Why Indie Authors Should Celebrate Short Fiction

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For emerging indie writers, it’s important to produce work on a consistent basis.  If you want to build a following and generate some kind of income from your writing, you need to be consistent and above all else they’ll tell you – write more books.  That’s because more books mean more marketing opportunities and that in turn, means visibility.  More books provide you with the means of offering special deals to your customers and creating product funnels and doing all that marketing stuff that as people like to say nowadays – increases your ‘discoverability’ – what a word that is.

Think of it this way – as a fiction writer, writing books is your primary method of content marketing.  Not writing blogs or recording podcasts or anything like that.  Writing books.

Writing a book is hard.   Writing a load of books, huh?  Sure – let’s just knock off a sequel to War and Peace before lunch.

Eh, not quite.

From start to finish, novels demand a serious time commitment on the part of the author.  And that’s just writing the book because if you’re a good indie author, you’ll also be working with an editor to shape the book and a professional graphic designer to design the cover.  You might also do all the formatting  yourself – which is my own worst nightmare.

So there you are.  You’re working your ass off – you and others to produce a top-notch novel, which is roughly 50/60,000 words (or as is more likely these days, way, way, waaaay above those numbers – how’s that consistency thing working out George RR Martin?)

You can’t rush your book, but if you’re keen not to leave long gaps in between releases, writing back-to-back novels could be a problem.

Fortunately however, the digital revolution happened.  And with new technologies came new possibilities of product consumption (God, that sounds so creepily capitalist).  The twentieth century model of how mass market fiction is consumed – novel, novel, novel – is no longer the only means available to readers.  Thanks to ebooks, there are other choices available.

Now one of the best things about opting the way of indie publishing (or author-publishing if you prefer that term) is that you are your own boss.  You can do what you want.  So that means if you want to stay in bed and eat chocolate and drink Red Bull till you spout real actual wings and fly through the ceiling then you can.  I don’t recommend it, but the point is that you’re in charge.  And with that, you have a freedom that was unavailable to writers just a couple of decades ago.  There are less restrictions on how you deliver stories to readers and if you want to be a consistent indie author, then consider the most obvious way of delivering quality products in good time.

Write shorter books.

This is not a new or radical idea.  Not by any means.  But in terms of both reading and writing, I’m an advocate of shorter books, which goes against the trend of recent years for books to be very long.  And I think too many emerging writers are trying to write long books just because they think they should.  But for me, this is the old model of thinking, which is still geared towards the novel as the be-all and end-all.   Now I love novels –  they’re beautiful things.  I think every writer’s backlist should have novels in them because they’ve proven themselves to be immensely popular with readers.

But novels aren’t the only thing available on the fiction menu.  There are other choices that writers should consider – and guess what?  They have even cooler sounding names.

 

Interlude.

Of course you might be one of those weirdos who say they can write a novel every week or two (yeah they’re out there – I read about this one women who said she writes a novel per week – a NOVEL??  Per week?  Ah c’mon now!  I mean, either she’s the greatest thing since Shakespeare and sliced bread in the same room or there’s something wrong with those books.  Seriously wrong.  There has to be something wrong with them, no?  Or is it just me? 

Interlude Ends.

 

Experiment

Indie publishing at its best is about innovation.  So think outside the novel box.  Thanks to the popularity of ebooks, words like novella and novelette have made a return in recent years and if you ask me, this is a good thing.  In the past, if you were an unknown author and you approached a traditional publishing house with a novella, they wouldn’t have touched you with someone else’s extra-long barge pole.  It’s not marketable, they would have said.  And yet at the same time they’d continue to publish classic novellas like The Old Man and the Sea (26,601 words) and I am Legend (25,204 words) and call them novels.

(For a brief list of outstanding short books by word count click here).  

It’s simple.  You want to write great books but you don’t want to sit on the sidelines for months working on full-length novels.  Well congratulations.  You’re an indie author and you can publish your work in whatever bite-sized chunks you please – be it on Amazon, Wattpad, or direct to the reader from your own website.  You don’t need to think like a writer under a slave, oops, I mean trade contract.

Digital technology is at hand.  Novels no longer need be the default choice of fiction writers.

Little Bits of Post-Apocalyptic London

For example, here’s what I’m thinking about doing with a current project.  In April or May this year, I’m hoping to release my first full length novel (yes, a novel and it didn’t take a friggin’ week to write either!)  It’s called L-2011 and it’s an alternate history novel in which the London riots of 2011 don’t stop (as they did after four days in this reality) and as you might guess, shit goes very bad in the Big Smoke.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that the ending is open.  The option for future development and further exploration in that fictional world is there.  And it’s a world in which I want to keep writing but I don’t necessarily want the series to be full of just novels.  That would leave too many long gaps between instalments because unlike some people, I can’t write a novel in a week.

So how about trying something else?  For example, I could take one character’s story and write a 15,000 word novelette about what happens next with them.  15,000 you might say?  That’s nothing – that’s not a proper book.  No, I would say – it is.  It’s a novelette and it’s actually something quite cool.  Remember that the first of Hugh Howey’s Wool stories – the one that gave him his big break – was a novelette of about 12,000 words and we all know how that worked out for big Hughie boy, don’t we?

So I could follow up my novel with a novelette.  Then how about a novella of about 30,000 words which explores another character or facet of that world?  Or I could write a short story.  And then maybe another novel – who knows?  Couldn’t you do the same thing?  And the more we write and publish, the more we’re world-building, expanding our fictional universe and doing it faster than if we were just concentrating on longer forms.

There’s just something about short fiction.  It’s a brief dalliance, a beautiful fling and not a long grinding slog like some longer books inevitably are.  Short books leave you wanting more and in a good way – not in a way that leaves you unsatisfied.  

“Leave them wanting more and you know they’ll call you back.” – Bobby Womack

Pricing

Once you have a significant number of books on the market, you can establish a variety of prices and make sure that (a) the reader is not overpaying and (b) you’re still earning something for your work.

You’ve got to be sensible here.  You can’t sell a 20,000 word ebook for more than £1.99/$2.99.  And if you ask me, that’s pricing it at the absolute max.  I know, you want your seventy percent royalties but you’ve got to treat the reader with the utmost respect and NEVER rip them off.  It’s a simply pay-off.  Be generous and they’ll consider coming back – and back.   Novelettes and short stories – I would initially price these at 99p/c and when you’ve got enough of them on your backlist, make some of them free.

And make sure to write short stories in a way that introduces your fictional world to newcomers.  If these become perma-freebies later on, it’s a great way of luring in potential readers who are are more likely to test the waters with one of your free products.

All of the numbers above are just suggestions and how you price your work is entirely up to you.   It’s all about experimenting and there is no one-size-fits-all formula.  If something’s not working, then try something else and start again.  You’re essentially just jamming here and trying to find the perfect groove.  But try to escape the old mentality that says short books aren’t marketable.  That sort of thinking belongs in the past and it had nothing to do with books themselves or their ability to convey a story, but the print publication costs.  And that’s irrelevant in the digital era.

“Very few really long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil.” – Ian McEwan

Smartphone Reading

Another reason to embrace shorter fiction is the rise of smartphone reading.  More and more people are choosing to read books on their mobile phone.  Why?  I’d say it’s the sheer convenience of it.  Not everyone wants to carry a paperback or an e-reader around in their bag (that’s if you even have a bag!)

But almost everyone has a phone.

The smartphone, not the e-reader, looks set to become the driving force in digital book sales.  Personal preference aside, it makes sense given how close our phones are to hand.  With a mobile phone, you can read anywhere – on your lunch break, in the back seat of a taxi, standing in a queue at the shop, or even going up and down in an elevator.  It’s an extremely convenient way of consuming books and this is why the number of people reading on their smartphones will rise in 2016 and beyond.

And short books make sense for smartphone readers.  Especially if you’re reading on the move, such as during a regular commute.  It’s easier to keep track of shorter works – you can read complete short stories in one sitting, novelettes and novellas in several – rather than keep coming back to an epic novel in which you might have forgotten crucial details from earlier chapters.

Short fiction and smartphones.  That’ll work.

Quality

But of course, it doesn’t matter what length your book is if the reader isn’ t impressed.  So don’t think that short means skimping on quality.  Putting out short fiction is not a shortcut.  But the truth is, if you’re looking to get work out there, it will probably take you less time to write a great 25,000 words than it will 100,000.  So I guess it is kind of a shortcut, but you know what I mean.   You want to write a 30,000 word novella – write a great one.  You want to write a 200,000 word epic – write a great one.  And so on.

NEVER (and I apologise for e-shouting here) NEVER sacrifice quality for speed.  Never do it.

The Future

So have fun with it.  These are good times to be a writer.  We no longer have to submit our work to slushpiles and chance and literary limbo.  Neither do we have to write one or two novels a year because that’s what writers have been told to do for so long by their masters in publishing houses.

(You, dear reader, are the masters!)

If you’re an indie author, then prepare to lead the way.  As long as we’re providing quality and value for money (as well as working our arses off elsewhere), the readers will come with us on our journey.  So revel in your newfound status as the punk rockers of the literary world.  Do things differently and do them well.

And speaking of punk – what was it The Sex Pistols said?

“Don’t be told what you want,

Don’t be told what you need.”

 

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