Today, I have a fascinating guest post from indie author Matthew Iden who examines how the digital revolution may be changing the very way we write (and, ultimately, the way we may be compensated for that work).
Before we get to that, I want to quickly mention that I’ll be running a monster sale for St. Patrick’s Weekend – right here on this blog – with 27 books from 23 different authors, across every genre, all being dropped to 99c in honor of the world’s favorite saint.
There might also be a rather tasty competition. More on that later in the week. But for now, here’s Matthew:
The End of Limits
The chatter swirling around e-publishing these days seems to center around monopolies, royalty rates, and the end of traditional publishing as an industry. But digital publishing isn’t just toppling Big Six publishing (heh) or re-indexing price points, it’s redefining the craft of writing by giving authors unprecedented control over the presentation of their material in one potentially game-changing venue: length. From six word short stories to million word mega-novels, e-publishing is opening doors of creativity and knocking down antiquated legacy word count requirements. A basic fundamental about writing as a craft is being…well, rewritten and we are now in the age of the end. The end of limits, that is.
How did we get here?
Consider some of the formats you currently write in. Short stories that are magazine-ready usually weigh in at 3,000 words, with the occasional 8,000 word exception for a one-per-issue long-short. Debut novels are usually capped at 75,000 words/300 pages. (Certain genres might tolerate a submission double that size, but in that case it wouldn’t be unusual for the author to be asked by a publisher to either trim it back to the century mark…or increase it so it could be split into two or even three books for marketability.) Novellas–the red-headed stepchild of literary formats–wander aimlessly everywhere in between.
These are all lengths we’ve grown accustomed to and so we pattern the lengths of our digital titles similarly. But what determines these lengths? Legacy publishing limits. Print publishing limits. Three thousand words tales allow magazine editors to cram five or six stories in an issue without having to print and ship catalog-sized glossies, a prohibitively expensive proposition if they want to keep selling subscriptions for low, low prices. Over years of trial and error, magazine publishers discovered the sweet spot of issue length and customer price tolerance, while still giving value.
Ditto for novels. Debuts aren’t 300 pages long because that’s the perfect length for story-telling–an absurd idea when you say it that way–it’s because at that length, book spines only take up an inch or two on the shelf, allowing more space for their more recognizable (read: New York Times bestseller) 500 page neighbors, while still providing value to the buyer. Anything shorter is perceived as a bad financial deal for the reader; anything over is undercutting sales from a proven success. Story, being malleable, has been required to fit into this physical limit with few exceptions.
What’s in a name?
Digital publishing throws traditional word limit requirements out the window. What’s a short story? Is it a thousand words? Six thousand? Eighteen thousand? When does a short become a novella? A novella become a novel? When a novel starts topping a quarter million words–or a million or three million–what is it, actually? The real answer is: it doesn’t matter anymore. Story is as story does.
Certainly, as readers we’ve become trained to respond in a certain way to particular lengths. We expect short stories to be pithy, punchy, and to the point. Conversely, we have expectations that novels will take us away for hours at a time. And some part of us will always view monetary value in terms of volume and length and not impact or artistry. But now that the width of a book’s spine is no longer relevant, the nomenclature of length–and the corresponding value we place on a work–is starting to vanish. Graham Green’s The Quiet American is a masterpiece of modern literature, but comes in under 45,000 words. In print taxonomy, it’s a novella–with all the negative baggage that comes with that term. But in digital language, it’s simply…a classic.
Dickens, Wattpad, and the Re-birth of the Serial
Former and current English majors will remember that some of the tedium experienced in Charles Dickens novels (apologies to Dickens fans) is explained by the fact he sold most of his novels in serial form to periodicals. Because he was paid for each installment, it was in Dickens’s interest to draw the story out and end each episode with a cliffhanger. These novels are hallmarks of Western literature, yet were tailored to fit the medium in which they were delivered.
What’s old is new again. Digital publishing and the media with which it’s accessed–e-readers, yes, but also phones–bring the serial novel back to the forefront. It’s portable, it’s accessible, and it makes sense to read in bite-sized chunks when time is limited. The advantage we have over Dickens, however, is that physical limits are off the table. So serialization is for the convenience of the moment, not due to the limitations of the printed page.
Wattpad is one good example of a service that’s recognized this paradigm shift (Dave talked about his experiences with Wattpad here; I talk about mine here). The prevailing situation on Wattpad is a young person reading a novel on their phone for an hour a day. Overall length does not seem to be an issue. Science fiction writer Bill Gourgey, one of Wattpad’s success stories, posted his 163 page novel Glide on Wattpad, dividing it into 73 parts. A novel this short might’ve been difficult to sell in a traditional print world. But Wattpadders don’t seem to give a fig: it’s registered 1.6 million reads to date. Story is what matters.
Content is King
Even innovators like Wattpad may be behind the curve. In China, the rage is for self-published, web-based serials, long-running fiction sagas that are delivered to PC’s and smartphones on a daily basis. The newspaper China Daily reported last year that these serials, called “original fiction”, have attracted 195 million readers, or about 42% of all of China’s internet users. Thousands of authors upload their stories to publishing sites offering their work for free, but hoping to have the next storyline that will catch fire. When that happens, the publishers of the site escalate the author to VIP status and begin charging for additional installments.
But by keeping the payment low (around $0.30 – $0.50 USD) for large amounts of story (100,000 words), the temptation for piracy is minimal while still providing an income for the author and value for the reader. Hordes of readers wait breathlessly for the next episode in the most popular series… and don’t mind that the tale may reach into the hundreds of thousands of words. In short, story is so much more relevant than volume that length is essentially a non-issue. Many of the most popular serial titles have been converted into movies and video games, further blurring the lines of format, length, and genre.
As e-publishing continues to evolve, today’s experiments with word count are going to seem pedestrian and, frankly, ridiculous. It will be difficult to explain to future generations that a whole industry–a whole art form–was constrained by the box in which it was delivered. It’s up to today’s authors to push the boundaries of the new form and write what they have to write–to create good stories–unencumbered by historic labels or restricted by arbitrary numbers.
Matthew Iden writes thrillers, crime fiction, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist, but he’s also tried his hand at fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Former money-earning activities include time as a rifle-and-backpack-toting volunteer for the USDA Forest Service in Sitka, Alaska; IT Manager for the world-spanning Semester-at-Sea program; and… postman.
He’s recently released four collections of crime fiction short stories in e-book format (collected in the omnibus One Bad Twelve) and a fantasy short story debut, Sword of Kings; his medium-boiled crime fiction series featuring retired Washington DC homicide detective Marty Singer debuts soon in A Reason To Live.
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I’ll be back on Wednesday with more details on the St. Patrick’s Weekend Blowout Monster 99c Sale Extravaganza (the name needs a little work), and another guest post.