, smaller is exactly what they are looking for?

Any ideas?  I really want to know.  After all, novella writer here!

2 thoughts on “What’s the deal with novellas?

  1. Hayden Trenholm

    I too love the novellette/novella. I’ve written a couple which were published in Challenging Destiny (and one of which won an Aurora Award, which you should find encouraging). Short novels used to be pretty common. I just read The Maltese Falcon on my flight from Vancouver. At 212 pages it runs at just over 60000 words and is still one of the classics of detective fiction. I’m also old enough to remember Ace Doubles — two short (40 – 50000 word) novels published back to back.

    I hope novellas do make a comeback — cause, like you, i love to both read and write them.

  2. admin Post author

    Hayden,

    I DO find that encouraging!! (About your novella winning the Aurora Award. A question for you, since “Steel Whispers” is up for an Aurora this year — do you find it difficult to type with your fingers crossed? I do.)

    I too remember the Ace Doubles — loved those books — and a good handful of my favorite “old” science fiction novels are extremely short. I wonder if they fell out of favour because they cost too much to publish? (People quit buying them because they were expensive to buy compared to “fatter” books?) Or did they just fall out of fashion? (Readers leaning more and more to larger books, whatever the reason.)

    Perhaps they will make a comeback! It would be a wonderful thing!

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