Food for Thought—The Novella Format by John Shepphird

John Shepphird

What is it about the novella? Why do I keep coming back the format as both a reader, and an author? I say it’s that the novella allows authors to tell an escalating narrative with complete character arcs that’s technically a full meal but on the small-plate menu. Embracing this analogy, War and Peace (over 500K words) is a massive feast, while short stories are regulated to snacks.

When was the last time you started a novel, one that grabbed you, but then along the way you lost interest and didn’t finish the book? If that same novel were shorter, might you have stuck with it? If the author was less concerned about hitting an approximate 80,000 to 100,000 word count that generally defines a “novel” (and focused on boiling the story down to its true essentials) would the book have been more entertaining and held your interest?

If less is more, when is “less” more?

Noir author Les Edgerton in Pam Stack’s Authors on the Air podcast spoke of working in a bookstore and witnessing as customers held two books trying to make a decision. Many chose the largest and heaviest of the two—quantity over quality. This drove Les mad. Maybe there is something about a reader’s expectations of what makes up a book. Do they feel by choosing a novella they’re being slightly cheated, even at a lower price? Maybe that’s why small-plate tapas restaurants are relatively rare while massive-portion chains such as The Cheesecake Factory thrive.

The biggest challenge for the novella is finding a home to publish the format. Agents and publishers freely admit they avoid novellas, likely because novellas don’t sell. Certainly buyers expect the novella to be less expensive than a standard novel. Could it be that the cost of creating a physical book, at the shorter length, not pencil out to an acceptable profit?

I recall waiting in line at Barnes & Noble one Christmas season and prominently displayed was the novella—John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas (approx. 38K word count). A departure from Grisham’s legal thrillers, this novella went on to be a bestseller and was made into the movie (Christmas With the Kranks with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis). Do you have to be John Grisham or Stephen King to write a bestselling novella?

On rare occasions a novella breaks out. Consider both The Notebook and Bridges of Madison County. Both authors’ first published work of fiction, both novellas were massive hits. Somebody, somewhere, took a chance.

Recently there’s been much chatter in blogs that claim a resurgence of the novella. Is it true, or is it now that eBooks, indie press, self-publishing and POD allow the format to live outside mainstream publishing?

You have to applaud publishers willing to embrace the format, namely Down & Out Books, and I’m not just saying that because this feature is on their website. I truly believe it.

Having initially published three of the five Anthony Award nominees in the novella category this year (including my novella Beware the Shill, S.W. Lauden’s Crosswise and Angel Luis Colón’s No Happy Endings) a fourth was recently added when Down & Out acquired the imprint All Due Respect Books. Now Sara M. Chen’s Cleaning Up Finn technically falls under Down & Out’s umbrella—four out of the five novellas nominated.

I’m proud to be published by D&O, a progressive, forward-thinking team willing to take a chance on tight and compelling crime fiction. And with the addition of the imprints All Due Respect Books and Shotgun Honey, is Down & Out cornering the novella length original crime fiction market? Appears so.

This year’s novella category for the Anthony Award is technically the “wild card”. This means next year the category may be replaced by audiobooks or graphic novels, whatever the awards chair decides. I hope to see more organizations and awards chairs recognize the approximate 30K word length of storytelling. The Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award recognizes the “novelette” but that is for stories under 20K words, nothing longer.

Possibly the James Patterson Little Brown/Hachette BookShots novellas are a good sign. These paperbacks are available in bookstores and supermarkets akin to the days of dime store spinner-racks. The brand is primarily thrillers “co-written” with James Patterson, and romances credited with James Patterson Presents. Hopefully these will sell and help blaze the trail for more novellas in mainstream publishing.

BTW I’ve discovered some exciting new authors reading novellas. One was John Rector’s 2013 International Thriller Award-winning novella Lost Things. I received a copy in my Bouchercon book bag (thank you Amazon/Thomas Mercer) and liked John’s writing so much I went back to read his entire backlist. Now I read everything John writes.

I’ll wrap it up by listing some of my most memorable books that just so happen to be novellas. Note the word count.

Food for thought.

Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck (approx. 33K words)
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain (approx. 36K words)
Double Indemnity James M Cain. (approx. 36K words)
The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway (approx. 40K words)
Candide Voltaire (approx. 36K words)
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad (approx. 38K words)
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury (approx. 46K words)

John Shepphird is a Shamus Award-winning author and writer/director of TV movies. Anthony finalist Beware the Shill is the third novella in “The Shill Trilogy” from Down & Out Books.