That awkward form the novella

WHM talks the novella form. He’s all for it. He also points out the speculative fiction continued to support the form while literary fiction abandoned it.

I argued in my Mormon lit blog back in 2007 that the novella was ripe for reintroduction and listed the reasons why the Mormon lit community should embrace it. Now, Joe Fassler writes in The Atlantic about The Return of the Novella.

Fassler pulls out a great quote from Stephen King:

The short story and novel are like two respected nations sharing a vast, ill-defined, and sordid border region. “At some point, the writer wakes up with alarm and realizes that he’s come or is coming to a really terrible place,” King intones, “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic called the ‘novella.'”

I, as a reader, love the novella/novelette form. That’s due in no small part to the fact that my focus for my English lit degree was the period 1860-1930, which was the heyday of the form. It’s also because I studied German literature (with, again, a focus on the late 19th century), which produced quite a few great novellas.

It also would seem to be my natural form. I seem to be best at either less than 2k or 8-15k word stories. Always too slight, I am.

But above all, what I want to point out here is that science fiction and fantasy embraced the novella and kept the form alive when literary fiction all but abandoned it. And it’s to been to the benefit of the field — some of the best works of speculative fiction over the past five decades have been novellas or novelettes: “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin, K.J. Parker’s  “Blue” and “Gold,”The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang, “Dragonrider” by Anne McCaffrey,  “The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick etc.

Why editors have claws

An explanation of why editors have claws and are evil, but why good editors are evil in a particular way that leads to a better story.

Note: this column originally ran in the Publishers Corner of the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters. 

Editors are evil. They’re monsters: vampires who suck the life out of your manuscripts; werewolves who tear your stories to shreds; zombies with vacant stares who repeat the same vacant phrases (Show don’t tell!) while at the same time sucking out your brains. No, scratch all that — editors are mad scientists. They kill your story, cut up your corpse, sew on various mismatched limbs from who knows where (or actually make you sew them on) and then reanimate it with their own evil green energy. No, actually editors are mummies, desiccated corpses wrapped in strips of first and second and third drafts who bar the way to the treasure, which gleams just beyond the pyramid door. And if you try to get past them, they will clutch you in their fetid embrace and curse you and confuse you and turn your journey of self-archeology, your textual discoveries, your personal excavations into a scene of horror and self doubt.

Or to state it more succinctly: Editors are evil, and they have claws.

I should know — I’m one of them. But I’m also writer. I know the pain of the editor’s claws.

The first news release I wrote as young PR pro came back to me with so many red marks it looked like a typographical massacre. And that was just a news release — not a piece of fiction that I was personally invested in. I can still conjure up the raw feelings of some of the feedback I received from the Irreantum editors on “Speculations: Trees.” And those were minor things. And, of course, looking back both of those editors were right.

Editors, or at least good editors, are almost always right. Knowing that, though, still doesn’t always make things easy on the author.

In the writer’s eyes, by the time a story reaches an editor is a finished thing — a corpus, a text, a complete product, a story that has been told. Mentally, that separation has to exist. The author has to feel like the work is done in order to cut it off from the process that has gone into it and send it on its way. At some point the thing has to be done.

For many writers, cutting the story loose is a painful process, but they do it, they create that separation, and then with trembling arms they offer the creation up to the editor who callously rejects it (despair!) or accepts it (joy!). But then, once the joy of the acceptance quickly fades (as it always does), hands it back to you all clawed up and expects you to fix the poor thing up again.

An author often sees those claw marks, those tears in the text as wounds. It’s not unusual for one’s initial reaction upon receiving an edited manuscript back to think: What happened? It looks like it’s been mauled. This is especially true when it comes to marks that are deeper than the basic plastic surgery one expects (e.g. the proofreading, the corrections for style and punctuation) — those marks that we call, cruelly, “developmental edits” (um what? it wasn’t already developed?).

But the editor doesn’t see those tears as wounds. They are gaps to be filled. They are slashes at the pupae or the husk or the shell that help the text slough off its old self and be born as its more beautiful self. They are necessary. Which doesn’t mean that they are always easy to inflict, because editors — good editors — are sometimes like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: at war with themselves. Good editors have to constantly resist the urge to rewrite and instead find ways to prod the author to find the fixes for him or herself.

Although I had edited many works (both fiction and nonfiction) prior to Monsters & Mormons, I had never edited so much fiction in so little time. And sometimes I found myself being evil — keenly aware of the pain I was inflicting, but doing it anyway.

Bad editors aren’t evil. They are clumsy. Or blind. Or tone deaf. Or arrogant. They try to refashion the story in their own image. Or, even worse, they are just clueless. They don’t see what’s wrong with the text or they misdiagnose it.

But good editors (and I hope that I am one) are evil. They are unsparing with their pen, not afraid to wound, and, if needed, wound deeply. Good editors have claws. I suppose I could go for a surgical metaphor here, but that’s not quite right — good editors aren’t quite so clinical and sterile. They rip and bleed and as they do so, they also feel the wounds. They feel the wounds because they are aware of what they are asking. They ask anyway because they can see the text in ways that the authors can’t. Whether it’s for reasons of audience or coherence or aesthetics or genre or clarity or characterization or continuity, good editors capture the author’s vision for the story and then force him or her to stretch it and grow it.

When the process works, the end result is satisfactory. At which point the editor, job done, retracts his claws, steps back into his cave and lets the author parade the finished, fully healed, beautiful thing — the story — out into the streaming, warm light of day.

What services authors need and what they should give up to get them

WHM breaks down what the calculations for fiction authors should be in relation to bringing their novels to market, who the candidates are to help them with that task, and what is required to make that whole process a success.

I don’t plan to write a lot about publishing issues here at WHM. There are plenty of other great places where you can dive into that morass. This is where I can play the wannabe author, the fanboy, the literary critic, the comedian. However, I do work in higher ed marketing and communications. Which means I do have some expertise in some of the key issues authors are facing right now. So while I don’t plan on banging this drum too often, I may have something to say on the matter from time-to-time. This is one of those times.

I think we’re all tired of the “NY” publishers vs. the self/indie publishers debates. I think the bloom is also off the rose of the major ebook platforms (Amazon KDP, in particular). I’d like to take a step back and look at what the core needs are for authors right now and who the candidates are to fill those needs. I make no claims to what the right answer is. But I also don’t think that the answer of “well, it all depends on what you want” is all that useful either. It’s too often framed as “do you want to do all the work yourself and hold on to the rights to your creative work?” or “do you want your agent and publisher to do all the work and give up some (many) of the rights to your creative work?” Or in other words, the choice is framed as more freedom + more work (which means more direct profit) vs. less freedom + less work (which means more time devoted to writing).

That’s not what the calculation should be. The calculation should be: how can I as a writer of fiction maximize…

a) the quality of the packaging of my creative work [product/branding] and my creative persona [branding]

b) the awareness of my creative work as well as my brand as an author as well as the feelings about both my creative work and authorial persona [marketing/public relations]

c) the sales of my creative work [sales]

d) the profit I derive from the sales of my creative work [ROI]?

e) the time I spend on writing while still finding time to manage the business side of things as well as my brand building

On an abstract level, I like the notion of self-publishing because I like the idea of authors being able to hang on to as many of their rights as possible.  Authors should control what happens to their works: they created them, after all. The practical considerations, however, appear daunting.

So the next question for fiction authors as I see it is: who can provide the best mix of services that lead to a quality product, high awareness, good branding/awareness, excellent sales and fantastic ROI (measured both in terms of profit and time freed up for writing) for the least onerous trading of rights?

The Candidates

These are just capsule analyses. There’s a lot more that could be said about each candidate. And there’s serious diversity among the actual entities in each candidate category. But for the sake of this discussion here’s what we have:

Publishers: love them; hate them. The question is can they get back to providing value on the development side and pivot to provide more value on the marketing/sales side, especially when it comes to ebooks.

Distributors/Booksellers: Amazon, Apple, B&N, etc. The problem is that if any one gets too much power than they may start demanding even more rights. They’re already making it more difficult than it should be to promote across sales platforms and control pricing. They also care less about the development side, leaving that to those who are willing to do it themselves. To Amazon, or yes, even Apple, as long as it’s at a basic level, quality doesn’t matter so long as there’s a big enough audience to lead to sales.

Literary Agencies: Are only in the game because publishers have outsourced so much of the talent development to them. Some are making tentative steps to dealing with the other side of things (covers, layout, marketing and sales), but I’m dubious about their ability to handle the nitty gritty of distribution, pricing, and marketing (except for public relations, where they could do just fine).

Marketing Agencies: A total dark horse candidate here. But since success in the new era of publishing may rely heavily on SEO/SEM, pricing strategies, negotiating with distributors and social media, some agencies, especially those who have pivoted away from advertising towards web marketing, could possibly have a leg up on all of the above when it comes to the execution of certain strategies.

Authors Themselves: it’s certainly possible for authors to gain the skills necessary to engage in the various activities required to bring a creative work to market and sell it (and subcontract some of those activities out). It requires a wide-ranging skillset and the ability to move between roles as required.

Note that any of the above (except possibly for distributors) could come in the form of paying independent contractors, co-0ps, bartering of services, etc.

The reality is that we’ll probably see a mix of all of the above, at least for the near future.

The Required Elements

1. A novel that appeals to a large enough audience that provides a good chance of sales that leads to a decent ROI. Yes, that’s a lot of business speak. But when it comes right down to it: books are units. The problem here, though, is that creative units are different than industrial units: quality and creativity count. That usually means that the novel needs to pass through the hands of someone who can provide good feedback on developmental edits. It also needs to be thoroughly proofread.

2. A book cover that not only is both pleasing to the author (this is important and one of the major reasons for authors to maintain control of their product) and effective in the marketplace and that works in all the various sizes and formats in which the book is going to be sold (cover design is more complicated in the era of ebooks).

3. The packaging of the novel in all the physical and electronic formats that it needs to be sold in to reach readers. And it needs to be formatted and packaged correctly for each of those formats. This may mean, going forward, additional packaging of the novel (other than trade paperback and ebook). This could be anything from a premium hardbound book package that includes extras (signed bookplates, posters, etc.) to an enhanced ebook experience (video, music, audio, extra illustrations, etc.).

4. The presence of the novel in all of the stores, physical and electronic, where it is most likely to reach potential readers. And priced correctly in each of those venues with the right meta-data, categorization/shelf space, etc. This would also include continual monitoring of sales to tweak metadata and pricing to try to optimize sales, and those efforts should be pegged to both analytics data based on trends, but also to take advantage of any bumps in interest/sales related to publicity.

5. An ongoing marketing campaign that may or may not include advertising (paid ads) but should definitely include an active ongoing social media conversation (with advice and analytics on which platforms are the best use of the author’s time); media pitching (reviews, Q&As, profiles, top ten lists, etc. — and to both traditional outlets and bloggers/social media stars); search engine optimization (SEO); giveaways/contests; appearances at bookstores, cons, etc.; and all of those need to be tied to actual data where possible and benchmarked with other authors where possible.

6. Active reaching out to sell/lease/cut a deal on foreign rights/translations, film rights, game rights, merchandise rights, etc. and then management of those deals so that there’s the best chance possible for a decent ROI (or at least an ROR — Return on Rights — if things don’t work out) as well as preservation of the author’s brand which means any further iterations of the book/story have to meet certain quality standards.

7. Further management of the author’s career/brand. That includes other works in the series (if applicable). Branching out into other series, genres, media, etc.

The Bottom Line

That’s a lot. And it requires someone or a team of people with creative, analytical, managerial and relationship skills. It’ll be interesting to see who emerges with the ability to do all of that (and obviously execution of the above can be grander or smaller/deeper or shallower depending on the author, the book and the ability to provide an initial investment). And this is why many authors prefer to have publishers. The problem is that neither publishers, nor agents, nor marketing/pr firms really have a grasp on it all (or at least very few do). And the bigger problem is that all of this can lead to significant costs, and some of the activity may not have much of an effect on sales. This is the argument the publishers make for taking a large cut of sales and/or not investing in marketing and/or not publishing certain works (or dropping midlist authors). Not everyone agrees that the value they add is worth the cost.

It’s going to continue to be tempting for authors to trade rights for services (which is essentially what they do now when they get literary agents who then sell to publishers). Many fiction writers just want to write. But I think more and more we’re going to see authors questioning what services they are getting for giving up all those rights. And what the ROI is for them in the long run.

I also think that more and more authors will choose to hold on to their rights and either DIY or contract out or collaborate with others to make the required elements happen.

So the biggest question I have is if the right agency (literary agency, marketing/pr agency, publisher that turns in to an agency) with the right fee structure and expertise can positions themselves to be able to provide some or all of these services. If so, I do think it would be worth looking at. Ideally, it would be one that doesn’t invest in huge overhead (authors don’t want to be paying for that). Ideally, it would also provide the level of reporting that publishers don’t often provide, but are more common in the world of sales and marketing (especially SEO/SEM services). Things change when you are the client rather than the raw material provider.

In the end, my answer is no different than anyone else who has weighed in on this topic: you have to choose what’s right for you. But I think you need to be clear about what you’re getting and make sure that all the elements I mention are covered and covered efficiently and professionally. And for that clarity I think it’s key to think about this issue as one of trading rights to creative work for services. What do you need and what is worth giving up (or paying for) for what you need?