Trends in Publishing – Part 1: A Short, Sharp Future?

Here’s an interesting publishing trend – shorter books. Maybe.

Editor David Winter says Text Publishing is doing a lot of short books at the moment. It’s not a deliberate strategy, he hastens to add. But his musing about the opportunities this might provide for new fiction writers is a rare glint of optimism in the otherwise gloomy debate surrounding the future of traditional publishing.

Winter did preface his remarks in the ‘Trends in Publishing’ session of the Town Hall Writers’ Conference with a less than chirpy overview of recent developments in the book industry. He described it as “the equivalent for Australian publishing of the global financial crisis”. But he sounded upbeat about what was to come.

“All this massive change probably sounds fairly negative or at least potentially scary,” Winter said. “But I do think there are some pretty good opportunities for writers.

“There are more books than ever, more published writers than ever before, and I think we’re looking at something that’s just going to be out in the broader marketplace, a more differentiated marketplace. We are seeing it already.”

Which brings us to shorter books.

“This is not a deliberate strategy but it is true that print books are cheaper when they are shorter and also that many of our manuscripts that are submitted are just too long,” Winter said.

“A big name writer, a Tim Winton book, will go out in trade paperback in the largest format or in hardback but many of the newer writers will come out in smaller-sized editions at cheaper prices and I actually think that’s a really promising thing, particularly for literary fiction. And I hope that can actually continue to bolster that area.”

Winter said 80,000 words was a prime area for standard literary novels. But he was interested in novellas as a way of expanding the market, providing opportunities for new writers and attracting more readers overall.

“I’m curious about whether that area can be expanded by a lower price point, a smaller format,” he said. “I think that we need more readers out there. It’s hard for people, particularly if we are not talking about genre books, to find time to read…and a really crisp 35,000, 40,000-word book can be immensely satisfying.

“I’ve always thought that novellas are treated with some disdain in literary circles and I don’t really understand why, frankly, because some of the greatest books are novellas.”

My take on this was that new writers should not get hung up trying to make a ‘standard’ word count. If you think the story is done at 35,000 words, maybe that’s all it needs. Don’t ruin it with padding.

Maybe the lower costs involved for publishers will mean more opportunities for new writers with shorter manuscripts. And maybe more short, sharp and well-written books in the marketplace will help to generate a new or returning readership. If so, this can only be good news for writers and the book industry generally.

Winter also suggested there might be increasing opportunities in the digital arena for short stories to be sold separately and for small magazines and journals to bundle editions or essays to reach more readers. Other trends/opportunities he identified:

  • “A really big open space” for non-fiction, such as quality essays turned into books;
  • Creative memoirs such as Edmund de Waal’s Hare With The Amber Eyes;
  • Julian Assange overkill – “Please don’t write any books about Julian Assange”;
  • Histories back to macro-level, big topics like World War II, Jerusalem, the Roman Empire – “The micro-history trend has, I think, really done its dash.”;
  • Pop science “is massive”. “If there are any neuro-scientists out there who want to write a book, you could make a whole lot of money, particularly if there’s a business or self-help slant to it.” ie. Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test;
  • Books that are ambitious, that start a conversation. ie. The Slap and We Need to Talk About Kevin;
  • “In local fiction, historical works are always going to do well.” ie. Geraldine Brooks, Kate Grenville, Craig Silvey (Jasper Jones);
  • Genre – “We do seem to be between blockbusters. We’re past Twilight, we’re past Harry Potter, past Stieg Larsson and we’re waiting to see what happens.”; and
  • Something odd (my words) – “Information that we gleaned from overseas book fairs was that overseas publishers were not wanting rights in Australian books that were not happy. Apparently, overseas, they want love stories and feel-good things and they really like it to wrap up nicely at the end.”

All of that said, Winter made a good point about trends being hard to spot and more likely to be ‘a large coincidence’ given long lead times in publishing. His advice to writers: “Write what you want and make sure the voice is true and authentic.”

David Winter was not the only panellist in the ‘Trends in Publishing’ session but I was intrigued by the notion of a short book trend so will address the rest of that excellent session in the next post. (Yes, I am aware of the irony)

> more from the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2011 Town Hall Writers’ Conference.



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4 Responses to Trends in Publishing – Part 1: A Short, Sharp Future?

  1. jgavinallan says:

    Thank you for this post. Carina…I just received two rejections today…so I am in the mood for some redirection. Also, for those that contributed to the information…I appreciate it.
    crying Jaye

  2. Robyne Young says:

    Thanks for this Carina. I was thinking about this in marketing terms and really the book industry should approach business in the same way as any other industry in terms of both niche marketing and if you like, managing a product over time. The book has been around for a long time, and has adapted in form and increased its accessibility through the printing press first and now new technologies. The market for books is not one homogenous mass and different products are required to meet all of the markets within the one big market which is ‘readers’.

    We’ve seen a resurgence in the popularity of the short story and I can see a great case for a short novel as well. It seems to me that the problems in ‘selling’ this form of book has lain more with those who have been seen to have the ‘power’ within the industry. Someone should remind them about the lesson Henry Ford learnt when he suggested people could have ‘a car painted any colour he wants as long as it is black.’ Business driven marketing has long been gone. Time to give the consumer what they want, but for the producer of this product, the writer, I can only agree with David Winter that we need to write what we like with a true and authentic voice because as there are many writers, there are also many markets for the book.

  3. ‘People just don’t have time to read’ may be the most telling point of all, and one that we tend to overlook when analyzing industry trends. Mobile devices have reversed this trend to some extent, but by how much? To tighten up the word count and present shorter stories is definitely a worthwhile idea.

  4. waxings says:

    Louis, I agree that readers finding time to read is critical to a healthy future for the industry. Short, tight, well-written stories may well be the tasty crumbs that lead lapsed readers back into the habit and draw in those who have never known the joy of several hours stretched out with an absorbing book.

    Robyne, you’re right. There has to be an acknowledgement of the changing needs and desires of the market. That said, whatever form the ‘product’ takes, we should always aim for authentic and well-written.

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