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Return of the Novella: Ebooks and the Awkwardly Sized Novel

Novelettes and novellas are two categories that, together, encompass the gap of awkward sized stories – between 7500 and 70,000 words (according to SFWA). Many classics are included under these twin umbrellas, but I’d like you to ask yourself a question: when did you last read one?

For most of us, that will entail some hard thought. Those on the shorter side often slip into print anthologies; those on the longer occasionally into solo print. But the fact remains, they’re a rarity in modern SFF. But why? The primary reasons are economic, and have a lot to do with print publishing. In order to secure a decent price margin – for both booksellers and publishers – the price of an individual title needs to be above a given threshold. But as the size of the novel or novella in question decreases, you as the reader start to wonder, is this a good print-per-penny ratio? Though not exactly in those terms, the fact remains, a shorter novella might be produced more cheaply, but it still has a high cost relative to its size.

You might have spotted a potential solution: stuff novellas together into an anthology. But there’s a problem with that too – the reason why I call novellas ‘awkward’. A novella takes up the most part of an anthology: so the more novellas, the fewer stories. And as said anthologies generally play on having the largest spread of authors and stories possible, well, more than one or two of said tales are out of the question. As for using solely novellas? Size limitations. To keep the book as a whole under the limit of unpublishability (to coin an awkward term), few can be included. We have our dilemma, then. Novellas are, for the most part, unviable in print SFF.

They’re not alone in unprofitability through print – the longest novels have the same problem, and it’s a large one. Similarly, you can likely guess the solution: the ebook. When I type ‘fantasy novella’ into Google, almost all of the results for the first page are ebooks. There’s a reason for that. Ebooks don’t require printing, they don’t require large percentages to go to bookstores (whether that’s a point in their favour is ambiguous), and they have no physical length constraints. So the format definitely puts the novella back in the playing field. But why do we want them around?

Essentially, the novella bridges the gap between full-length book and short story. Short fiction puts a hard limit on the amount of worldbuilding and exploration that can be done; largely restricting it to intense or concept driven tales. Novels, meanwhile, require far more investment – and the novella is the perfect meeting point. It allows authors to explore a given concept for longer without running into limits, and makes longer (high worldbuilding) fantasy fiction a viable possibility. It doesn’t, however require the high degree of investment of a novel, from either reader or author, so offshoot concepts can still be explored, such as back-stories and prequels.

All in all? The novella is a valuable addition to the SFF market. And although in recent years we’ve been seeing its decline, I have no doubt that with the advent of the ebook (and the new, blooming market for them), we’ll soon begin to see the novella go mainstream once more. And in fact, from the look of a quick search on Amazon, it already has. Let’s just hope traditional publishers catch on, too (because I loved those Vorkosigan novellas, dammit…).

Title image by Raceytay.

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5 Comments

  1. I think the novella is changing over to a more compact novel at this point. The Flash Novel is something that seems to be creeping about, a full novel in 20K-25K words, something you can finish over a lunch break. It is true, in the current physical publishing it is hard to do on a large scale. This is why ebooks are getting so hot, but there is also so much drek out there. It is easy to lose yourself in the sea of mediocrity.

    Thanks for sharing this, much appreciated!

    • Hm, interesting. I only got my ereader in October, so I haven’t seen many such yet. I would definitely agree with regard to the quality: but then, that’s what we reviewers hopefully help a little with. (At at least, so we like to think, heh).

  2. […] Fantasy Faction (Jacob Topp-Mugglestone) on Return of the Novella: Ebooks and the Awkwardly Sized Novel. […]

  3. Avatar Jamie Gibbs says:

    True, I’ve not seen a printed novella for a long while. I agree that ebooks are definitely the way forward for these guys too 🙂 I’m with Leif though too; the ebook market has meant an explosion in unsolicited novellas that haven’t even been spell checked let along edited.

    • I’m hoping so, anyway. I’ve seen novellas printed along with editions of novels, typically omnibus editions – such as the collections of the vorkosigan series. And heh, you and Leif have a point regarding quality – it is difficult to pick your way through, but hopefully should be ultimately rewarding (especially with reviewers covering a fair bit of the ebook market, though by no means all – or even most!)

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