One of the possibilities in e-publishing that excites me is that shorter length fiction can be presented in the same way as full length novels, rather than as their gawky little sibling. That’s one reason why at Greyhart Press we’re packaging each short story as a separate e-book with its own cover and afterword, just like a novel.
In the world of the Kindle, iPad and Sony eReader (etc.) building and distributing an e-book for a 10,000 word story is just as easy as one of 30,000 or 120,000 or 500. Authors are liberated to tell the story at the right length for that story.
So expect to see plenty of love given here at Greyhart Press to stories that are longer than shorts and shorter than novels: novelettes and novellas. In fact, I hope to be able to announce news on that subject in a few days.
The print world is not so hospitable to these longer lengths. After a story length of about 5,000 words you cross into increasingly barren badlands before at long last reaching the fertile realm of novels. Online magazines often reject stories more than 5,000 words and print magazines become less happy to take your work. A very few print markets will take longer lengths but not many and often the big slots are only for the biggest names. It’s not because print editors are evil (not all of them, anyway). For the online mags, few people will want to sit at a browser window for the 2-3 hours it takes to read a novella. As for filling print magazines, that’s a bit like packing the boot of your car (boot might be trunk in your jurisdiction). When my family goes away for the weekend, my son sometimes wants to take his bicycle. Well we could fit it in, but that give me a real headache in fitting everything else around it (rather like fitting a novella into a print magazine or anthology). My wife likes to take a huge brown luggage bag for her things. Again, that’s like a novelette. Doable, but everything else had better be small. Me? I’m the evil editor refusing to accept any more large bags and repackaging what I’m given into smaller chunks so I can fit as much as possible into the car. Some items get left out.
So say hello to novelettes and novellas. Definitions vary as to what length constitutes which term. So here’s my rule-of-thumb definition:
Short stories are coffee break length, typically 10-20 minutes to read (*see note below)
Novelettes are lunch break length, typically 30-60 minutes
Novellas are evening-in length, typically 1-3 hours. Put your children to bed, finish your chores, set up drink and snacks within easy reach, and start reading. Other than toilet breaks you won’t stop reading until you’ve finished or you are interrupted by an emergency (such as running out of peanuts).
* Okay so the shortest short stories can take only seconds to read, but Greyhart Press stories won’t go smaller than 4,000 words = about 10 minutes.
Novelettes and novellas have always been with us, hiding in the niches, but I expect one consequence of the take-up of eReader devices is that we will see them a lot more often. The flexibility of e-books will push back against the accepted wisdom that these story lengths are commercial suicide for authors.
In fact, that happened to me in February at the workshop I attend: the Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group. I had drafted a new story, Last Man Through the Gate, and had tried very hard to keep it as small as possible but it was a big subject. It ended up at 11,000 words. It was very fast paced. Other than myself, only our illustrious chair, Ian Watson, liked it as drafted but reluctantly agreed with everyone else that it would never sell at that length. The conclusion was that it needed to be made larger or smaller but couldn’t stay as it was. (To be fair, there were aesthetic as well as commercial reasons given to me why I should do that.) So now the story is 20,000 words long. I wish I had felt I could have written to a length right for the story. Of course, Greyhart Press wasn’t even an idea then…
BTW: I said that putting short stories on the same level as a novel was only one reason to wrap each short stories as a single e-books. I had other reasons too.
- I intend to publish multiple stories from each author. With a single e-book per story, you pick up books from the authors you want, rather than have to buy entire anthologies just to find your favourite author. On my Kindle, I can easily organize my e-books by author, something you can’t do with anthologies. In effect, with one story per e-book you become the editor of your own story anthology.
I want to give them the love they deserve as fully fledged books. In the print world (with a few notable chapbook exceptions such as Pendragon Press) the business realities mean that short stories have always been bundled into anthologies or collections in magazines or books. That’s unavoidable but to my mind that cheapens short stories, as if to say: “Short stories aren’t as worthwhile as novels, so we’ll bundle them up and sell ’em cheap.” And in many cases, when I used to subscribe to magazines or pick up anthologies, I never finished them. I would rather buy, organize and read single stories than be forced to always take them in big lumps organised by an editor.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this bundling effect was forced on publishers by the commercials and there are anthologies I have eagerly read through, but they are exceptions and tend to be anthologies with a strong linking theme. For example, Fables from the Fountain is a great new anthology I’ve read where each author contributed a story about a set of geeky scientists and Sci-Fi fans who tell tall tales over a pint at a pub called the Fountain. That works well. And I’m proud to be in another recent anthology called Further Conflicts that’s linked by the theme of conflict. I love the way different authors took that link seriously but came up with different aspects of conflict. That works too. My favourite anthologies are actually collections (i.e. from a single-author) by Stephen Baxter. In Vacuum Diagrams and even better, Resplendent, he collects his short stories published in a number of locations to add an astonishing level of breadth and depth to his Xeelee Sequence of future history. Resplendent is possibly my favourite book of all, but only because it so strongly linked, enhanced by and enhancing the novels of the Xeelee Sequence. These are exceptions: I’ve never finished most of the anthologies I’ve bought.
Tim C. Taylor – Publisher