Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Today's conundrum: Is size important?

Well, is it? (Brazill – stop sniggering at the back, there!) No, seriously, is it?

I was thinking about this with regard to books recently, where it seems to me that we are in the process of moving from a world where a book had to be not only easy to categorize, but also of a certain length in order to be acceptable to a publisher (also to land on the right desk on the right day, not to be similar to anything else that had passed by recently and on and on and on …) to one where none of that matters anymore. In the old world model, first novels couldn’t be too long. Later novels had to be 70,000 to 100,000 words (ish). A new book came out once a year. Booksellers had to know which shelf the book should be put on.

But all that’s changed now. With e-books and, perhaps more importantly, the removal of mainstream publishers as gatekeepers, protecting readers from those hard-to-categorize, odd-length novels those unruly, irreverent writers kept trying to palm off onto people, stories are free to be whatever length they need to be to get their message across.

When I was first getting into the idea of e-books – the possibilities, the potential – I remember reading an interview with Stephen Leather in which he said he had tried and failed to interest his publisher in three novellas he had written. They were the wrong length. They were the wrong genre. Because he believed in his stories, he took the decision to put them out as e-books, and they became runaway best sellers. Even though they were priced at just 99c/71p each, they made him a shedload of money – which, more importantly, tells us that a shedload of people wanted to read them. People that mainstream publishing would have denied.

Of course, as well as shorter books and even individual short stories, there will be folk putting out longer tales, too. Which may or may not be a bad thing, depending upon the story and the writer. One of my favourite writers, Stephen King, was obliged by his publisher to cut a huge chunk of story out of what I reckon is one of his best books, The Stand. Years later, he had the clout to ensure that the uncut version was published, too. But it took years. And lots and lots of success. (And whilst I would argue that some of SK’s books would benefit from judicious editing, I don’t believe for one minute that need would have been behind the original decision to cut The Stand: the motivator would not have been art, but commerce. Bigger books cost more to produce and to ship.)

One of my favourite rock ‘n’ roll writers, Mick Wall, has recently started a daily blog over at Rock AAA and in this post he raises the question of size with regard to albums. He makes the point that since the CD format was introduced, many albums are simply too long. Back in the days when the old liquorice pizza was the method of music delivery, album size was constrained by how much you could physically fit on two sides of a 12” vinyl record. Now, with streaming, the album is dead. As Mick says, ‘The thing that matters now is the music and whether it’s actually worth a shit or not.’

And for writers and readers, the constraints are going, too. It doesn’t have to be about corporations. It doesn’t have to be about genre. It doesn’t have to be about size. It’s all about stories. And the only thing that matters is that they are good tales, well told, that people enjoy reading. To hell with artificial constraints. Long live readers, writers, and the stories they share.


  1. Lots of interesting questions and thoughts there, Julie. My question is: are you suggesting I give up on trying to interest publishers in my work, and go down the self-publishing e-book route?

    Also, without the backing of a publisher's PR machine, how do I promote my work, so it reaches the potential 'shedload of readers'?

  2. It's really up to the individual how they choose to get their books in front of readers. For some people, the only credible form of publishing is through an established publisher and I totally respect that. Others choose to publish with smaller houses, or to self-publish. I love having the choice. And there's no reason why a 'mix and match' approach ought not to work.

    For example, my last business book was published traditionally, but I'm planning to self-publish the next one. I've self-published a couple of works of fiction so far, and will do the same again before the year is out, but I wouldn't rule out a traditional deal for one or more books alongside that. It doesn't have to be either/or. We have a choice, and that's liberating.

    One major benefit of self-publishing e-books: I can update them whenever I choose and all it costs is my time. So if I plan to put out a new book, I can add the first chapter (for example) in the back of my existing books to help promote it. I can put a link to my blog or website in there, too.

    As to publicity, it's pretty much down to writers to promote their work however they are published. Lots of money seems to be thrown at promoting new books by established writers, but newbies and mid list writers - as a general rule - don't get that much help.

    Raising awareness of your book is probably the hardest thing to do, but there's a lot of help and advice out there. I've found Joe Konrath's blog very useful (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/). Also the KindleBoards (http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php). I recently had a question about the IRS answered on there, they're a fantastic source of information. There are also lots of sites that will review books or accept guest bloggers - a bit of research should help turn some up. Sadly, though, there's no magic bullet, no one course of action that guarantees success. (I wish!)

    However you choose to proceed, I wish you the very best of luck.

  3. Thanks Julie. That's all very helpful and encouraging!

  4. Good thoughts, Julie. I finally published a story that was too long for the literary magazines but too short for a novel, but just the right length for what it had to say, on Scribd. I'm thinking now of republishing it along with other (shorter) stories as an e-book. On Scribd this and other pieces get lots of readers, but I can't charge money (because I don't live in the U.S.).

  5. Sounds like a great idea! I read this just this morning: http://lawrenceblock.wordpress.com/

    If Lawrence Block is self-pubbing short stories and novellas - and making his own covers - then I reckon we'll be in very good company.

    Good luck with it!