Field of Words Director, Eileen Herbert-Goodall, was fortunate enough to recently catch up with acclaimed author Nick Earls at a little café in Brisbane suburbia…here’s a transcript of their conversation where Nick spoke about the changing nature of reading, writing and publishing, along with his soft spot for the novella form.
E – Hi Nick, Thanks for agreeing to meet. Given our mutual interest in the novella, I was hoping we could discuss its apparent resurgence (amongst other things). But first, I’ve been reading some articles lately claiming that e-books and associated sales are on the decline…what are your thoughts on this possible trend?
N – It’s interesting to look at the factors behind that, to see the trajectory of e-books and the talk around e-books since Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet in March of 2000. You have those times when e-books accelerate in sales – usually because of a technological advance – the Kindle, the iPad and, to a lesser extent the increase in phone screen size…these advances were the big drivers in sales…and people extrapolated from that with claims about the obliteration of print. Then, in the absence of a new driver, e-sales tended to plateau and people declared ‘print is back!’ and ‘e-books are no more!’ Going beyond that, there’s the whole issue of Amazon having settled its differences with major publishing companies in the US a couple of years back. What happened there was that Amazon allowed publishers to set their own price for e-books, which Amazon had previously limited to around ten dollars US, urging people to publish under that in an attempt to continue to grow the e-book market. When Amazon relented and let publishers re-price, they priced above the earlier limits, but people had spent years being conditioned to expecting change out of ten dollars. When publishes put e-book prices up so that they were close to the cost of paperbacks, it saw the e-book sales of major publishes fall significantly and paperback sales rise commensurately…Ultimately, publishers were driving people back to purchasing print books. So while e-book sales are partly in decline because prices have gone up, they’re also partly in decline because audio-books are dramatically on the rise with the success of platforms like Audible.
E – Definitely. I think young people really appreciate Audible, but also adults who are time-poor – they can flick on an audio-book while their busy other tasks and still get some ‘reading’ time in.
N – Yeah. Research by Audible shows that the growth in audio-book use is linked to times when you can’t physically read, such as when you’re doing house work, exercise or commuting. The audio-book market is expanding, partly at the expense of e-books. But, interestingly, when publishing associations publish their stat’s, they’re not counting what’s going on in the Amazon Kindle store. In the Kindle store in the US last year, about 40% of titles were independently published and they weren’t counted. That’s close to a quarter of a billion sales in the US across 2016 that haven’t been taken into account. Ultimately, sales by Amazon – which holds around 80% of the US e-book market – have actually gone up by around 4 to 5 %, so the market’s still rising.
E – Just to clarify, when you talk about independent publications, do you mean self-publishing, or publishing with smaller, independent boutique-style presses?
N – I mean both. I mean people who are publishing themselves, directly into the Kindle store, and people who are using independent publishers that aren’t members of publishers’ associations.
E – I understand you’ve been researching different aspects of the novella as part of your PhD and I was hoping to chat with you about this form. Evidently, some of the most powerful and ‘classic’ works of literature are novellas – John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde… and the list goes on. Yet, in recent decades, and to some extent today, publishers have regarded the novella as a sort of literary no-man’s land, given its grey area length of around say 17,500 to 40, 000 words…and there’s been significant resistance to publishing the novella. To what do you attribute this trend?
N – One thing: it costs almost as much to make a small paperback as it does to make a medium-sized paperback. That means if you’re making a small book and pricing it the same as a novel, it’s going to face some resistance amongst book sellers and possibly amongst buyers. Rightly or wrongly, there’s this notion that we buy books by the kilo, which means book sellers are concerned about moving compact books. But if we look at novella publishing in the English language over the last century or so, it’s clear the form has never died out in terms of some genre fiction, whether it be mystery, romance, or whatever. In terms of literary fiction, it’s faced some difficulties for quite a long time. If you think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it was first serialized in Blackwood’s magazine in thirds – that was back in the day when magazines could publish big chunks of things – and up until the 1960’s or 70’s, novellas typically made their initial appearance as serialized fiction in magazines. This was true for Conrad and true for Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which appeared in three successive issues of Esquire. Then things changed a little and novellas were bound up with other works – other novellas, or short stories – so there’d be this perception of value for money. But the days where magazines are prepared to publish a large chunk of a text are largely gone. On rare occasions we see authors having a one-off novella published. Two recent cases in Australia come to mind – Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story and The Girl with the Dogs by Anna Funder. The point is, if publishers perceive there is a market then they might well put out a novella.
I wanted to see if technology could alter resistance towards the novella, because the pricing rules that apply to print don’t apply to e-books, and they don’t have to apply to audio-books. Any book can be whatever size it needs to be and it can be priced according to whatever price you choose to put on it. A case in point – Amazon set up Kindle Singles in 2011 specifically for works five to thirty thousand words long and sold two million in the first year, mostly written by blockbuster authors. So there is a digital market for genre novellas, especially those written by well-known authors. If you’re writing literary fiction, this form sells somewhere between 1.5 and 3% of adult sales in the Kindle store, so that’s a small market.
E – Well, I strive to write literary fiction and I typically write novellas – tough gig.
N – (Laughs.) It is tough and I want it to be less tough. Having said that, the Audible model doesn’t naturally suit the novella because it’s subscription-based whereby, in Australia, you pay fifteen dollars a month and there’s one included download and anything beyond that you buy. That tends to push people towards purchasing the fattest thing they can in order to get value for money. What Audible did with my novellas in The Wisdom Tree series was to release them individually, giving away the first one as a promotional plan – the enduring product for them was the set of five. So you get five voices and, like in an Australian TV drama series, we cast actors that people would recognise in order to create a certain effect. I think we came up with a really appealing package. The other thing with audio is that there’s a potential to draw people over who listen to Podcasts but have never really listened to audio-books. Audible set up channels in the US last year and no doubt this will soon be rolled out in other jurisdictions. Those channels are for short form audio content and novellas will fit well there. So there are places for novellas in the e-book market and the audio-book market.
E – Yes. I think also that the e-format is quite a fluid medium, meaning readers tend to be less conscious of page count. Maybe that partly accounts for the recent capacity of the novella to get more of a foot-hold in the contemporary market?
N – I think that’s a very reasonable suggestion because you’re not holding it in your hand, you’re not weighing it up or holding two books next to each other. Sure, the website you’re buying from will tell you how many pages there are but that’s not the same as holding the book.
E – The page count becomes a little abstract.
N – That’s right.
E – As you’ve already mentioned, your series The Wisdom Tree is comprised of five novellas. Can you tell readers a little about the process involved in writing this series?
N – With The Wisdom Tree, I wanted to write the novellas as a series so they would work individually, but also so there would be connections between them. I wanted it to be so you could read any one but, if you read all of them, the connections would give you more. I wanted them to work as a set but also be available as small books, even pocket-size, so people could carry a physical copy on a plane flight or while commuting and potentially read the whole thing. I’ve heard from lots of people who actually really liked that size and found it very convenient.
E – Could you explain to readers a little about the links between the novellas.
N – When I started out, the ideas fitted together thematically – they were all dealing with Twenty-First Century lives and all the main characters were Australian, typically from Brisbane.
E – And typically male characters.
N – That’s right. Each of them was pushed out of his comfort zone to go through what I needed him to go through in the story. And each of them was transplanted geographically in order for the story to unfold – so they have those things in common. I guess I wanted to look at what matters, what we value in life and then have these quiet moments for readers where this comes into perspective, where you kind of see how a character starts out with certain ideas about what they value but then something shifts and they see something new.
E – A bit like all of us really…changing, being immersed in the human experience.
N – Exactly. I think the novella is a great medium for going into the human experience with some depth and complexity the way the novel can but without the brevity of the short story. I really like that combination – it doesn’t go long, but it does go deep.
E – Yes, I think the novella has a certain potency because of its relatively short, compact nature.
N – Definitely. So when I started to have a conversation with my publisher, Donna Ward from Inkerman & Blunt, about the novella series idea, she suggested that I come up with more than just thematic connections. So I said ‘Sure, that’s a great idea’, thinking, As if I’m going to do that, and hoping she’d forget about it. But then I went away and realised I needed to give the suggestion some serious thought.
E – She’d planted the seed.
N – She had. So my next thing was to think: Why am I resisting this? And I thought, I’m resisting because I don’t want to write The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.
E – Might your resistance also have been because you didn’t want it to seem as if you’d contrived events in each novella in order to create the connections?
N – Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean about The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. Look, it’s a very successful series and movie and I don’t mean to be at all critical of someone who made that choice – it just wasn’t a choice I wanted to make. I didn’t want to have a pair of jeans that went on holiday with a different girl each time in order to give me a different story. I didn’t want to manufacture a device that unified these narratives. So I came up with a set of criteria for testing linking opportunities, which were: Will it make the narrative better? Will it not make it worse? Will it be cheesy? And if I got the right answers for all of these questions, then the link was worth including.
E – Simple, but very effective criteria.
N – Sometimes you kind of need that. And then I started coming up with things that I was quite excited about.
E – Connections you stumbled upon?
N – Yeah, and while there were still some gaps in the novellas, I realised I could use something in one to fill a gap in the other. I think novellas are great for that – they can cast fresh light on their central themes in unexpected and fresh ways. A novella series lets you do that in a different way and at a whole different level. I think I was writing the novellas for adults who have read quite a lot, who want something that will get deep into character, and who know enough about how to read, so I knew I could draw these connections in different ways.
E – Your approach is also quite interactive in that you’re pulling your audience in and inviting them to think about things then put pieces of the puzzle together in a way that works for them.
N – It was also a relief when it worked for readers as well, and it was interesting to see people reading them out of order. Many people read them in order – because we did number them – but a lot of people borrowing from libraries accessed them out of order, so it was really interesting getting their views.
E – It must have been really exciting for you to write the series as well and to see these connections coming together.
N – Yeah, it was certainly worthwhile.
E – I also wanted to have a chat to you about an app called Radish developed in South Korea by a young gentleman named Seung Yoon Lee. Apparently, in conjunction with the decline of Kindles’ sales, more people are starting to use just their phones for reading. The app basically allows writers to submit episodic fiction for publication.
N – So it’s curated.
E – Apparently, yes, and it seems to be a good platform for novellas, given their shorter length. It will be interesting to see how such apps will affect the way we read, write and publish. Significantly, with Radish, publication rights revert back to the author after a time because they release episodes, gain reader feedback and then, once the series has been completed, they’re free to adapt that narrative accordingly and approach a different publisher. This approach lends a certain flexibility and I think it’s worth keeping an eye on platforms like Radish, especially given people aren’t interested in carrying multiple devices if they don’t need to.
N – And it’s also interesting to see people taking inspiration from different technologies to come up with something new, while ownership remains clear and with the author. I think the increase in phone size has led to an increase of people doing at least some of their reading on their phones – actually, I think those numbers doubled between 2012 and 2015. As Judith Curr of Atria Books in New York has said, the future of reading is print and on the phone.
E – If only my reading vision was stronger.
N – (Laughs.) Me too.
E – On a different note, I was reading an interview that you did with The Guardian in 2016, where you said that it’s important for writers to start with a vision of the size and scope of a piece. Do you typically have a clear idea as to the space and length your stories will require before you’ve written them?
N – Yeah, I think I do…but I don’t think everyone has to have that. I think it just kind of reflects my process. I’m a big planner and, from having spoken to hundreds of authors over the years, I think around 70% are planners, while 30% are pantsers and, clearly, both approaches can work. You need to find the way that works for you…I don’t like going down a lot of blind alleys. I do a lot of planning which means I’m less likely to have to throw away a lot of words.
E – I’m not much of a planner. I tend to try to get into the psyche of a character and see where that takes me. The characters choices, actions, reactions tend to drive the story forward. If I don’t connect with the characters, then there’s no story.
N – And that’s what I love about the novella – its potential for depth and complexity and the way you can use details to reveal things in a very subtle, human way that is very character-driven.
E – Your thoughts on the future of the novella?
N – The novella’s already got a secure place in genre fiction such as romance …I’d like to see the popularity of the novella spreading across a range of genres. I’d like to see the light bulb going on above the heads of readers and publishers about what the form can offer given our lives are full of in-puts and we don’t have much time. I know I’m not the only person who starts a large novel on holidays, comes back, and then finishes it three or four months later when I finally find the time. Whereas, with a novella, if you can actually avoid Nextflix for an evening, you can read the whole thing, you can have the whole experience. So there’s a real possibility that the novella’s got a place in our lives. What we need is for publishers to realise it’s got a place in their lives too and for booksellers to go along with that. There’s several ways to achieve this – one is if you’ve got some kind of following, then a novella series is viable. You can make money from a novella series. The bigger your author, the more money publishers will make. By doing a series, it sends a message that this is a big project, that people should pay attention. That’s one direction for writers of fiction to go in. It’s more of a challenge as an emerging author to pitch that idea to publishers, but I hope in time that will change…if more novellas are bought, then print runs will be bigger and we’ll be able to settle on a reasonable price – say around fifteen dollars – and the novella will be considered feasible. If the market gets bigger, then the books get cheaper, and it has more prospects. We just need a few of these things to fall into place.
E – It’s great to know that you see a future for the novella, Nick. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
N – Likewise.
About Nick Earls:
Nick is a successful novelist and writer of short fiction (including novellas!). He is from Brisbane, where he has resided for many years, although he was born in Northern Ireland. He has a lengthy and impressive publishing history; his very early works (from the mid-80’s) were poetry pieces. Generally, he writes contemporary, humorous fiction. He is close to finishing his PhD, which he is undertaking through the University of Queensland. Copies of The Wisdom Tree can be purchased at Amazon and other online outlets, through Audible, and at groovy book stores. Click here to find out more about how you can purchase one of his many books.