Why the novella is here to stay and we should all be happy about it

Joel McKay

People want shorter content and are willing to pay a premium for it, making the novella the perfect product in current market conditions.

by Joel McKay

The novella is back, baby, and here’s why I think it’s here to stay:

If you’re an avid fiction reader, especially in the horror genre, you’ve probably noticed the significant uptick in notable novellas in the last few years.

From Eric LaRocca’s Splatterpunk Award–winning Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, to Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings and Stephen Graham Jones’s Night of the Mannequins, the industry seems to be embracing an old-school format that just a few years ago had a reputation as a reliable money loser.

There are two questions that leapt to mind when I first noticed the trend: Why are we seeing more artists gravitate toward this style? Why are we seeing a sudden increase in their publication?

The answers, it seems, are linked but not necessarily the same.

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First, they’re not new. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was a novella, and a self-published one at that.

Over a coffee recently with fellow Northern B.C. author Gillian Wigmore, whose collection of literary novellas Night Watch: The Vet Suite (you need to read it) was out in 2021, our conversation turned toward our mutual love for the novella from a writer’s perspective.

Where we landed was that the novella is the best of both worlds and the equivalent of a half-marathon—you can do it without a ton of time-in, but you also get to say more than you would in a short story.

Like most creative endeavors, there are people who prefer to create micro fiction and those that only write Tolstoy-esque tomes.

These are the extremes, but my gut tells me—and an increasing number of authors I’ve spoken with would tend to agree—most writers are somewhere in the middle.

In other words, it’s probably easier for a micro or short fiction specialist to stretch themselves into a novella than it is a novel, and just the same it’s easier for a novelist to tighten up into a novella than a short story.

If you accept that as a somewhat reasonable opinion, why then aren’t there more novellas in the publishing space?

YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok all point to a population that has an insatiable demand for content—particularly short content.

The publishing industry in the twentieth century heavily favored novels, particularly lengthy ones that could justify a $40 hardcover retail price (i.e., alleged reader psychology linked price with expected reading time), or formulaic paperbacks that made margin on volume.

The space for anthologies existed, but they were, and remain still, largely focused on short stories that allowed publishers to cram a lot of names and content into a novel-like product and attempt to realize similar margins.

Margins were dictated by production costs, which were informed by relatively limited technology and traditional forms of marketing, which also were pricey and limited.

Fast forward to 2022 and print-on-demand (POD) technology is a well-oiled machine that is accessible, cheap, and can realize a decent margin, and digital technology, notably social media, has transformed marketing into a relatively affordable exercise.

Suddenly, writers, the greater population of whom are more likely to write novellas, have at their fingertips the ability to create and publish professional mid-length fiction.

In other words, the market has flipped to allow more supply to come online from a population of creators who are more likely to want to produce that type of content.

Like any legacy market participant, traditional publishers have been slow on the uptake—so long as their net income remains strong, they have less of an incentive to innovate and, in fact, are more likely to be protectionist of the market dynamics that have led to their success (i.e., why they’re still focused on merger and acquisition activity).

That context has created the conditions for indie publishers to flourish, leveraging POD technology, hired guns for cover design, and cheap but effective digital marketing strategies.

“A more jaded side of me wonders if it’s people not having the attention span for novels, but still wanting more than a short story,” horror author Caitlin Marceau told me.

The ability for writers to create and submit both electronically, and, in some cases, simultaneously, has flooded the market with exceptional content that can be purchased, produced, and profited from relatively cheaply.

This has created a rush of indie and self-publishers, some who do well and some who fail, that is typical of a new market segment steeped in chaos, innovation, and opportunity that’s trying to find its footing.

It’s exciting.

If we’ve established that additional supply has come online, and the market’s ability to transform that supply into a marketable product that can realize profit exists in a new way, the last question focuses on demand: how has that changed?

In a recent interview with Caitlin Marceau, author of the horror novella This is Where We Talk Things Out, I asked why she thought novellas were taking off.

“Part of me wants to believe it’s audiences having a deeper appreciation for the care and lean storytelling that goes into the medium, but a more jaded side of me wonders if it’s people not having the attention span for novels, but still wanting more than a short story,” she told me.

I think she’s bang on, though I’d have a slightly nuanced take on it myself: people want shorter content and are willing to pay a premium for it.

YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and the streaming wars all point to a population that has an insatiable demand for content, particularly short and often serialized content.

Consumers want quality product; they want it now and they don’t want to spend more time than is necessary consuming it. The novella is a perfect fit.

This, to me, means the number of consumers, otherwise known as readers, has significant upside in the years to come and the novella is an ideal vehicle to attract their attention.

The proliferation of e-books at a price point equivalent to a cup of coffee, and an acceptable price point for POD novellas, aligns well with existing consumer purchase habits to drive volume.

This rare alignment of supply, distribution, and demand dynamics creates an ideal opportunity for this market segment to grow and drive profitability in the years to come. It’ll be up to the innovative leaders in the industry to seize it.

The novella is here to stay.

Joel McKay is the author of the horror-comedy novella Wolf at the Door and several short stories published by indie and small presses. He is also CEO of Northern Development, a half-billion-dollar economic development agency that supports business growth and sector diversification. He was previously a business journalist in Vancouver, where he specialized in heavy industry and financial markets.

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