The Return of Novels and Novelettes

‘Why did he only write a novella?’ was a comment on an otherwise favourable review we had a couple of years ago. A fair question and one we took as a back-handed compliment. We’ve been debating novellas and short novels recently, when as indie writers and avid readers, we note trends in the publishing world.

In the last few years we’ve noticed that novellas are becoming increasingly popular among indie authors. It’s interesting to think about why fashions change in publishing. A cynic might say novellas are quicker to get on sale – that’s true and an important factor – but far from the only reason.

Demand is driven partly by readers and most authors try to write books that will sell in the current market. Unfortunately, demand is also manipulated by the big publishers. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, historical fiction was very popular. Later, it almost disappeared from the shelves with publishers not wanting to take that genre. It’s hard to believe there were some years when readers went off historical novels when you look at their resurgence today, led by authors such as Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.

Novellas and short novels are an old literary form which is making a welcome come-back for various reasons. It’s worth taking a closer look at what is generally meant by the terms. There are no hard and fast rules. From the writing guides I’ve read, leading indie author commentators mostly suggest that 20,000 words is the starting point for a novella.

I’ve no quarrel with this, though we feel that a 30-35,000 word-count is right for us. In the two novellas we’ve published, that space was a natural length to produce a well-rounded story, neither padded nor truncated. We felt it was a length to give good value to our readers, which is important to us.

A short novel is hard to define, though it’s currently suggested that 80,000 words is the minimum length for a novel. I guess a short novel is what used in Britain to be called a ‘novelette,’ anything upwards of around 40,000 words. This is an atmospheric old word that is reappearing in indie author’s book descriptions and we’re pleased to see it back. ‘Novelette’ conjures up nostalgic thoughts of garish covers and  exciting yarns like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar – The Saint – and hard-boiled Chandler and Hammett. Fast-moving adventure stories used to lend themselves to shorter fiction – perhaps until modern publisher-pressure.

Some authors do use the terms novella and novelette for as little as 25-30 pages.  This seems an unwise strategy. Though their work looks longer on the sales page, I’ve noticed angry reviews where readers’ expectations are misled. To pre-empt complaints of being short-changed by a short story, it’s worth making the length eye-catchingly clear in the blurb.

So, why write a novella? The main reason surely is because a writer wants to explore an idea that doesn’t lend itself to an average-length novel but is beyond the limitations of a short story. A story has its own natural length and far better to offer that to your readership than pad a plot in order to charge a higher price.

It’s natural to perceive larger goods as being better value but some of our most iconic fiction has a surprisingly short word count. Think of Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (135 pages) and The Sign of Four (154), John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps (138) and The Power-House (108), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (180) or Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only 65 pages.

This doesn’t apply only to detective novels and thrillers. One of my favourite novels, J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country has  85 memorable pages. Ghost stories too, often work better at medium-length. Incidentally, few speak of these superb stories as novellas or even short novels. We’re simply glad we have them – and many writers intersperse shorter works between longer novels.

In the world of classic crime fiction, the majority of Agatha Christie’s novels are around 190-220 pages. Several written during or shortly after the Second World War are 160, perhaps due to paper shortage. Their quality is certainly no less, they include the much-loved The Body in the Library. Simenon’s Maigret novels are known for their slim volumes. Both writers had a high output.

A quick look along the shelf at many  crime novelists writing from about the 60s will show that their early novels were shorter. You can see this in the canon of Ruth Rendell. Fellow Rendell fans will know that she decided to incorporate themes of social ills in her later Wexford novels, doubling the length of her early titles. I loved them all and it’s a joy to know you’re getting a thick novel from a favourite writer. Yet I’ve come to think that Rendell’s early  mysteries are stronger. The plot of a murder and its detection has a natural progression which is often better for not being expanded. Another of my all-time favourite detective novelists is Emma Page. Her titles are often 180-200 pages .

Don’t get me wrong – I love to curl up with a fat novel. Two of my favourite writers are Trollope and Wilkie Collins, who average 500-700 pages. Trouble is, I rarely get time to re-read them these days and I’m not alone in that. I’ve also seen  – again in the last few years – that many new crime novels look satisfyingly thick until you open them to find an unusually large font and wide line spacing. Do the big publishers think readers won’t notice? I imagine this trend is to justify the staggeringly high price of new hardbacks – and possibly to recoup going on a table display in Waterstones’?

Readers’ expectations seem to be changing in  ways, especially relevant to indie authors who deal mainly in ebooks. We’re living in an over-worked, stressed, time-poor society. Reading – thankfully for our mental health – is as popular as ever. Maybe even more so with people who weren’t drawn to books, finding they enjoy reading on devices. Many people now want a medium-length read they can enjoy on their phone while commuting. Others want to relax with a novella over an evening or two. Sadly, fewer have the time to commit to a lengthy novel.

Another factor in the rise of novellas/novelettes is satisfying the readers who expect frequent titles. Again, this phenomenon only applies to indie authors. Traditionally, readers have expected to wait for a yearly treat from favourite authors, or even a couple or more years. Especially if they’re longing to follow a series and the author has more than one on the go or fancies writing a stand-alone.

These days in our frantic-paced culture, the received wisdom is that readers expect more than a single ebook a year from authors they like. Industry trends strongly suggest that ebook readers’ expectations have gone haywire. We’re told that standalones won’t sell well and we need to get a series on sale fast or our name will be forgotten by readers who enjoyed our first title. And we all know, some readers expect our carefully-crafted months of work to be handed over for 99p! Publishing shorts does go some way towards retaining readers’ interest.

We will always love writing novels but have really enjoyed working on two novellas so far – one for each of our main detective characters. It feels refreshing and fun between the long-haul – maybe like running a half-marathon. Many indie authors are interspersing their fiction with novellas and short stories. It can be a great way of trying out an idea for a spin-off series or exploring a secondary character in greater depth. This is something we’re considering with our historical adventures and Victorian thrillers.

And we’re not alone. In traditionally published crime fiction, famous names such as Alison Joseph and Lesley Cookman have started novella series between their novels. I’m looking forward to Lesley Cookman’s second novella in her The Alexandrians Series which is out on 31st Jan (now on pre-order). She’s had the inspired idea of taking the Nethergate seaside theatre featured in her wonderful Libby Sarjeant series and using that as an Edwardian setting.

Between all these factors, I think we’ve only seen the start of authors producing novellas and short novels. Thanks to technology, writers now have a freedom to write as they choose. An opportunity unseen since the nineteenth century when small presses abounded and individuals sold topical chap-books in the street. It’s exciting to think that indie authors are leading the way.

What do you think? Don’t be shy – we’d love to hear thoughts from other authors.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time and trouble to comment. One of the great things about the indie authors’ community is the spirit of openness – sharing experience,  helpful tips and support.








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11 responses to “The Return of Novels and Novelettes

  1. ilkestononlineuk

    Steven King and Knootz both wrote a novella along with a few shorts in
    one book

  2. I think it’s correct to say that each story idea lends itself to a certain length. I’m currently writing a novella because the story idea is humorous and stretch comfortably to a full-length novel. My half-finished novel, on the other hand, is a character study and does lend itself to the longer novel format. I also agree with what you said about the expectations for the indie author. The public wants more books, more frequently.

    • Should have edited this to say “the story idea is humorous and doesn’t stretch comfortably to a full-length novel.”

      • Great point that humour is well-suited to a compact length. I love Colin Watson’s comic detective novels which were always slight – and perfect for their plot. Will watch out for your novella!
        Think this new phenomenon of ‘reader pressure’ on indie authors is quite stressful. We’re all in this business because we care about what we write and can’t dash off a quality novel in a couple of months.
        Another problem is the reluctance – of some readers – to pay a reasonable price for our hard work. Obviously ebooks should be much cheaper than solid books but we all need to make a living. I do wonder if perma-free books and constant 99p sales are conditioning readers that indie authors’ work is very low value.

  3. I have written several books and a series of novellas. Both have been well received.
    In my case, the novellas (12 so far) are short adventures in a series (“In strange orbits”) that recount the adventures of a little girl lost in space. I chose the novella format because I found that this was the correct format for a single adventure, and most of my readers seem to love this approach, as it is very adequate for short trips or people that do not have much time. I bundle every five novellas into a book, for those that prefer that format.
    I have been asked by several readers if I would not like to write a full book about this (in SciFi quite unusual) character. The truth is, I might do so, but I have plotted out already the next ten adventures, and none of them could be easily expanded to a full book. However, my oldest son (also a SciFi writer) and I are discussing making a joint story where our two universes merge, and this make become “the book”.
    I also have several full length books (unfortunately, none yet translated into English). And, to respond to what Gaslight Crime above states, my novellas are sold at $0.99, but my full books are sold much higher. Higher effort on my side should be also be more rewarded.
    Curiously, according to the reviews, I have readers that started with my novellas and changed from to books (some of them in different genres), and vice-versa. This means that if you are attracted to an author, the length and even the genre might not be that important. On the other side, people who are attracted to novellas and will not buy easily a full book (or vice-versa) might become eventually your readers if you manage to provide them with the format they like.

    • Hi Ramon, Thank you for your interesting response. I think the points you make are very important. Our own experience is that readers buy our books if they like the stories and characters irrespective of the length.
      I’m interested in what you said about a running series of novellas with a series character, which can then be bundled into a longer work, as this is something I’ve been considering myself. It seems to me that there is a very mixed audience and the demand is out there to cater for them in different ways, and, as you say, readers who like your stories will cross over. Thank you again, John.

  4. I find that novella’s are still very important. Not only to indie authors but also to casual readers. In an age where the attention span is limited to 140 character tweets, I think novella’s still shine. Sometimes a short story just isn’t long enough to convey the authors intention, whereas a full fledged novel can be wrought with unnecessary filler. A novella allows for a more fleshed out story, that should be able to be read in a single sitting or two.

    I think it is much harder to find a publisher for novellas outside of the Kindle crowd, sure, but I also feel like that is where they excell. A story you can read on several subway rides, or in between classes, or while you wait in line for a coffee.

    I just finished my first novella, and placed it at the end of my recently (self)published collection of short stories. I think this worked for me, because it shows the range of my material in that I have flash fiction, short stories, and a seventy page novella at the end.

    • Hi Shawn, thank you for a very interesting response, and I’ve very much enjoyed reading your blog as well. I think you’re absolutely right. In these days – certainly in the UK – where people are working longer hours than ever – time is limited for a lot of readers – and novellas are certainly one of the answers. As a fan of short stories I like to believe there’ll be a renaissance with these new forms of publishing. One thing is sure, there are some very talented writers out there. regards John

    • Shawn,
      I think that the problem of novellas is the length – usually it is not feasible to publish a novella on paper (as it is too short), hence that it only appears on Kindle.
      However, the approach of publishing several novellas of a same series together seems also to attract readers; I actually have readers who only buy the novella bundles, not the individual books, and write me to finish the next bundle! The novella bundles ARE however long enough to be also published on paper, hence opening up even more your audience.

      • We’ve done our two novellas on Createspace as well as Kindle, but they are both over 30000 words. I do like the idea of bundling shorter work. Thank you both again.

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