Novellas, Self-Publishing, and Our Crazy Big Very Scary Bet (part 1)

Mark and I cut our teeth on reading the great Fantasy writers of the eighties and nineties – Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, and of course the now-ubiquitous George RR Martin, to name a few.

And it was our great dream to join that great pantheon of authors by writing our magnum opus fantasy novel, that, of course, had to be published by the great fantasy publishing houses of the day – Tor, Roc, Baen. That was the dream for us for as long as I could remember. For as long as Mark and I had been friends.

Until one day, suddenly, it wasn’t.

One night, while sitting in my garage around midnight, we had one of those really epic conversations that ranges like everything from being kids together, to raising kids, to chasing our dreams, to, you know, chasing kids. And somewhere in there, we finally decided to give up on that great dream of our youth.

Wait wait, melodramatic much?

Okay, it was more like we stopped thinking about it like a dream, and instead we started to think about it like a plan. I know, it’s a lot less sexy, right? But a dream is just something you chase and think about. A plan is something you achieve. It’s something you get done.

And that was big for us.

But we changed more than just the semantics of what we were doing. We changed what we were trying to accomplish. Instead of the fantasy novel and courting the great publishing houses, we were going to do fantasy novellas, and we were going to publish them on our own instead of taking them down the traditional route.

SO WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT NOVELLAS

For those who don’t know, novellas are basically short novels. There are different word counts for what makes a story a short story vs novelette vs novella vs novel. Different groups have differing opinions on exactly how many words make something a novel or novella. Here’s how the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) defines it. But I don’t think how many words a story has is a metric that really matters to people.

What I do think makes a difference to people is how long the story takes to read, which, for our novellas, I put it at about an hour to finish reading from cover to cover. And that is important to us.

We want to create a book that can be self-contained and fully deliver a good story, but that can be completed on a train ride, on a plane, or in that precious hour you get at night before your brain completely shuts down.

Moreover, we are going to set up the story in about 5-7 acts (or chapters), where each chapter can be finished in about 7-8 minutes. Just enough time to get a chapter in while waiting in line at lunch, or at the doctor’s office, or waiting for your kids to come out of wherever you’re picking them up from.

And this is where the novella shines. Because not only is the length of the story perfect for this, the way a story is structured in a novella is perfect for this. See, in a traditional novel, you have ups and downs in the action. You have intense moments and then you slow it back down. You know, those dreaded “peaks and valleys” your junior high school teacher used to drone on about.

But in a novella, you don’t have to do that. In fact, you don’t have the time or the literary real estate to do that. Basically, the story looks more like this – introduce, build, build, build, climax, the end.

Interestingly enough, this format is actually very familiar to us, because it’s what the modern TV show (non-sitcom) does. And this is where it gets very interesting for me. Because I think the way we consume TV media has changed the way we consume print media, and consequently has changed the very types of print media we seek out.

And this connection is not just in the way that a novella mirrors an individual TV episode, but in the way novella serials can bring the same satisfaction of a compact yet complete story (like in an individual episode) and yet still build a fuller, richer metastory like that of an entire TV season.

Or more simply put, you can read one story and be happy. Or read all of them and be really really happy.

Sounds great, right? But if it has been that great all along, why do we think the novella is the new black? Why isn’t it the old black? Why has the novella’s older, fatter big brother, the novel, been the dominant storytelling print medium instead?

And the answer actually has to do with the logistics and economics of printing books. It was just too damn expensive to put out a story that short on its own, and too awkward a size to collect. For the same effort, a publisher could fill those valuable shelves in book stores with full-size books and charge full-size prices, so why would they bother with the little guy?

I won’t go too further into the economics of it here, although, if you are like me, I think they are super interesting. Suw Charman-Anderson goes into the economics more in her great post here. As does Cristopher Jackson.

But if all those economic deterrents kept novellas from being commercially viable in the past, what has changed now?

And, the answer, my friend, is the almighty eBook.

The eBook and all its online distributors have taken away almost all of the negative economic barriers of the novella while adding an incredible and vast audience who can now buy and read your work at the push of a button.

Anderson and Jackson, among many others, use phrases like “the golden age of novellas” or the “new renaissance” to describe the upcoming return of these novellas to their former place of dominance in contemporary storytelling. And I don’t think they’re wrong.

Just ask the great publishing powerhouse of our youth, Tor. They’re starting a brand new imprint for ebook fantasy novellas that looks all kinds of sexy.

BACK TO JOE’S GARAGE

So that was a big part of the conversation we had that night in the garage. Except one last thing. We realized this golden age of novellas wasn’t coming. It was already here.

The world had changed, and it was time for us to change along with it.

But there was no more time for dreaming.

It was time to get it done.

DEEP VOICE: NEXT TIME ON JOE’S BLOG

Next week, I finish up with the second part of our plan, and explain why, like all sons, we must scorn the outstretched arms of our fathers, the great traditional publishing houses, and instead try and make our own way in this new crazy crazy world of self-publishing.

Damn you, Oedipus! Although wait, who does that make our mother in the above metaphor? Oh man, I don’t even want to think about it. This is why I leave all the fancy writing to Mark.

I’ll be back next week to talk about self-publishing, the new kingmakers, and our crazy big very scary bet. Til then.

Stay tuned. Stay frosty.

Joe

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