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.