With the growth of e-books, something interesting has been happening with story and book length. With the ease of putting out ‘books’, many people have tested the waters with short stories, but others have gone for something longer—not quite a novel, but more than a short. And it’s not only independently published authors who are getting in on this. James Patterson is now releasing his ‘bookshots’, billed as ‘stories at the speed of life’, and I’m sure other big names will follow soon.
This is nothing new, but maybe now it’s time is right.
Why now? Let’s take a step back.
A few decades ago, when dinosaurs roamed the plain, there were places known as bookstores, where these strange physical objects called ‘books’ could be bought. Often, these bookstores stocked nothing but books, and many didn’t even sell coffee. If you wanted to read, you’d enter one of these establishments, browse the shelves, select what you wanted, then pay at the till, handing over these strange notes and scraps of metal that were called ‘money.’
It took time to choose the right book. Those in charge of these establishments would place titles they wanted to shift face-out, or even on separate displays. The reader would look for authors they knew and trusted, or maybe they’d be drawn in by an interesting-looking cover. They might pick up a book and read the back, or may even open the book (very carefully, making sure they didn’t damage the spine, because these were delicate, precious artifacts) and read a section.
And usually there were multiple books that looked promising. So how was one to choose, especially when they might all be available for the same price?
There was one fall-back position—look at the size of the book, either physically, or (if you were slightly more canny) at the page numbers and print size. And then you’d go for the largest book, because you got more for your money that way.
Maybe that’s being a little blunt, but the size of a book was one way publishers tempted readers, and it was rare to find a short book for sale. Yes, there were exceptions, but they tended to be classics like Of Mice And Men or Animal Farm, or one-offs by big-name authors that publishers were confident would sell.
Apart from these oddities, you were limited to novels or collections of short stories.
Fast-forward to today, when so much reading material is digital. How long is a book now? However long it needs to be. And I think this is great.
I like novels. I like having a story I can get my teeth into. But there are times when I want something else.
Short stories are great for reading while having a coffee. They are wonderful ways to fill ten minutes while waiting at the dentist (because, if your dentist is anything like mine, the time of your appointment and the time you are seen are never the same, and you don’t want to sit there doing nothing).
Then there are continuing stories. Look at any e-book retailer, and you will find series after series. This is, of course, nothing new, but it’s far more prevalent now. You can read a novel, then continue with another about the same characters, in the same world. You can be immersed in that world for far longer. If the series is good, your commitment will be rewarded with twists and turns you never saw coming. And independent authors, who can bring out new volumes at a fast rate (because they don’t have to deal with printing presses, or ensuring a good position in book stores), can keep readers of these ongoing sagas happy with multiple releases over the year.
But there’s one book length that, I feel, has benefited most from the e-book revolution, and that’s the novella. Technically, both ‘short books’ mentioned before fit into this category, as do things like The Old Man And The Sea. Publishers generally haven’t been too keen on novellas, mainly because they take almost as many resources as novels, but readers aren’t generally prepared to pay the same price for such a short book (why spend the best part of £10 or $10 or whatever on something barely over 100 pages when you can get a 500-page epic for the same price?). But with e-books, this problem goes away.
I’ve noticed myself reading more and more novellas over recent years, as I’ve switched from print to e-ink.
I’m one of those strange people who would rather read than watch TV. I do enjoy the occasional film, but I’d still prefer to relax with a book at the end of the day. And a novella is the perfect length for an evening of escapism. 25000 words, or just over 100 pages, normally takes a couple of hours to read, the same time as the average film. It’s a great length of time for an escape, and when I put the book down (okay, turn off the e-reader), I feel satisfied—I’ve had a complete story. I feel like I’ve been watching a film in my head, and now I’m emerging into daylight, my eyes adjusting after the dark of the cinema, sad to have to return to reality, but happy for the couple of hours I’ve been entranced by the story.
The comparison between novellas and films goes deeper. Many successful films have been based not on novels but on novellas (and short stories). In most cases, a novel contains too much to condense into a couple of hours on screen, and huge chunks have to be abandoned, or characters and events merged. But a novella is just right. Think of films like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, both of which came from Stephen King novellas. In fact, King’s written quite a few novellas, although they tend to turn up in collections like Four Past Midnight and Full Dark, No Stars, rather than being available on their own.
Also, some stories simply work better as novellas. I’ve read quite a few novels that have contained obvious padding, simply to make them fit a certain length. I’ve read short stories that felt rushed, and needed more time and space than they had been given.
Of course, there are other lengths of stories, from flash fiction to ongoing epics that never seem to end (and I realise that statement could be negative or positive, depending on preferences and the content itself). And with digital reading, they are all equally available.
So, if I want to escape for a couple of minutes while I wait for an appointment, I can grab a bit of flash fiction. I can have a coffee and take twenty minutes over a short story. I can spend an evening with a novella, or a few evenings with a novel. Or I could dedicate a few weeks to a series, delving deep into a new world.
Story length is no longer defined by physical parameters, or limited by cost and return-on-investment. Stories can truly be as long as they need to be.
And that has to be a good thing.