Thursday, November 30, 2006

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...


According to you, the minimum practical length these days is around 70k. (Up from around 50k in the 1960s, judging from the SF paperbacks on my shelves. And that in any series, each novel in the series gets thicker and thicker.)

Has anyone considered reviving the old Ace Double format for slightly-shorter works? Two novellas or short novels (35-55k each) bound together into a single volume?

You'd probably have to abandon putting them back-to-back inverted with two front covers like the original Ace Doubles. (Which could lead to a fight over which of the two appears first.) Ideally, both works in the volume should have some sort of similarity to appeal to the same reader. This could also have potential as a breakthrough medium for newer authors, with the noob's work doubled with a similar but more established author.

It's a matter of what the market will bear. Publishing houses generally do not start major trends; they publish some random thing and the trend sort of springs up on its own. Unlike the fashion industry, the publishing industry is extremely reactionary because it's a safer financial bet.

At the moment, the "novel" of 70-100k seems to be what people want and are buying. The market for short story collections is very small, and understandably so. People generally don't read short stories unless they either seek them out in literary mags or they happen upon them in larger commercial magazines like The New Yorker. A short story collection is something that's tough to read. I know because I read a ton of the old sci-fi stories of the 60s and 70s, the ones that are now in collection form. You read a little story, and then you have to totally switch gears and accept a new reality in another ten pages. While two novellas is not as extreme, the principle is the same - the reader has to switch gears, and readers today don't like doing that for whatever societal reason.

If we saw more short stories being sold and shorter books being sold, we would be more inclined to lower the acceptable word count, but eventually it all comes down to what sells.


Don said...

I find it so strange that people don't like reading short story collections. Personally, I love them, and it's often been a way for me to discover new (to me) authors. I remember a week in Saint Louis the late 80s where I ended up serially buying and reading the complete short stories of W. Somerset Maugham (who was unfamiliar to me before I started reading the stories) over the course of a week. I guess I need to go out and buy more collections of short stories to rekindle the market ;-)

Anonymous said...

Isn't that kind of circular reasoning? No one can buy them because they aren't being published, but they aren't being published because no one has been buying them.

Besides, the Ace Doubles were hardly short stories. They were half the length of a novel, something like 25-35K. Novellas, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the circular reasoning. In the romance genre the rationale for houses cutting category regencies and western historicals was that no one was reading them. But no one was reading them because they were harder and harder to find! The audience that had been there was moving on because there was no product to buy. And the authors who were writing them moved on because publishers weren't buying them. Bizarre behavior.

none said...

I love those old SF anthologies. I also love new SF anthologies. Ditto SF short story collections. Is there a trend being established here? I don't have any problem switching gears. I find it much more problematic to pick up a novel after a gap and find my way back into the story. Hence I try to consume a novel as fast as possible. Parcels of short stories can be savoured over a longer time.

You can bet any charity or secondhand bookshop I visit gets cleaned out of all its SF short story anthos. 20p you say? Cheap at twice the price!

Anonymous said...

What about longer novels? Like James Clavell's Shogun, or Colleen McCullough's Thorn Birds? Are those too long for today's market?

I loved sitting down with a big book, like The Far Pavillions or a Leon Uris book. Seems everything now is either suspense, women's fiction or reissues. Not many choices, and not really any longer books.

Don said...

I expect that the thing that makes a publisher willing to break out of the narrow comfort box is when an author with a strong sales record does something to push the envelope. This is why J.K. Rowling can publish YA fiction at ridiculous high word counts, or Neal Stephenson can publish books with more pages than the phone book.

Unfortunately, it seems that most authors as their career develops tend to want to publish longer and longer novels.

Alley Splat said...

Don wrote: Unfortunately, it seems that most authors as their career develops tend to want to publish longer and longer novels.

I sometimes wonder if that's because they get powerful enough not to have to listen to their editors' suggestions about pruning their novels - could that happen?

Anonymous said...

Don wrote: Unfortunately, it seems that most authors as their career develops tend to want to publish longer and longer novels.

Splat wrote: I sometimes wonder if that's because they get powerful enough not to have to listen to their editors' suggestions about pruning their novels - could that happen?

I believe you're right. To cite the example of JK Rowling once again, notice that the first two Harry Potter books were fairly short. But starting with Goblet of Fire and ever since, they've expanded into some major verbiage. And at least in Rowling's case (if not every single other case), her decision is the right one.

I'm certainly not complaining, since I prefer long novels, so I don't see it as "unfortunate" at all. But it sure must be nice to have enough clout as an author to tell an editor "No, I'm not going to open with an action scene, no, you can't tell what the whole book is like just from reading the first page, and no, I'm not going to cut it down to 85,000 words."

I can dream, can't I?

Julia said...

I love short stories!

You get a quick story (great for my ADD) and if it sucks, you haven't wasted too much time.

Maybe Amazon Shorts will reveal a new trend

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't know how the copyright thing and academe works in the US but I do know that in the UK EVERYTHING submitted to a university or college for assessment is copyrighted to the INSTITUTION - not the author. This was made very, very clear to me during my first creative writing degree programme. My partner at the time was doing visual art and photography at the same college. At her end of degree exhibition she sold several works - or, thought she had. When she went to collect the pieces to forward to her buyer she was informed that four of the seven pieces she had sold had been retained by the college - as was their legal (if not moral) right. Arguments and fact finding ensued - and the college's position, though mean spirited, was found to be within the law. I followed this up on behalf of students on the creative writing programme. If this was the case then it made a nonsense of our undergrad efforts to publish our work. I consulted the Society of Authors, the National Union of Journalists and the British Film Institute (on behalf of undergrad filmakers)and, while most everyone I spoke with sympathised with our position, and referred to the ethical and moral complexities, it was made clear that the college did hold copyright. Educational institutions in the UK (and possiby the US too)have the legal right to retain not just copyright, but also any and all physical material produced for assessment, ie paintings, sulptures, clothes (in the case of fashion students) and furniture (in the case of interior design students)etc etc etc. And, the institution is allowed to keep examples of work in perpetuity. Furthermore the copyright extends to work produced by college/university teachers whilst in the employ of the institution. This topic raised itself again in my final year of the writing programme where the department head would edit a glossy publication featuring what he considered examples of the best work submitted to the programme. (This was used, in part, as a recruiting device for prospective applicants)I informed him that I did not want any of my work included. He accepted my wishes but made it very clear that he did not need my permission. So, Rejector, if you were attending a UK based course the copyright protocol is as follows: you first seek permission to publish/blog from the author of the work (but if they decline it makes no difference - as technically they are not the owners of the work - it's just common sense and decency) Then you ask the class teacher who, if approving, then seeks clearance from the faculty (Technically you can overide the teacher as, again, the right to publish is not theirs to give or assign)who then runs it past the ruling body of the educational institution. In practice this very rarely happens, but it has been used on occasion to prevent the publication of controversial science,history and sociology papers. It is an issue that is particularly pertinent in the very lucrative research fields of genetics, biofuels and communications technology - and it is through educational institutions' handling of copyright that they are able to fund commercial spin-offs which cross-subsidise further research. In terms of copyright and academic assessment the current (UK) law makes no difference between creative, artistic, scientific or medical endeavours. This is a topic I've recently revisited in depth as it features at the core of my novel-in-progress. It is an issue which has been tested and contested for a good many years within what could be regarded as the core, traditional areas of university learning, ie long before the Creative Writing MA/MFA industry took off. Can you imagine the potential kerfuffle if a postgrad physicist published, or blogged, a fellow postgrad's paper prepared for class without seeking permission first? Creative writing assignments are no different. It may be different in the US - but I think if you go rooting around your educational institution's smallprint you'll likely find similar restrictive clauses.

Anonymous said...

The copyright/university situation in Britain sounds like a nightmare.
I can't imagine that holds true here. I know several professors who have published novels, and the copyrights are in their names, not the school's.

Anonymous said...

Jhumpa Lahiri's first book, Interpreter of Maladies, was a short story collection and did very well. So it can happen but you have to be as talented as Lahiri--good luck with that!

Her follow-up novel, The Namesake, was nowhere near as good. It read as though it was rushed into print to take advantage of the momentum from the first book.

Kim Rossi Stagliano said...


More words: He is the master of the short story, sci fi and otherwise. I adore his work. Check him out.


Kim Rossi Stagliano said...


More words: He is the master of the short story, sci fi and otherwise. I adore his work. Check him out.


The Rejecter said...

Anonymous 12:57,

Many novelists (or in this case, a person with a short story collection) get a free pass on their second book because there's a clause in the initial contract saying the publisher gets first crack at the author's next work, so it's fairly easy to submit another book if the first one was successful and get it published.

Anonymous said...

What ever happened to the veritas: EACH NOVEL HAS ITS OWN LENGTH?

LadyBronco said...

I guess I qualify as a fence -leaner on this subject. I like both novel-length stories and short stories.
It just depends on my mood, I suppose.

writtenwyrdd said...

US copyright is held by the one who created the work. Says so in plain English on the government's copyright website, If you are employed by a company or in a research program, mileage, however, may vary.

Stuart Neville said...

I know nothing about literary markets or trends, but I think the demise of the short story and novella might have a lot to do with our changing lifestyles.

Thirty or forty years ago, your choice of home entertainment was pretty limited, so books played a greater role in day to day life. Where someone might have amused themsleves on a wet Wednesday evening with a quick read, nowadays they'll fire up a DVD, play video games, or watch some banal reality television.

So, when we do take time to read I think it's more of an event for many people than it used to be, so we want a proper four or five hundred page book to wade through, rather than a two hundred page confection we can devour in one or two sittings.

Just an opinion.

Amie Stuart said...

Funny when I started writing 3 1/2 years ago it was a very firm 100k for a book. Funny how things can change so (relately) quick