The Science Fiction and Fantasy website and publisher Tor.com has announced that they are planning to start a new line of e-published novella length genre fiction with serious verve. This is an interesting move for a site that already has an excellent reputation as a place for online short fiction.
The announcement doesn’t give the reasoning for this decision, although pitching ebooks at novella to short novel length (40,000 to 80,000 words-ish) is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, weighing up the potential to tap into a relatively untapped readership vein.
One advantage is that e-readers do not give the same physical sense of the length of a book as a physical copy does. They provide rough estimates and bars and page counts, but it’s not quite the same as having the thing in your hand. I tend to think that the trend towards increased sales in larger and larger books (at least in some genres) has something to do with an unconscious value for money drive. The reader may not be fully aware of what they are doing, but they are in part making a book purchasing selection based on a guess how much entertainment they will get out of it. The average e-reader is a bit less transparent and I think this means that readers will perhaps feel a bit less cheated by a shorter book.
Of course, this may let them (re)discover the joy of short, tightly written stories. The short novels of Le Guin, like Lathe of Heaven, or Alan Garner’s works, Thursbitch for example, read speedily and there’s something to be said for a book you can pick up, read and be done with in at most a couple days. I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane on an e-reader and was stunned afterwards to see it on a shelf and realise how short a book it is. I had no idea: in fact, I had attributed my finishing it quickly to Neil having written it very well. So there you go.
More than any of these points though, I think allowing ebooks to slip down past the 80,000 too-short-for-a-novel death mark allows stories to be the length they need to be. Too many 100,000 words novels feel like they have about 30,000 words of extraneous sub-plotting or character arcs, and really, the story would have been better if it had been allowed to reach its natural length and finish there.
Those are just my thoughts on the matter though. It will be interesting to see how Tor.com prices their novellas and how well they do in terms of reaching target readers.