Ebooks: As length’s no longer an issue, how about some novella thinking?

Publishers often trial new writers and experimental material in digital format. Ebooks can then be reborn as paper versions if demand is high enough


The notion that each story has a natural length has long been championed by writers and ignored by publishers. In traditional publishing certain lengths are commercially viable. If a draft of a book exceeds these limits, the author will more than likely be asked to cut it.

Is that stream-of-consciousness section integral to the plot? Must the narrator spend so long dwelling on his bleak childhood? Skilful editors have improved countless books through the ages, but excellent work will have also found itself on the chopping block, consigned to tinder because it ran over a predetermined length.

The flip side of the coin is worse again, where elegantly crafted stories are puffed up to meet a page count. Good luck getting that perfect 30,000-word novella published unless you’re highly valued by your publisher, and even then. When it comes to traditional publishing, size matters.

The ebooks industry is removing the burden of length from writing. Away from the high overheads of print, digital publishing can afford to match pricing to length, rather than the reverse. All digital books are equal (but some are more equal than others once you click into them). This has the power to revolutionise writing. Free to choose whatever form best suits the story and still get published, writers should in the future have more creative control.

Things are already changing. If 2013 was the year of the short story – topped by Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature – industry experts are predicting a novella renaissance in 2014. A long story or a short novel, typically between 17,000 and 40,000 words, the novella got off to a good start with Manchester Metropolitan University last month announcing a new international award geared towards ebook publications of this nature.

Outside the box
Amazon was the first to recognise the opportunities that epublishing presents in this area, launching Kindle Singles in 2011 to digitally publish work that broke with convention. From debut novellas to long-form journalism, the imprint gives both emerging and established writers the chance to create and subsequently publish work outside the box. It also offers prompt publication – particularly important for journalism – and a much bigger cut in royalties than traditional print publishers.

Ebooks give a platform to a variety of quality short fiction that might struggle for publication in the real world. A recent example is a £1.95 purchase of Six Shorts – the finalists for the 2013 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, a Kindle-only edition that yields a range of talented contemporary voices who may have otherwise, certainly collectively, remained beyond my scope. From the superb Miss Lora , by the prize’s winner, Junot Diaz, to the lambent mania in Sarah Hall’s Evie to Ali Smith’s surreal elegy The Beholder , there is much to savour in this collection, not least the chance to pick your favourite.

Publishers often trial new writers and experimental material in digital format. Ebooks can then be reborn as paper versions if demand is high enough. Finding Cinderella , a free ebook novella by the romance writer Colleen Hoover, is due out in paperback next month after fans of the US author took to social media to harangue her publisher Atria for a print release. Featuring the characters Daniel and Six, from Hoover’s bestselling Hopeless series, Finding Cinderella is a standalone story intended as a bonus for fans that has since come full circle and rewarded its author’s generosity.

This publisher-author-fan triad is uncommon, but it will continue to gain momentum because of the space for innovation and interactivity that epublishing creates.

The resurgence of novellas and other short fiction is spilling into traditional publishing. Penguin published Zadie Smith’s 8,000-word story The Embassy of Cambodia as a hardback last November. How many readers would happily pay £7.99 for the pocket-sized book? Fiction lovers, or so the industry would have us believe, tend to want to get their money’s worth from a book. For those who view Smith’s miniature novel as bad value, the initial £2.99 ebook price tag may have had more appeal. (It is currently retailing at £4.99 on Amazon.)

Of course the merit of The Embassy of Cambodia , or of any book, depends on so much more than length. Short story. Novelette. Novella. Novel. These are rough and often arbitrary terms denoting various forms, but books can never be judged by word count alone. Why is a short story not a novelette, a novella not a novel? These distinctions can be debated on everything from structure to perspective, conflict to character development, and many other devices and nuances that help create a world or consciousness worthy of a reader’s attention.

The British writer Ian McEwan, whose novella On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, lauds the form in an essay in the New Yorker . Citing numerous examples – Kafka’s Metamorphosi s, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw , Joyce’s The Dead , Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome – McEwan hails it as the perfect form of prose fiction: “It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers.”

As the ebooks industry continues to incubate shorter fiction, readers will welcome more and more of these children in the future.

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