the stigma of the short fantasy novel

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Mark_P, Feb 17, 2010.

  1. Mark_P

    Mark_P Registered User

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    As a writer, I tend to be on the minimal side; I do not linger on overdescriptive prose. I fear my novel is going to be less than the 80,000 word "minimum" for publishing a fantasy book. Story quality aside, am I going to be fighting an uphill battle when submitting to publishers and agents if my manuscript is, say, 65,000 words?

    Why doesn't the short novel get any respect in our genre? C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, and even the famously-verbose Robert Jordan have all published novels in the 200-300 page range. These are well-respected authors, yet there seems to be a modern stigma that all fantasy novels must be sprawling epics. As a reader, I simply do not have the patience to devote to doorstopper books on a regular basis. I would assume there is a similar fanbase somewhere out there.

    What are your thoughts?
     
  2. kmtolan

    kmtolan KMTolan

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    I've a fellow writer named T M Hunter who does quite well with novellas. He sells them to Indies and became my publisher's best selling author last year with these things. Perhaps an Indie is your best fit as well.

    Kerry
     
  3. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    I think there is room for shorter novels (and novellas) in SFF. As readers, we're a pretty inclusive bunch. :)
     
  4. JT Billow

    JT Billow Love with Mercy

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    Mark P, there are several smaller publishers who are requesting submissions of novellas, and are marketing them well.

    Run through this link and you'll see some houses asking for novella manuscripts.
    http://ralan.com/m.publish.php/
     
  5. JT Billow

    JT Billow Love with Mercy

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    Oh btw Mark, when I finished the first book in my series, it stood at around 70k words. However, after 5 drafts I saw an increase of between 20-30k words.
     
  6. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    I don't know who told you there was a minimum of 80,000 words, but that's incorrect.

    Are you trying to write alternate world fantasy or something else?
     
  7. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    As I, and others, have said before on these forums, these are the kinds of things we hear from industry professionals time and time again, at conferences and workshops, in discussion groups, on blogs, etc.... Since these folks are the 'gatekeepers' for traditional publishing, we (authors) tend to take their word as dogma.

    Debut fantasy novel: 80-120k. I've probably heard this from at least a dozen agents and editors.
     
  8. Sterling13

    Sterling13 Registered User

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    I stumbled onto the Pyr website yesterday, where they list a 80,000 word minimum (but no maximum is listed). That could be what he is referring to...


    As Jon mentions, checking out various "information" on the internet, 80,000 to 120,000 words for a debut novel is something that seems to get passed around as gospel. Obviously, that's not a hard fast rule (and, actually, isn't even A rule), but you'll find those numbers EVERYWHERE.

    I defer to the knowledge of those who have actually had dealings with agents/publishers, but from an outsider looking in, right or wrong, those seem to be the guidelines...
     
  9. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Uh huh. I wish you'd stop calling them gatekeepers, as if there's a gate. They're business partners.

    What Pyr means is, we don't want novellas right now. If you come in with a 70,000 word novel Lou Anders really likes, however, I doubt that will keep him from buying it. And the 80,000-120,000 is the average range that fantasy novels hit, with the contemporary, satiric and dark fantasy novels tending to be more toward the 80,000 end and the alternate world fantasies tending toward the 120,000 (and quite often exceeding it.) The YA market has a shorter range for the average. The smaller presses like short novels very much. These ranges are essentially determined by the fact that those are the current lengths that authors like to write at. (It wasn't the publishers' idea to write doorstops.) The lower end of the average used to be 75,000 words, and before that 70,000.

    If you have a novel under 70,000 words or over 150,000, you may have to let some publishers whose production parameters can't handle it turn you down. That doesn't mean that there's a "stigma" to writing short. The big houses can accommodate a wide range. You guys need to be able to distinguish "dogma" from target area.
     
  10. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    That's why I put 'gatekeepers' in quotations. :)

    And I don't want to engage in a senseless argument, but you're talking as if we (those who live in this industry, too) are idiots. When I say that I've heard 80k-120k from agents and editors, I don't mean I saw it on a website or read it in Writer's Market. I mean I've been part of a discussion where a well-known agent told another writer -- without seeing their manuscript -- to cut it down to under 120k words because that is the industry standard for a debut fantasy. I've sat and listened to panels where folks with impressive resumes (big name agencies and pub houses) who say this exact thing over and over to crowds of aspiring authors. I'm not defending the word count (because I believe a good story can be the exception); I'm just reporting it.

    Mark and others have a valid concern. The 'dogma' is being distributed freely, not by the authors, but by those we wish to impress.
     
  11. JT Billow

    JT Billow Love with Mercy

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    I actually keep a list of 7-8 publishers, from large house to medium, and a few small, that still take submissions from authors, where they give an actual account of ms. size they require. (ex:80-120k, 75-100k)...
     
  12. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    And I've been on the panels, so I understand what you are saying. There is first off a difference between novels that are a bit short of the average range and novels that are longer than the average range. It is easier to sell ms. in the average range. It is next easier to sell novels that are shorter than the average range. It is least easiest, but not impossible to sell novels that are longer than the average range. So if you can cut, it may be good to try and cut. (Or split, as I just suggested another writer do with a 400,000 word ms.) If you can add a little, it may be good to add. And it is a good idea to know the averages of your market. If you are doing a fantasy romance or a YA, 70,000 words is in the target area.

    But you need to take a look at the books the publishers, small and large, are putting out to see the actual range, and get an idea of where your baby can fit, especially if it's not on the median. The Name of the Wind was not 120,000 words or less. Jeff Vandermeer started with small press publishings of collections and his first novel was a novella, Dradin, in Love, then incorporated into his collection City of Saints and Madmen. His first "proper" novel perhaps was with Night Shade Books, Veniss Underground, which clocks in at around 200 pages.

    So yes, Mark has a valid concern coming into the market with what is for category fantasy -- and category fantasy only -- a "short" work. But what isn't valid is Mark's assertion that the market stigmatizes short work and assertions that such works are prohibited from submission and publication from authors or from first time authors. That's setting up an obstacle that doesn't exist, and considering how many obstacles there already are, you don't need to be inventing additional ones.

    If an agent says you should try to cut a novel down to 120,000 words, that agent is telling you that he likes to stay in the target area and doesn't want to handle large ones (though give him something interesting and get him to read some pages of it, and if he likes it enough, he'll assess whether it will work for him to sell something bigger.) Some agents are more obsessed with averages than others. If you've got two hundred ms. pages, however, most agents may be willing to take a look if the story interests them. Another alternative for Mark is to pair the 65,000 word novel with several short stories into a collection. That's hard to get in the door of a bigger house, though it's been done, and sometimes through general fiction. It's a decent shot with the smaller SFF presses and other small presses who make their bread and butter with novellas, anthologies and collections.

    Either way, it does no good to say, "why won't publishers publish shorter novels" when they already do.
     
  13. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    Baen managing editor Toni Weiskopf recently said that anything less than 100,000 words would make her readers unhappy. And that 250,000 words was the physically largest book Baen could publish.

    Baen is the fourth largest SF imprint. For 2009 the number (originals and reprint) of titles they published was 73.

    The three above Baen were Tor, Ace, and Del Rey. Their numbers were 227, 95, and 79. The three below were Roc, DAW, Wizards of the Coast. Their numbers were 61, 55, and 55.

    Weiskopf's figures are just guidelines, of course. As others have remarked here if your stuff appeals to publishers they will make exceptions to their preferences.
     
  14. Sterling13

    Sterling13 Registered User

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    Alright, I decided to do some digging. I started with Tor's 2009 catalog - I may expand the data from there (ie, look at a few more publishers), but here's what I have for now:

    Tor 2009 (http://us.macmillan.com/splash/publishers/tor-forge.html):

    Word Count, Established Authors (not including reprints) -
    Average = 122,783
    High = 177,600
    Low = 81,600

    Word Count, Established Authors (including reprints) -
    Average = 115,799
    High = 177,600
    Low = 76,800

    Word Count, Debut Authors -
    Average = 138,600
    High = 173,600
    Low = 117,600

    Word counts were calculated using # of pages * 300 words/page for paperback, and # pages * 350 words/page for hardcover. My initial search started here- http://www.writersservices.com/wps/p_word_count.htm - but, after a few other searches, I tempered the average word count on paperbacks down a bit. From just the books in my collection, plus a comparison of a few other novels that seem to have their word count easily accessible (harry potter, lord of the rings), the average words/page seems to be a wildlly swinging thing, varying from 250 words/page (harry potter) to 400 words/page. From what I can see, 300-350 seems to be closer to the norm.

    If anyone has a better average estimating number, let me know. I know you're supposed to use 250 words/page when estimating your own books word count (Courier New, 12 point, double spaced, 1" margins), but that number seems to be low when taking the thing to paperback/hardcover.

    Raw Data is as follows*:
    Publisher/Title/Genre/Debut?/Reprint?/Print/Pages/Est Wordcount
    Tor/Bones of the Dragon/F/No/No/Hardcover/400/140000
    Tor/Whipping Star/SF/No/Yes/Trade Paperback/256/76800
    Tor/Escape From Hell/SF/No/No/Hardcover/336/117600
    Tor/Malestrom/SF/No/No/Trade Paperback/384/115200
    Tor/Born in Blood/H/No/No/Trade Paperback/368/110400
    Tor/Mind over Ship/SF/No/No/Hardcover/336/117600
    Tor/Tooth and Claw/F/No/Yes/Trade Paperback/256/76800
    Tor/The Horseman's Gambit/F/No/No/Hardcover/368/128800
    Tor/Lamentation/F/Yes/No/Hardcover/368/128800
    Tor/The Valley of Shadows/F/No/No/Hardcover/336/117600
    Tor/Mortal Coils/F/No/No/Trade Paperback/592/177600
    Tor/The Walls of the Universe/SF/Yes/No/Hardcover/384/134400
    Tor/Neuropath/Thr/No/No/Hardcover/320/112000
    Tor/The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike/Fic/No/Yes/Hardcover/304/106400
    Tor/Act of Will/F/Yes/No/Hardcover/336/117600
    Tor/Pebble in the Sky/SF/No/Yes/Trade Paperback/256/76800
    Tor/Steal Across the Sky/SF/No/No/Hardcover/336/117600
    Tor/Postsingular/SF/No/No/Trade Paperback/320/96000
    Tor/Enclave/SF/No/No/Hardcover/368/128800
    Tor/Viewpoints Critical/SF/No/Yes/Trade Paperback/352/105600
    Tor/Imager/F/No/No/Hardcover/464/162400
    Tor/The Mystery of Grace/F/No/No/Hardcover/320/112000
    Tor/Dying Inside/SF/No/Yes/Trade Paperback/304/91200
    Tor/The Unincorporated Man/SF/Yes/No/Hardcover/496/173600
    Tor/Inferno/H-Anth/No/No/Trade Paperback/384/115200
    Tor/The Last Paladin/F/No/No/Trade Paperback/272/81600
    Tor/Calculating God/SF/No/No/Trade Paperback/320/96000
    Tor/The Immortality Factor/Fic/No/No/Hardcover/464/162400
    Tor/Beyond the Blue Event Horizon/SF/No/No/Trade Paperback/336/100800
    Tor/Fire Raiser/F/No/No/Hardcover/352/123200
    Tor/A Forthcoming Wizard/F/No/No/Hardcover/400/140000
    Tor/Traitor's Gate/F/No/No/Hardcover/480/168000
    Tor/Blood Groove/H/No/No/Trade Paperback/288/86400
    Tor/The Revolution Business/SF/No/No/Hardcover/320/112000

    *YA books and Anthologies were removed from the list.


    While this is far too little data to make a hard conclusion, I did find it interesting that the debut authors' novels actually averaged longer than the established authors.
     
  15. Mark_P

    Mark_P Registered User

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    Thanks for the feedback, and also for the link to the Ralan website; I was not aware anything like that existed.

    As KatG pointed out, perhaps it was somewhat unfair for me to state there was a "stigma" associated with shorter works of fantasy. To clarify, I was more or less referring to what seems to be popular in the genre (Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, etc.). While I understand there is a huge difference between simply being published and publishing a bestseller, I still feel my concerns are justified based on what I see on the shelves of my local bookstore.

    JT mentioned indies who publish novellas; does anyone know of any indies who have actual distribution channels (aside from online sales)?
     
  16. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    LOL, Sterling, that was entirely too much work! But thanks for the annual titles counts, that was very helpful to me.

    Mark, alternate world fantasy fans do like big, though they've read small, as the older titles were shorter. (If you read one of Glen Cook's Black Company books for instance, they are not behemoths.) What happened is that the authors wanting to do those titles got more and more ambitious -- I think Jordan shone the light and other authors wanted to chase it and try stories on that scale because they were so impressed with what he was doing. But publishers are also begging authors to scale it back a bit currently, as the production costs and paperback problems are real issues. And the contemporary fantasy novels, being more suspense stories, are usually shorter. Science fiction novels used to be quite short because they tended to be authors taking a novella they'd published in the magazines, adding a bit more to it and publishing it as a novel. Over time, though, the market shifted from the magazines into books, SF authors started doing more series and longer works up front and the length range crept up there too, though again, short novels still occur in SF.

    But at 65,000 words, it's a short novel, which means more searching to find a home. Ralan.com has listings of smaller presses I believe. The Literary Market Place in the reference section of main public libraries will also list established small presses and tell you if they publish SFF.

    I don't know when exactly the word "indies" started getting bantered around to refer to small presses, and I've used it as reference, but it is a misnomer. Publishing is not structured like film with big studios and independent productions. Small and medium presses are often owned by companies. Maybe it sounds cooler than small press, but it's kind of misleading.

    Pyr has announced that it is taking unagented submissions, but only for its alternate world fantasy, it seems like. And they have clear production limits -- they're not doing smaller runs, so no novellas, anthologies, collections or short novels that can be mistaken for novellas. Also, he's stated the limit on word counts they can go, because they can't afford more, one would think. So that's one publisher with specific length requirements because of its publishing program, which is very specific. Other publishers have more wiggle room.
     
  17. Sterling13

    Sterling13 Registered User

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    Work? Ha! I'm an engineer... I'll take any excuse I can get to create a rediculously over the top statistical excel file. If I manage to finish what I started, then this is just the tip of the iceberg...

    In terms of annual titles, as I mentioned, I removed the YA books (3) and Anthologies/Short Story collections (2) from the data.

    (And thanks for the thanks, but my motivation is purely selfish, I assure you :). I have a book I'm going to try and pimp this summer, just trying to figure out where I fit in...)
     
  18. txshusker

    txshusker A mere player

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    Sort of on a side note, what's the cost of publishing the 40K words between 80K and 120K (which would be about 150pgs by Sterlings count)? Do they sell at significantly different price points? I have never looked into it. I assume that's the big issue in the count, though.

    I know as a consumer, if I'm paying $7.95 for a 450-500 pager I feel cheated when paying $6.95 for a 250 pager, unless that 250 pager is one of my favorite authors.
     
  19. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Sterling's count is very rough. The cost varies widely depending on font, print size, margins, paper used, etc. What may seem like a 600 page novel may not really be one and what seems like a 300 page novel may be longer than it looks.

    Which is why txhusker's length to price ratio is not a very good gauge. Authors aren't just supposed to be giving you something to do for a set number of pages; they're supposed to be giving you a story, and sometimes that story is not a massive epic with 200 characters. Sometimes it's smaller, more intimate, and that doesn't mean that it's worth less. (This is part of the problem with the e-readers too.) Some readers don't like intimate and only want the alt world stories and only the large ones, but that's only a percentage of the market and they can't base the whole field on that or they won't make enough sales.

    Mostly, publishers will use a standard price point, so books within a range will all be priced the same, especially on the paperback. Mass market paperback prices have climbed higher, while hardcover prices have nudged up only very slowly comparatively. For a book that is substantially larger, the price point will go up, but is actually more limited in a rise for mass market paperback than for hardcover or trade (large) paperback. A smaller novel in the adult market may get a small format hardcover, if it's getting a hardcover treatment. It may be square instead of rectangular, something more common in general fiction than in category SFF because of the wholesale rack issue. And then there are illustrated novels, which are rarer in general fiction, but not unusual in SFF. It's not cut and dried.

    Someone coming into the field with a short fantasy novel (not as much for SF) is going to face greater constraints. It may be that it's better to go to the general fiction market with it, rather than the category publishers, and it can be easily cross-marketed to the category market from there, as was done with Toby Barlow's free verse Sharp Teeth, or go to smaller rather than large SFF presses, though large aren't out of the question.

    The two things I'm always trying to impress upon folks, because they are the lynchpins on which the fiction market operates, are symbiosis and variety. Fiction authors don't directly compete; instead they fund each other and feed off each other symbiotically. A hit fiction title, for instance, brings in readers, some of whom then go on to read other authors. That's why we have SFF conventions and a SFF category market.

    But readers are diversified. Half of them are insanely picky, having all sorts of subjective criteria important to them. The other half browse, going from type of story to type of story. To get the maximum number of sales from the maximum number of readers, publishers must offer variety. The larger they are, the more variety they need to offer. Small publishers who are successful then increase the variety of their lists as the list expands. This is also the reason fiction publishing is increasingly international. And it is this axis of fiction publishing that people complaining about big publishers don't seem to understand. (They also don't understand that books don't become hits because they are a type of novel, and that whatever type a book is, that type of book has usually been around forever. Call it the vampire fallacy.)

    If they like the book, especially if it's a short problem versus a long problem, they'll find a way to do it. The trick, as always is getting them to read it. If a publisher has production constraints, well then, that publisher isn't going to work for you. But others have more flexibility, and there are multiple markets that make up the field. So it requires more strategy and looking more broadly at the market, but selling anything requires strategy.