image91[1] Charlie Stross has posted the latest article in his series on “Common Misconceptions About Publishing”. This one has to do with why novels are the length they are.

There are some interesting stories here, such as the suggestion that the reason paperbacks have gotten thicker and thicker over the years because of the preconceptions of grocery distributors (i.e. if it costs more, it should be thicker).

Stross also explains why he had to split his Merchant Princes books into several more volumes than originally intended—hardcover novels in the USA are capped at 424 pages for technical reasons, and ones that go longer than that have to be handled by special, more expensive binderies so they save them for very special cases.

At the end, Stross notes:

Going forward, I speculate that if we make a successful transition to ebooks — that is: if ebooks become a major sales channel and authors are still writing professional quality work for money, and readers are finding some way to pay them — we may see a revival of other formats: novellas for one (they’re undergoing a renaissance in SF publishing among the smaller publishers), the Dickensian serial for another, and the gigantic shoebox-sized monster for a third. The corsetting of the modern novel to fit between the tight constraints of binding costs and price elasticity of demand will be unstrung, or replaced by bras, or some other over-stressed metaphorical construct.

This puts me in mind of some of the writing forums I covered in my “Paleo E-books” columns. There have been a number of different experimental writing formats in Internet fiction, including some of the ones about which Stross speculates.

The transition to e-books might indeed open up some very interesting territory for new narrative forms. We’ll just have to wait and see. As it is right now, e-books are limited by the limitations of the old printed form, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense.


  1. Mm, – how are ebooks currently limited by the old printed form? Ebook versions of print books might be, but that in no way limits something which is only in ebook.

    You can go ahead right now and put a short story, a novella, or a meganovel on Lulu or Amazon and price it however you please and people will choose to download it or not.

  2. There is a reason the narrative form has not essentially changed in several thousands of years of history from the oral myths to the epics of today and I doubt the internet will change that dramatically either.

    The Dickensian serial was predicated on scarcity – you bought that newspaper today since otherwise it would be hard to find the story again – that does not work that well today, so I doubt a revival of serials outside of limited circumstances – eg the way Baen does Webscriptions though even they recognized that e-arcs are another good a way to monetize impatience –

    Huge novels are still around (see Peter Hamilton or various epic fantasists) – their limitation is bestselling not print ones; after all time is still limited and both the author spends it on writing and the reader on reading, so there needs to be a payoff
    I doubt that Mr. Stross for example could survive as a pro if he were to write door-stoppers – assuming no print limitations – since frankly he does not have the audience to afford it as he recognizes it btw; ebooks do not change that except that you can do easier a huge novel as a hobby and self-publish it, but it’s still a matter of affordability for the writer

    I agree about novellas but even there there is the trick of finding a sweet price spot

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