Turns out they were novellas.
October 25, 2012 9:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm ready to try and publish, but it turns out all my work is an unsaleable length. What are my options?

I write short novels. I've always gravitated to a final length of 50-60K; I like to condense and distill, and quality suffers if it gets much higher. I never knew that this was a problem until I learned from AgentQuery that debuts below 80,000 words or above 100,000 are considered unpublishable by the major houses. The two manuscripts I wanted to submit are 56,000 and worse.

I wasn't betting on the agent/major publisher plan -- my stuff's literary fiction and literary-leaning SF, and I know that's a very difficult sell. I'd assumed I'd focus on small presses, which are more to my temperament anyway. But do small presses feel the same about short novels? I would assume that the answer is up to the individual editor, but yesterday I thought that about the Big Six, so I don't think my assumptions count for anything at this point.

I can think of some ways to pad my manuscripts without becoming a different kind of writer. I have to ask before I tear anything open, though.

(If it's common knowledge about publishing, you can safely assume I don't know it. I've been to the writing rodeo, but I don't even know what state the publishing rodeo is in, or what they break in the ring, unless it's first-time authors.)
posted by thesmallmachine to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you self-publish?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:46 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you condense further and then combine several works along a common theme into a collection of short stories?
posted by erst at 10:02 PM on October 25, 2012

I was taught that 50k is a novella, not a novel. Certainly novellas get published, but I think they are often in compilations rather than standing alone. Why not look into that route?
posted by parrot_person at 10:02 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should still try querying agents. Many good agents will help you revise your work to make it suitable for publication. This may or may not include expanding the wordcount--it really depends on the book. There are always outliers in terms of wordcount.

The good thing about an editorial agent (and an editorial editor, later), is that they'll help you see possibilities you never even considered to expand, polish, and improve upon your work.

Literary writers and literary-leaning SF writers still have agents. Hell, Audrey Niffenegger's at my agency (and their biggest client). Seriously, an agent's your first shot. If that doesn't work, consider approaching small presses on your own. Let someone smarter and more experienced than you tell you about the state of the industry.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:03 PM on October 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

The Science Fiction Writer's Association categorizes a novel as any work of 40,000 words or more.
posted by xyzzy at 10:10 PM on October 25, 2012

Best answer: Have you looked into Kindle Singles?
posted by sageleaf at 10:56 PM on October 25, 2012

Best answer: There are numerous periodicals always in search of SF novellas: Subterranean, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Analog, F&SF, Lightspeed, Interzone, and Apex come to mind. And the better novellas from those publications are routinely picked up by four major annual "best" collections, potentially giving you another sale and further exposure.

It's true that in SF there's a 40,000-word dividing line between novellas and novels that has an impact on things like whether the work would traditionally be serialized or what award categories you're eligible for, such that you may find submission guidelines drawing a sharp distinction around that point, but I know at least one or two of those magazines would theoretically be willing to publish short novels.

I'm not saying you should expect your preferred length to be an easy sell, even there, but it's an option that's closer to your comfort zone.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:34 PM on October 25, 2012

Definitely look into the small press world! I've worked with many small presses who publish novellas all the time. Your advance may be smaller than with a big house, but you will have all the benefits of being traditionally published, and especially in genre fiction, they tend to have a built-in audience who will find your work. Self publishing is another option, but I'd look at small presses first!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 1:50 AM on October 26, 2012

I sold my novel (literary fiction) to a small press without an agent. It was about 75,000 words. The same press has recently published at least one short novel that might be less than 60K words, and if it's over it's not by much.
posted by escabeche at 6:23 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

This isn't true at all, really. Don't believe this stuff.

Work on getting an agent. Do this by working on getting known. Do this by writing for publication. Work on submitting to magazines. Length doesn't matter. My book-length manuscript currently at a major house is probably going to top out at 60,000 words. This whole "length" thing is like the least of the difficult issues ahead of you (and all of us!) in publishing.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:44 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, I've yet to make a pro short sale (after 6 years of close calls and personalized rejections!) but have sold two novels to a big six publisher. If you write novels, it's okay to not make yourself write shorts just to build your reputation.

Oh, and while you're querying, make sure to start up another project--and now that you know the word count thing, it doesn't hurt to aim for a higher one. Who knows? Your third manuscript might be the one that sells. Always, always have something else in the hopper. Your career is never about this book but rather an ever-improving body of work.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:25 AM on October 26, 2012

Can you put two or three of them together and call it a single work?
posted by amtho at 10:55 AM on October 26, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone! I've stopped marking bests because the whole page would be dark green. A much-needed shot of advice and perspective.
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:06 PM on October 26, 2012

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