Or, The Freedom of Self E-publishing (Part 1: Length)
I’ve had two conversations this week about the freedom of digital publishing–especially self-publishing–to remove from writing the artificial constraints placed on it long ago by the limitations of print and for the most part retained and even strenthened by the publishing establishment.
What I mean, specifically, are the “form” definitions, and the often abritrary requirements for a specific genre to have a specific word range in novel form.
Short stories were designed to be included in magazines or newspapers. They had tight space constraints.
Novels could not be too long to bind in one book, but neither could they be too short. That left everything in between and beyond that range out in the cold.
Ebooks have taken away those constraints. A novel can now be as long as the writer wants–whether it will be good is beside the point that they will not have to artificially constrict it from 150K to 100K, or artificially inflate it into two books of 100K each. A standalone novella is as viable a purchase as a “full-length” novel. If your story is naturally 40,000 words, when you’re your own publisher you are not confined to industry standards that, at least once upon a time, related to binding space constraints, so you can publish the story in its natural form. Moreover, the people who read it won’t care about the length if the story is both well told and well paced, and they feel like you covered everything that needed to be covered without rushing or fluffing up the story.
Basically what digital publishing allows you to do as a writer is not write the parts people tend to skip, instead of writing them because your story is only 55K and you need an extra 15K to sell it to a publisher. Alternatively, the rescinded form definitions means you don’t have to add stupid subplots just make your story long enough, if that was the strategy you used to increase word count. Actually, I think digital formats might end up making publishing stronger, if all the stories people are telling can be their natural length (and do note that I am not talking about the length of the rough draft, but the length of a fully edited and revised manuscript, which might be longer or shorter than the first cut–or two–of the story).
What about the flip side to this argument, the commercial aspect, that readers “expect” a certain length from a certain genre, and to give them less is to violate the reader-author trust? Is there really such an expectation among readers that, say, a paranormal romance will be a 4-hour read (80K words) while an historical romance will be a 6-hour read (100K)? Or would savvy readers start to purchase based on length, seeking either the most bang for their buck or the precise length for their block of reading time that night? Does a shorter length actually become a selling point for unknown authors?
For example, a digital reader digging through the $.99 bin might be more inclined to try a book from a new author when their time investment to read it will be minimal. That’s a part of the purchasing equation too often overlooked, I think, but it is exactly why readers have an author loyalty–we know what to expect from them. Even if they aren’t our favorite, they’re good enough, which may not be true of someone we have never read. I know my reading time is fairly limited, and I would much rather give an hour of my time to someone new than four or six hours. The main way I discover new romance authors as a reader is to pick up a novella–in terms of print this is via a collection of novellas, built around either a theme I like or at least one author on my automatic purchase list, while digitally novellas are frequently offered on a standalone basis–and I can’t imagine I am alone in that.
Personally, I am loving the freedom of digital self-publishing to simply tell my stories and just “write until it’s finished” without trying to pare it down or force it up to a word count that is, at best, an artificial goal.