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"Short Novels Got No Reason to Live."

Last week, one of my regular customers had seen a posting of mine somewhere that I was eager to read John Wyndham’s “Midwich Cuckoos,” as I had never read it before despite reading countless books which undoubtedly used “Midwich” as their inspiration. Being a kind and wonderful soul, the customer dropped me a used paperback of it.

While the book only took me all of 4 hours to read, it blew me away. Clocking in at a lean, mean 180 pages, “Midwich Cuckoos” basically had its hooks in me within 10 pages of the start, and didn’t let go for even an instant until the final words.

As I put the well-worn paperback on my bookshelf, I noticed how many of my very favorite horror novels come in at under 200 pages, and many times a lot lower. Given how today’s horror paperbacks all seem to use 300 pages as a bare minimum, it makes me wonder how many classics may never have made it to publication. Books that include:

  • John Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids”
  • Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives”
  • Robert Bloch’s “Psycho”
  • Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″
  • William Peter Blatty’s “The Ninth Configuration”
  • Thomas Disch’s “The Genocides”
  • Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers”
  • Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”
  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”
  • William March’s “The Bad Seed”

There’s also countless truly fast, fun joyrides of novels that, while they may not be considered classics, pack a ton of horror punch into less than 200 pages. On the bookshelf in front of me right now are such thin under-200 page volumes as:

  • Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Drive-In”
  • Ed Gorman’s “Nightmare Child”
  • Stephen Gilbert’s “Willard”
  • Charles L. Grant’s “the Dark Cry of the Moon”
  • Tanith Lee’s “Sabella”
  • Thomas Tessier’s “The Nightwalker”
  • Bernard Taylor’s “Moorstone”
  • Guy N. Smith’s “Crabs”
  • Al Sarrantonio’s “Campbell Wood” and “The Worms”

You get the idea.

So when did mass market paperback publishers decide that horror readers didn’t want to pay $5 for a short novel? I’ve heard the arguments made that it’s not economical to publish short books — and yet, you often find under-200-page books in the romance, western, and young adult genres. (In fact, the world would be a much worse place if Robert Cormier’s countless works of genius never got published because they rarely crack 200 pages).

If the United States has 15 or 20 million people willing to shell out $5-$10 to see “The Ring” in the theater for 90 minutes, are we so sure we can’t get even 1 out of every 500 of them (a 40,000 copy seller) to shell out $5 for a killer horror book?

I’m not suggesting that authors chop down works to make them shorter. I’m not suggesting that books are too long. Or even that people don’t enjoy long books.

But I AM suggesting that some works just naturally fall perfectly into the short range, and just because it provides 4 hours of reading instead of 6 or 7 hours of reading doesn’t necessarily mean readers will reject it.

And they may be more eager to embrace it specifically BECAUSE of the short length.

I LOVE paperback books that are slim enough to fit in the back of my jeans pocket (remember when most books could do this?) I love picking up a book where I know that for better or worse, I’m going to be in the thick of the action within a half hour of reading. Sometimes you WANT a short but breakneck stomach-turning, spine-shaking roller-coaster ride. We don’t pay less money at the movie theater to see a 90 minute zombie movie than a 180 minute war movie.

My suggestion? Some New York publisher needs to take a little money — not a ton — and experiment. Try a line of short horror novels and advertise them as such. Advertise them as a roller-coaster ride of horror that fits in your back pocket. Charge a buck or two less than usual to get the ball rolling.

Leisure’s done an admirable job of finding creative ways to get some modern horror novellas out there. Douglas Clegg’s phenomenal “Purity” (possibly the best horror novella written in the past decade) was a bonus added to the paperback release of “Nightmare HOuse.” Leisure released a collection of Tim Lebbon’s novellas called “Fears Unnamed.” They got Jack Ketchum’s stunning short novel “Red” into print with a bonus novella tacked on to thicken out the book a little.

But why not release these books on their own? Let’s acknowledge that I’m probably not the ONLY one with a short attention span. Let’s just try it in the mass market and see if it’s something people have been waiting for.

The small press has been doing an amazing job with novellas and short novels. The past decade alone has seen Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press, Bloodletting Press, Necessary Evil Press, and more produce profitable, critically-acclaimed novella lines. Go after some of those works by authors like Douglas Clegg, Gary Braunbeck, Ray Garton, Edward Lee, Mark Morris, Lucy Taylor, Nancy Collins, Poppy Brite, Thomas Tessier, Tom Piccirilli, Jeffrey Thomas, Kealan Patrick Burke, Patrick Lestewka and more, and get them into the mainstream. Give it a creative, targeted ad-campaign PROMOTING the short-shock factor and see what happens.

The risk factor is small. And the upside may be huge. These are great, great works — modern classics every bit as deserving to become household names like “Stepford Wives” or “Body Snatchers.”

It’s fun to dream what you would do if you ever won the lottery. One of my dreams (and this will tell you just how particularly sad my own fantasy life is) is to start a mass market paperback line focusing on modern classics of horror between 100 and 225 pages.

I want to be able to go to some of today’s underrated, incredibly talented authors and say “You know that mind-fucking terrifying novella you wrote that you can’t find a market for? That market has arrived.”

The short horror novel — it’s an art form I’d hate to see go by the waysides simply because publishers fell into a habit of assuming that readers only wanted longer books.

Here’s hoping I win the lottery. But just in case that doesn’t happen, here’s hoping a New York publisher picks up the slack. Either way, the horror world will be a much better place for it. And my guess is that, ultimately, whatever publisher tries it first will have a much better bottom line to show for it as well.

– Matt Schwartz

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  1. Mark Rainey
    July 6th, 2005 at 23:25 | #1

    Great essay, Matt. I love an awful lot of those novels you list; you just don’t see anything of that size around on the shelves these days.

    Anyway, I hope you win the lottery too. ;)

    –M

  2. Steve Vernon
    July 7th, 2005 at 01:04 | #2

    Writing my first novella was a great experience for me. Like perfecting the world’s first mini-marine – everything had to be tight and hard and on-the-double. I’m writing something for another publisher that clocks in at about 20,000 words, (he’s planning on calling the line novelette’s). Can’t say who, because nothing’s signed yet, but it’s the same deal. Nothing unnecessary.

    I love little bullet-train novels like that. My favorite example is the tight and nasty little westerns Elmore Leonard used to write. Now all he writes are fat sloppy dialogue-heavy crime thrillers that are a crime and don’t thrill, (IMHO). I love those skinny little paperbacks you can stick in your back pocket and read on the bus. Wasn’t that what they used to call them? Pocket books?

    Jack Ketchum’s JOYRIDE is a great example, of the top of my head. THE RED PONY or THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, if you want to slip out of the genre. A lot of what goes into these big fat 85k to 100k novels is a whole lot of big fat.

    Let’s put the genre on a diet. Line up behind Matt and demand more short novels!

  3. terry
    July 7th, 2005 at 02:04 | #3

    “Here! here! More short novels if you please Mr. Publisher, sir. And while I have your attention could we please have fewer of those never-ending-series that hog precious inches on the book store shelves?

    I want quality, not quantity.

    Er, ah, well, thank you Mr. Publisher; I suppose I got a bit carried away there for a minute. I do that when I hear a good idea.”

  4. Jay Russell
    July 7th, 2005 at 04:48 | #4

    I would love to see more lean, mean novels, and not just in horror. My constant complaint is that almost every novel I read is too long for its own good. I am pained by the now common notion that fat books mean good value for money. Is it a spillover from fantasy fiction, where every volume in every godawful trilogy+ has to be 800 pages long? Dashiell Hammett is surely spinning in his grave. I know there is pressure from publishers (across genres) for greater length than authors often want to write, but I think your idea is a good one Matt and a potential moneymaker. But who – in this cowardly and pathetic Dan Brown publishing world – is going to take a chance on it?

  5. David Niall Wilson
    July 7th, 2005 at 06:37 | #5

    I think it would be nice if we could just have the option. I recently finished a novel. The first draft of it was 59,000 words. Obviously, not long enough by today’s standard. I revised it to 74,000, but I think it would have been BETTER at, say, 45,000 – cutting some of what I had instead of filling in blanks…the world may never know. Good essay Matt.

    DNW

  6. James Goodman
    July 7th, 2005 at 08:21 | #6

    Great post. I have a story coming out this year that is only 25,000 words (through a small press).

    I actually found it harder to write than either of my 90,000+ word novels. No time for reflection, no time for buildup, just dive right into the story and try not to get hung up on the details.

    By the time it was said and done, my novella is now my single favorite piece of work.

    If there was a decent market for them, they would be all that I would ever write.

  7. Mike Arnzen
    July 7th, 2005 at 10:45 | #7

    Here, here. My sentiments exactly. Less is almost always more!

    – Mike Arnzen, gorelets.com

  8. Anonymous
    July 7th, 2005 at 11:23 | #8

    Um….you mean Hear, hear, yes? Unless you mean that in the exact place where you are Less is almost always more?

  9. Mark Leslie
    July 7th, 2005 at 14:59 | #9

    Excellent point, Matt – I never realized how many of my favourite classics were small enough to fit into my back pocket.

    This of course, makes me want to seek out more shorter (currently harder to find) novellas by some of the names you list off — if they’re great, excellent, good investiment; if they’re not so great, well then I didn’t expend as much time to find that out, so no harm done.

    And, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll certainly mark some of the winnings as an investment into your publishing goal/dream to help bring these books to a larger audience.

  10. JJ
    July 7th, 2005 at 15:54 | #10

    Reading Ira Levine was better than watching a movie. It hit you just as fast and hard as a movie but overwhelmed you with ideas that seem to slip through the cinema cracks.

    I do feel like most books today are padded. They explain every little damn thing until its oatmeal and follow every back story to the very end no matter how minor the character.

    I’ll buy books from your line of short novels and I’ll pay full price.

    And here’s another thing; why should you pay for the size of the book instead of the intensity of the experience? I’d rather pay ten dollars for an Ira Levine than five for one of these 1,000 word beasts.

  11. David Niall Wilson
    July 7th, 2005 at 16:28 | #11

    It’s interesting that a lot of small press publishers get nearly as much for novellas as for novels. I know that Brett Savory and I’d novella “My Eyes Are Nailed But I Still See” from Delirium did very well for a $45 dollar novella…if it came out in a cheaper pocket sized volume, who knows…

  12. terry
    July 7th, 2005 at 19:31 | #12

    Er,um… yes, anonymous, I suppose I do mean “hear, hear!” I was after all talking to Mr. Publisher.

  13. Anonymous
    July 7th, 2005 at 20:22 | #13

    Matt!

    Excellent column and I, too, would invest in that publishing venture if I had some disposable income…..how much are we talking here to get this baby up and running?

    Troy ;-)

  14. Carl Carter.
    July 8th, 2005 at 05:46 | #14

    An excellent piece.

    Like a lot of readers I enjoy a good fat book, but you’ve reminded me that many of my most memorable reading experiences have been with shorter works, Tim Lebbon’s White being the most recent example.

    Plus you can fit more of them on your bookshelves — a big advantage!

    Carl.

  15. Anonymous
    February 16th, 2007 at 07:11 | #15

    I am totally with you on the short, sharp shocker idea. I’ve just written a novella and feel that I shouldn’t need to bulk out what I’ve written to conform to some standardised word count.

    I agree that there should be a platform for shorter works. A lot of great movies have been based on novellas purely because the punchy minimalism is easy to adapt into a 90 minute script. Even the heavyweights get cut down to size in Hollywood.

    Good luck with those Lotto numbers.

    Marc Paterson.

    England.

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