The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable


In my previous post, I looked at how the novella was making a comeback among authors and how it can help self-publishers raise their profile by publishing shorter works more often. But can the novella be profitable for publishers as well as good for authors? In recent years, publishers have tended to shy away from collections of short stories or novellas, finding them harder to sell.

“There is no doubt that when commercial publishing increased so monumentally in the 70s and 80s, short fiction retreated into the arms of the small and independent presses,” says Jo Fletcher, publisher of Jo Fletcher Books, a science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint of Quercus Publishing. “As far as I can see, with some honourable exception, that hasn’t much changed. There will always be exceptions but, in general, if you try to publish a collection by a known writer, you generally accept that sales will be significantly less than for a novel. And if you’re trying to sell a collection by unknown writer, you do it because you can’t live without that writer, the writing’s so good.

“It becomes a question of economics. If you’ve got one slot on your list and you can publish a short story collection by someone you think is going to win awards or do amazing things and sell 70 copies, or you can publish a good commercial [book] that’s going to sell 5,000 copies, what are you going to do?”

When iconic SF author Jeff Noon made his return to prose writing with Channel SK1N, the press release definitively called it a novella but the press consistently referred to it as a ‘comeback novel’. I asked Noon if he felt there was perhaps a little prejudice against novellas, and if his decision to self-publish an ebook only freed him to write at whatever length he saw fit.

“Definitely,” he says. “I know that publishers have always looked down a little on the novella. I don’t know why, because I love them, myself. So self-publishing allowed me to go with the flow and to let the story exist in its natural state. Nobody ever told me to make it longer. Maybe with some paper publishers that might well have been an issue.”

Isaac Marion, author of the best selling Warm Bodies and its prequel novella, The New Hunger, sees the value of both print and digital formats.

“Ebooks do seem to be the primary venue for novellas lately, but I still think there’s a place for them in print. Novellas never used to have the commercial stigma they do today. The Old Man and the SeaFahrenheit 451Animal Farm… many of our most enduring classics are novellas and would probably be rejected by today’s publishers who are constantly pushing the needle from art toward commerce. It makes no sense to me. Sure, you charge a couple dollars less for a novella and maybe lose a little bit of your profit margin, but it’s still profit! The stories exist and people will buy them, so why not sell them? Ebooks do provide a streamlined gateway for novellas, but I still believe in the physical world and I don’t plan on leaving The New Hunger to rot in digital limbo.”

But publishing novellas in print is a challenge, according to Gillian Redfearn, deputy publishing director of Gollancz, who is publishing a series of novellas by Sarah Pinborough and Den Patrick.

“When you typeset a novella and turn it into a book, it can look very slight. So if you are in WHSmiths or Waterstones, looking for something to read, the number of pages you get for the price can look rather unappealing.”

Redfearn says that the solution is to produce “a really attractive, beautifully produced book, where you get value for money,” and Gollancz have done exactly that with Pinborough’s and Patrick’s books. Pinborough has written three novellas based on fairytales: Poison (Snow White), Charm(Cinderella), and Beauty (Sleeping Beauty). Patrick has produced three war fighting manuals: OrcsElves, and Dwarves.

They are indeed beautifully produced hardbacks, packed full of illustrations and with luscious cover art. They don’t feel slight at all, but look like very desirable additions to any bookshelf. They are almost luxury items, the kind of books you’d love to get as a gift. I’d be surprised if anyone buying either in a bookshop or online would be disappointed.

But the developments in the digital market place provide new options for traditional publishers, so high-end hardbacks aren’t the only way to make novellas work financially.

“If an author has written short fiction or novella,” says Fletcher, “we will put those out as ebook singles. We’ve never done that before because, of course, we never had that option. Most people are not paying the authors for that, it’s seen as a promotional thing.  That doesn’t mean that the author can’t sell them to online magazines or [include them] in Best Ofs. We as publishers are hoping that they will get their money that way, and that we will be able to attract readers by giving them a smaller bite, rather than a three course meal. But it’s relatively new, I don’t know if it’s working yet.”

Redfearn also sees the value in using novellas to experiment, though she dislikes the trend of not paying for shorter works. If an author has a novella, she’ll say, “Let’s put it online for £2 or £3 and see if people are interested, if this entices them to give you a go. It’s a much healthier way of doing business and getting new voices out there”.

A big part of the problem for publishers is not that novellas can’t work as a form — history has shown us that the novella can have huge literary potential — but that the current acquisition process is focused on full-length novels. New authors usually finish their novels before sending them in, and authors they’ve worked with previously pitch ideas and provide sample chapters.

“Within that there isn’t really anything that encourages novella writing,” Redfearn says. “A lot of authors do test chapters, almost short stories, that are often cut from the manuscript. There’s no reason they couldn’t make that a slightly bigger experiment, or test out an idea or an escapade for a character in a novella form. But it’s not something that our acquisition process is geared up for. Because we tend to look for 80,000 words plus, we don’t see as many novellas from our authors, or people contacting us with their projects, as we might otherwise.

“I’m not aware particularly of authors writing novella collections, which would be interesting, rather than short stories collections. But maybe we’re just seeing the beginning of that.”

That may be partly down to genre, suggests author James Everington:

“In the horror small press, it’s relatively easy [to get attention] because there’s a lot of classic horror novellas, so there’s publishers willing to put them out. There’s something about the genre suits that length, I think. I’ve already had a couple [of publishers] express an interest in the one I’ve just started, which is nice. In terms of other genres, or the big publishers, I suspect things would be tougher.”

As the digital market place develops, however, it’s going to be easier for authors and publishers in all genres to make fiction of any length commercially available and viable. With authors happily picking up the baton, publishers only have to make the numbers work out and we could enter a new golden age of novellas.