Tuesday 9 October 2018

The Problem with Novels

Over the last few years, I’ve been having an increasing problem with novels, at least as they relate to my favourite genres of science-fiction and fantasy. It’s not the form itself that bothers me, but the frequency with which I have encountered stories expanded to novel length that would have been better served by some shorter form. These stories just don’t have enough plot – in genres traditionally driven by plot – to fill up 300+ pages. Often you get 100 – 150 pages of really interesting story mixed in with about 200 pages of ‘filler’ – scenes that may be interesting in their own right, but don’t really advance the story.

Unfortunately, this can often be very hard to recognize until you are deep into a book. That said, I do suggest wariness of any books that switch the point-of-view character a lot, especially those that switch to the POV of the villain. While this can be done effectively to tell a great story, it is also the easiest, and laziest, way to fill pages in a book without expanding the plot.

It is easy enough to understand why this happens. The whole fiction publishing industry is driven by the novel. It is by far the easiest format of fiction to sell. For whatever reason, society has decided that a 300 page story is worth £9; this unfortunately leads to the natural (if erroneous) conclusion that shorter stories are only worth a proportional amount. This has had the knock-on effect that short stories, novelettes, and novellas are often not worth an author’s time. All of these forms are actually harder to sell (at professional rates), and earn the author significantly less money than a novel. Thus, authors often don’t want to ‘waste’ a good idea on a short story or novella, when they could expand it to a novel. Unfortunately, for the most part, story ideas have a natural length, and the only way to expand them is through filler.

All of this was brought home to me recently as I read Of Whimsies & Noubles by Matthew Hughes. This science-fiction (maybe science-fantasy) novella clocks in at 74 pages and was published as an independent hardback by specialty publisher PS Publishing for the price of £12. It’s a terrific little story, a sci-fi crime-caper filled with interesting ideas. The main character is an overweight art-forger who likes to live the good life. He’s not an attractive character, but he is interesting. What I really love about the story is that it has no fat whatsoever – no filler at all. Every scene drives the story forward until it reaches its logical conclusion. That’s not to say the story is predictable, just that it never wanders from the main story line, and when it reaches a natural stopping point, it ends. Because of its short length, I don’t want to say much about it, but if it sounds like your kind of thing, it is definitely worth a look.

Now Matthew Hughes got lucky. He found one of the few publishers willing to publish a stand-alone novella. He probably even got paid a decent amount for it. That said, I have little doubt that he could have easily expanded the idea into a novel, sold it, and gotten a much bigger paycheque compared to time worked. On the other hand, the reading public would have lost a great novella to have it replaced by a likely mediocre novel. That would have been a real shame.

But now, I put forward the question: how many people are willing to pay £12 for 74 pages? The answer is – not many. That is why the book is published by the small press. I admit it, I would have a hard time paying that much for a novella unless I was a BIG fan of the author. That’s not a short at the publisher, they have to charge that kind of money if they have any hope of making a profit (Actually £12 is a really good price, usually these kinds of things are closer to £20).

Seemingly anthologies would be an answer to this problem, but, strangely, these sell significantly worse than novels, possibly even worse than independently published novellas.

The only answer, I suppose, is to be willing to pay for good fiction even when it is in a shorter format. The more people that do so, the larger a print run becomes, the cheaper the publisher can make the cover price. A good book is nearly always worth the price, a bad one never is. Of Whimsies & Noubles is a really good book.

[In the interests of full disclosure, I was sent this book for review, and had previously never encountered the author Matthew Hughes. I will be looking into him ore now. Over the last few years; however, I have purchased several independently published novellas, most recently The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell]


  1. You hit the nail squarely on the head. It's why I gave up on Game of Thrones and The Sword of Truth. Come on man!!!! A demonic chicken!!! Price has been a deal breaker for me as well. If I can't get if on the secondary market for less than a couple bucks, or free from the library, I give it a pass.


  2. I have sometimes noticed the same thing, although conversely I have also read a few novellas where they really ought to have been expanded. Tell me more story if it makes sense, and tell me less if it is just filler. Or figure out a better way to tell me more story if you need to do it for financial reasons!

    As an aside, book prices in the UK are crazy, £9 for a paperback novel would buy two here in the US. (and books are VAT exempt too? Here we pay sales tax on books, so ~9% extra depending on state, county and municipality rates)

  3. But bigger is better! More of a good thing! Lots more!!! And more of the same good thing - don't waste time on variety or experimentation!!!!!

    As evidenced by the recent trend to break films up into multiple episodes, the mainstream just wants more of the same, usually to the detriment of the content, and can only see a 300-story book as being twice as good as a 150-page story.

    I personally find some of the most highly-regarded authors to be at their best when their writing is limited in length. I haven't been able to wade through the full-length novels of Fitzgerald or Dickens, for instance, but absolutely love their shorter stories and novellas. My favourite Rowling and Pullman books are their shorter ones.

    That said, I do sometimes just enjoy losing myself in prose - I would happily read Wilkie Collins and Kazuo Ishiguro describing a character looking out of the window indefinitely.

    I mourn the loss of the pocket-sized book as an industry standard. I don't know if the length of books has had any bearing on this, but now even fairly short novels are too large for jeans or a jacket to bear comfortably. Now I have to peruse charity shops for reading material which doesn't require me to take a rucksack everywhere (and no, ebooks just don't cut it for a good read). The lining in my suit pockets are ripping more frequently these days...

    Will cut my musing short now - brevity is good.

  4. Thanks for the warm review. There are four novellas from PS featuring the same character, Luff Imbry. They are all scheduled to be published as a paperback omnibus next year.

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