The original version of this essay was an online posting in response to one of the intermittent discussions concerning fanfiction and fandom itself that cropped up on one of my Harry Potter boards. It is actually more applicable to fanfiction in general, or, really, the field of professional publishing than it is to Harry Potter fandom, so I’ve spun it off here. It still has at least one of its original Potterite references, however.
The post which originally sparked this particular essay, iirc, was a complaint about fanfics which were too long to read in one sitting. Which is to say, a large percentage of them. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of these “longfics” are produced by people who are still in the process of learning their craft, often resulting in disjointed or pointless rambles. It is not difficult to see where the tendency to produce longfics comes from, because anyone who has ever ventured into a bookstore in the past decade is given the impression that if you cannot use it for a doorstop when you’ve finished it, it isn’t “properly” a novel at all. There are very few “slim volumes” to be found in the fiction sections of bookshops today. This was not always the case. But In current practice, the mid-20th century era standard of “slim volumes” appears to have become very much the exception rather than the rule.
Anyone who has ever taken an English class which gave an overview of the inception of the fictional format known as the Novel can tell you; novels were monumental works published in multiple volumes from their inception. “Clarissa Harlow” by Samuel Richardson — who is sometimes credited as having invented the novel format — remains one of the longest works in the English language. And anyone who has ever suffered through various 19th century works under the direction of their local school district will concur that doorstop novels are no new development of the late 20th century.
The major paradigm shift in such matters does seem to have taken place during the 19th century, however. At the beginning of that century, virtually all novels were published in sets of multiple “slim volumes”. Which could be purchased either separately, or as the set. By the end of the century most, even if not yet all novels, were published complete, in a single edition. One can only assume that the reasons for this change in marketing format were dictated by the improvements in printing and binding technology, and a change in the economy which meant that there was a wider range of potential consumers who could afford to purchase an entire work in one go. Literacy was also more widespread by the end of the century, leading to a larger market being available to support the publishing industry.
People also were purchasing books for a rather different reason at the end of the century than they had at the opening of it. The average person did not casually buy books at the opening of the 19th century. A book was an investment, and one seldom bought books unless one had an actual library, or at least a private collection, to maintain. Reading purely for entertainment had been around for a respectable length of time, certainly, but the novel itself was a comparatively recent development. The traditional focus of recreational reading was the “Journal” or in modern parlance, the magazine. And, indeed, at that time a staple item on the lists of printers were bound editions of popular Journals covering a given period.
At the beginning of the century, the primary actual purchasers of the new “novels” were the subscription libraries; private lending libraries which were organizations to which the readers might, for a fee, subscribe and be entitled to borrow the works owned by the Library without being put to the considerable expense of purchasing them themselves on spec. Which in the economy of the day was not a minor consideration. In 1810 a book was a luxury item, not an item for casual purchase. One actually purchased one’s own set of a novel only after having read the work and decided that it was worthy to be added to one’s personal collection.
In some cases however, and more often as time went by, the purchaser was already familiar with the work from having already read it in its original serialized form, as a work in progress (much like fanfic). Indeed, Journals frequently included works of fiction presented as a serial. Richardson’s earliest work had been originally issued as such and the names of such “Literary Lions” of the 19th century as Chas. Dickens became household words on the strength of exactly that sort of exposure. Upon completion, such works were reissued in a bound edition, for the convenience of readers who did not wish to have to reread by hunting through several months, or even years worth of journals.
Over the 19th century, as ever more people were elevated to the middle classes — who prided themselves upon their “culture” — and, even more importantly, by the spread of literacy throughout the working classes, a popular serial became a major draw for a publication, and it was in the publishers’ interest to draw such stories out for as long as possible. This is one of the primary reasons that it is widely known that the authors of serialized stories were paid by the length of the work they produced. This virtually ensured the creation of “doorstops”. Many modern readers shun 19th century novels, despite their virtues, because of the outrageous levels of “padding” which they detect in their manner of storytelling.
But the average 19th century reader wanted it that way. The story was not competing with the radio or television for the hearts and minds of its readers. In those days, in the absence of an actual social event, what it was competing with were primarily chores. Or gossip. And in order to gossip in the evening with anyone outside one’s own family one generally needs to leave one’s home, and for a middle-class individual, particularly a female, neither the evening streets nor the open countryside were regarded as safe after dark. Often with good reason. Immuring an entire class of women and children inside their own homes once the sun is down produces an almost literally “captive audience” for any commercial purveyors of fiction.
And the telephone wasn’t around yet, either. (Or, once it was around, the person you wanted to talk to wasn’t necessarily on it, and the line wasn’t private in any case.)
Consequently, reading, which we still tend to regard as a solitary activity, today, became, for many middle-class readers of the 19th century, a family activity with one family member reading the story aloud to the rest of the family. And taking turns to do so. To read aloud well was a valued social accomplishment, and one which was actively pursued, even if it wasn’t one of the accomplishments that conveyed additional status by means of its having to be purchased by the hiring of a dedicated tutor.
And it wasn’t only within families that reading aloud was a common practice. Any fairly quiet social gathering might include a stint of reading aloud. Particularly those which were undertaken for another primary stated purpose such as a ladies’ sewing circle. From which we can conclude that there is nothing new about the concept of audio books.
A few levels down the social scale; the “penny dreadfuls” were the primary source of low cost reading over this period. And most of the work produced in them was aimed directly at the tastes of the unsophisticated. The middle-class disdain for these publications was not undeserved. Everything about them was cheap, and generally, shoddy. But their very existence highlighted the fact that there was a booming market for cheap reading material out there, and if a market exists, someone will step forward to serve it, and some of these will attempt to serve it well.
It isn’t as if even very unsophisticated readers prefer shoddy storytelling. But corners had to be cut in order to serve this market at a low enough price point, and the simplest place to cut was in the length of the work. Even at that, the “penny dreadful” was usually more on the order of a magazine than a novel. It was not until the cost of printing and distribution reached a level that such books could be produced cheaply enough to be purchased casually by a wide range of the public that the short novel became a standard offering.
Short novels, or “single-volume” novels were nothing new. But they had never been widely popular. The Brontë sisters early published work included ‘Jane Eyre’, issued in three volumes (standard for a novel of the day), and ‘Whuthering Heights’, in two volumes issued in a set with ‘Agnes Grey’ (Gray?), as a single volume “novel”. The reading public was accustomed to a novel being in a set of three volumes. And, even over the course of the 19th century when it gradually became standard for a novel to be issued complete in one large volume, the customer was still inclined to regard shorter works as not being quite “real” novels.
But by the early 20th century, the printed story was no longer the only game in town in the matter of “is there life after suppertime”, and the pace of modern life in general had picked up enough that rather a lot of people didn’t have the time or the attention span to devote to wading through reams of 19th century serial-style padding to get to the story. The endless hunt for entertainment became less a matter of looking for something to fill the empty hours than for something to read on the train. And the magazine, or the short novel was a perfect fit. And, as can be seen, over the course of the early 20th century, the short novel pretty well crowded out its longer brother entirely. Once the paperback novel was introduced to the paradigm, the trend became even more solidly established. For a span of at least three generations.
For one thing, a short paperback novel was less likely to disintegrate before the reader had finished his first reading of it than a long one. It was also cheaper to produce, and, consequently, could be sold for less. Making it a more attractive prospect for someone looking for casual entertainment.
But that trend seems to have reversed itself lately.
At which point, I feel that I really ought to add a disclaimer that this article was originally written at approximately some point between 2005 and 2015, at a period when the mass market paperback was still the predominate form of book to be purchased for “light reading”. Physical books were yet to be crowded out by electronic versions such as those designed for the Nook, or the Kindle, or some other handheld device. These appear to be constituting a considerable game-changer. One which persons, such as myself, who prefer to have a physical book to read are finding disgruntling.
In any case, for as long as physical books are still produced, the preferred length of the work is something that is determined by the economics of professional publishing as they currently stand. Whenever “currently” happens to be. This question of economics is directly related to the trend towards “doorstop novels” from which Rowling, in particular, so clearly benefits.
But the question of economics does not actually address the dynamics of writing. Only what a writer is more likely to be able to sell. And, until the advent of Internet fanfiction archives, only what writers actually sold defined the market, regardless of demand.
The thing most people tend to overlook is that “The Market” consists of not merely the demand for product, but the product which is already on offer. You need both ends of the equation. And whichever direction the driving forces try to tweak it a number of the participants are going to be left unsatisfied. That continuing dissatisfaction is also a part of the equation. But not one that it is safe for anyone, on either side of the press-room to base all of their decisions upon.
Writing “short” requires a very different skill set from writing “long” and it is a bit unfair to compare the results as if they are equal. Both forms require discipline to do well, but writing short requires a lot more of it. Conversely, writing long appears to require a much clearer “vision” and something to actually say if it isn’t to degenerate into a long, pointless ramble once the initial set-up has been thoroughly explored. You see that a lot in fanfiction.
The publishing biz these days encourages writing long. As does the inherent nature of fanfiction. Most fandoms — by an overwhelming margin — are based upon an open-ended popular series, rather than tidily contained novels. Even the few fandoms with a literary base have almost without fail been translated into film which has generated a different sort of fan. Ergo, the fanon fixation upon the individual characters, and the high fanon tolerance for long, pointless rambles through strings of little incidents with no real advancement of the plot.
The professional publishing biz’s motive is a different pair of sleeves altogether. But not completely unrelated. Professional publishing exists to enrich its owners. Not its employees, not the printers, not the distributors, and certainly not the writers. Its owners. In another era publishing houses were typically founded, owned, and operated by people who loved books, or at least the idea of books. Over the past generation or two, Publishing houses have suffered more than almost any other industry from the current trend in mergers and acquisitions encouraged by a corporate mindset of “bigger is always better”. With the result that most publishing houses, and certainly the larger ones (i.e., the ones anyone has ever heard of) are owned by mega-corporations and are no longer headed and managed by book lovers, but by MBAs who frequently approach selling books as if they were soap packets. Over the same period book publishing has also been pretty thoroughly colonized as a fairly minor outpost of the vast “entertainment industry”, encouraging the generating of commodities which are blatant media tie-ins. Particularly when the publishing house’s “overlord” company also owns a studio.
At this point it is still a bit too early to really make predictions of just how the impact of eBooks is going to change the basic paradigm. Only that it undoubtedly will.
So how does this encourage writing “long”? Well, in at least two different ways.
First, look at the numbers: around the 1970s, a standard paperback book was about 200 pages long. It also cost 99¢. I can still remember paperbacks costing 25¢ as a standard thing, but that was 15–20 years earlier yet. By the ’70s it had been determined that people would pay 99¢ for a paperback, and that same 99¢ covered production, distribution and any publicity costs with enough of a profit for the publishing houses to consider it worth continuing to do so.
But of course the economics immediately broke down when you stepped outside that standardized format. It was an acceptable gamble that 99¢ would cover the costs related to mass-producing a given 200-page novel. It wouldn’t cover the costs of mass-producing a 300-page novel. Publishers still always managed to turn a few of those loose, too, with the additional production costs underwritten by the profits on the 200-pagers.
But since at that point the “paperback original” was only just beginning to be a gleam in the publisher’s eye, it meant that publishing houses generally only bought stories for hardbound production which could also be tidily wrapped up and packaged into the neighborhood of 200 pages. Publishing houses employed editors who worked with prospective or contracted authors with a view to bringing those puppies down into a form which would fit the format. Particularly once you were out in the genre fiction ghetto. Popular fiction, in just about all genres tended to fit, more-or-less-neatly into roughly 200 pages.
Well, that was going on 50 years ago. You will have noticed that popular fiction has now bulked up to around 500 pages and that publishing houses show no shame whatsoever at asking $6.99, $7.99 and $8.99 for a paperback. And, given that the prices of everything else has gone up over the corresponding time, and that even minor segments of the entertainment industry are a lot more dependent upon publicity campaigns these days, than they were back when popular fiction, and especially genre fiction (SF, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance and Westerns, mostly) was pretty much expected to sell itself without much additional effort on its publishers’ part, I doubt that a publishing house could now afford to produce books if they went back to a cover price of, say, $3.99. Even if they were books of about 200 pages.
I also suspect that there would be a major resistance from the buying public if the publishing houses were to try to cut their production costs by insisting that authors tie up their stories in 200 pages while still demanding a cover price of $6.99. They’ve painted themselves into a corner. They just can’t depend upon short novels selling well enough at current prices to cover their own costs. Ergo, publishers now tend to buy 500-page novels, rather than 200-page novels because they know they can sell 500-page novels. And they don’t seem to mind if they run over that target length a bit since the longer length is now factored into the equation, and mass production and the public’s willingness to pay has adapted to allow for it.
Plus, and this is another contributing factor; they are now also selling books to people who grew up watching series television. i.e., Media fans. People who may have a deep appreciation for a well-crafted “episode” but who are accustomed to the illusion that the characters continue to exist off the screen. Or the page. To such a world-view, a single episode is not the “story”.
Which right there explains the proliferation of the boiler-plate “series” product of what I gather in the publishing biz is sometimes referred to as “packager gulch”.
And for those writers whose skill set is attuned for writing “short”, well, that’s what anthologies are for, isn’t it? Publishers are still quite happy to sell you anthologies. Especially the ones that weigh in at something around 500 pages.