There is something inherently defiant in the act of self-publishing. The Kindle epoch has created a drastic alternative to the power structure of conventional publishing. Though I don’t picture myself as “rebelling” against the publishing world in my everyday life, some things I read make me quite glad I am running counter to it.
Take, for instance, this blog entry by agent Kristin Nelson on short manuscript queries. In response to authors sending queries for novels in the 50,000-60,000 word range, Nelson says:
We [literary agents] are all stymied by this. Where are writers getting the info that this might be an appropriate length for a work? That it would be a marketable length? Standard word length is usually between 70,000 to 100,000 words for a novel.
I’m positive Ms. Nelson a highly intelligent woman; in fact, I queried her agency before deciding to go indie with Mutt. So I’ll assume this statement is an offhand remark rather than assuming it represents a broader worldview. But the statement itself does warrant attention, both the hubris of mandates regarding “appropriate length” and for the conflation of “appropriate” with “marketable.”
What about the length of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust is less than “appropriate”? Granted, these are decades old, but they are still widely read today, and I could list dozens more. The last century of letters is full to overflowing with great writers of the short novel, from straight “literature” (Steinbeck, Hemingway, and the above) to genre fiction (Vonnegut, Bradbury, Philip K Dick, William Gibson). Their works are still widely consumed.
Further, ebooks are changing reading habits drastically: if shorter novels have lost any popularity in the past few decades, expect them to make a comeback. People are reading and short intervals on their phones and tablets, making brevity and concision ever more important. The publishing industry just hasn’t caught on to this yet. With regard to Ms. Nelson’s statement about “marketable length,” let me suggest that “marketable” can be defined not as what readers want but as what the publishing apparatus knows how to market. As in so many things, it is behind the times. (Note that the above article was posted in 2006, but I’ve seen it referenced by other industry people much more recently; it still appears to be the common wisdom.)
Our job as writers is not to create fiction that conforms to industry standards of the “appropriate.” Our job is to create damn good fiction and, if the current publishing model is too outmoded to market our stories, to deliver them to the audience directly.