Isn’t Short Fiction Worth Its Weight in Gold

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 20 2010

I just completed my book which is 33,000 words in length. An enticing romance suspense which leaves the reader with a thrilling ending. Typically, I’d agree that longer novels have punch, I think this story is worth its weight in gold. Would your agency review something like this?

No, we wouldn’t, and I suspect you’ll have a really difficult time finding any agency who would. 33,000 words is a novella, it’s not a novel, and from a financial perspective it’s typically not worth a publisher’s time to spend the money to publish a book that’s only 33,000 words. It’s a book they would only be able to price at about $3 or $4 (in paper), and I don’t think it would be a cost-effective move for anyone.

More important, though, I’d be curious what romantic suspense readers think. Do you think 33,000 words might pack the punch you’re looking for, or would you be instantly suspicious that this book is about one-third the length of what you normally read?


55 responses to “Isn’t Short Fiction Worth Its Weight in Gold”

  1. I only read novellas if I'm absolutely in love with the author.

    And that's all that's left.

    Ironically, I like short stories just fine, but novellas, generally not so much.

  2. Avatar Nadia says:

    I’d be curious what romantic suspense readers think. Do you think 33,000 words might pack the punch you’re looking for, or would you be instantly suspicious that this book is about one-third the length of what you normally read?

    I would be very hesitant to buy a 33k word long romantic suspense unless it got rave reviews from people I trust. In general there's just too much going on in RS to be satisfying in only 33k words, and I like RS to be 50/50 (50 suspense / 50 romance).

  3. Avatar Philangelus says:

    I think she should write two more and package all three together in one volume.

    Some ebook publishers have no problem with novella-length work, and I had a contract for an ebook novella until that publisher went out of business. It's possible to find a home for a novella, but the writer needs to be more flexible.

    I personally don't have a problem with novella-length work. I'm a mom with four kids: sometimes that's just about what we need. The price point would have to reflect the length, though. I'm not paying $15 for something I can read in ninety minutes.

  4. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    Many of the digital romance & mainstream publishers take novella-length work, and none of them require an agent for them. Try duotrope digest to find the right one.

  5. I think I would buy a novella romance- Sometimes I simply don't have time for a flushed out romance- but a 'quickie'- is just the ticket.

  6. Avatar Jason says:

    I'm not into romantic suspense, but one of my favorite stories of all time is Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It's technically a novella, but I find it to be a complete the perfect length for the story that's told. On the other hand, it was packaged with three other novellas in its printing…maybe that's what made it cost effective.

  7. Avatar wry wryter says:

    If a writer can make 33,000 words, with a thrilling ending, worth it's weight in gold, then the writer should triple that and make it worth its weight in platinum
    as 'Phil' do two more and package them.

  8. Avatar Bernita says:

    Carina Press, Harlequin's new e-pub,will be publishing novellas as well as full lengths novels, and they don't require agented submissions.

  9. Avatar Janet says:

    I'm more of a full length RS fan – for similar reasons to Nadia. But e-publishers (TWRP) are actively looking for nouvellas – no agent necessary 🙂

    Philangelus suggests packaging 3 together – Jessica, would an agent be interested in something like that? Or is that more for established authors, and combined with other authors in a themed book?

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I would definitely be hesitant. As Stephanie said, I only read novellas if I already know I love the author. I don't even like category length RS much because usually either the romance or the suspense gets short shrift.

  11. Avatar Phoebe says:

    I don't read romantic suspense. I have to say, though, that some of my favorite books are closer to novella-length than novels. Slim books tend to be less baggy around the middle. As a reader, I like not having to slog through that!

  12. Avatar Phoenix says:

    I see this as part of the shifting paradigm. As readers, we've been conditioned to read stories that fall within certain wordcounts because of publishing constraints. Too few words/too many words and it was just not profitable enough/too costly for publishing.

    Serialization fell out of favor a few generations ago, but it, too, was a conceit borne out financial necessity and the logistics of pubbing at price points the common people could afford.

    E-pubbing is still in its infancy. It could be that, since e-books are not restricted by print folios, binding, display concerns and shipping costs, a new e-model may arise where the reader will pay by the word, just as writers in many short-story markets get paid. Or at least pay by wordcount ranges. There's lots more flexibility in pricing options in an electronic bookstore.

    Meanwhile, yes, there are many e-pubs out there actively seeking out novellas in the romance genre. And as with short stories, they don't require an agent to get them in front of acquiring editors.

  13. Avatar steeleweed says:

    I understand a publisher's business decision to avoid novellas as unprofitable, but do not understand readers who are averse to novellas. Any story has its proper length. Sometimes it's a just long enough for a short story, sometimes it takes 2500 pages. Some of the greatest works of fiction have been novellas.

    BTW: Carina Press is not yet operational and the verdict on them is still out. From what I've seen so far, I cannot say if they will operate like a traditional publisher who happens whose output happens to be digital or whether they will be more like a vanity or semi-vanity press. Will their business model be to make money from readers or from writers? We'll have to wait and see – and also see what success the have.

  14. Avatar Kimber An says:

    If she just finished it, it's not ready for submission. If, by finished, she hasn't revised the dickens out of it, I mean. She may find it doubles or even triples in length once she does. Mine always do.

    Get thee to a Critique Group!

    I prefer

    However, if she has revised the dickens out of it and it's still only 33,000 words, I suggest she Google up all the ePublishers. The ones I know accept Short Stories and Novellas. They don't need to worry about fitting the usually number of pages in print books.

    P.S. I advise against telling anyone, especially a publishing professional, that your story is worth it's weight in gold. Or any other such thing. They like to judge for themselves and it'll be less embarressing for you when they trowel up a mistake. Even the Pros make mistakes. Just check out the number of people who complain about adverbs in TWILIGHT.

  15. Avatar Laurel says:

    I agree with Stephanie. My reading habits don't typically include buying a story of this length unless I'm already familiar with the author and the story deals with characters or settings that have already sucked me in.

    I also think everybody's right about ePub being the best bet. Digital readers are more flexible as an audience and it's easier to price a story for length when you don't have to worry about recovering as much cost on physical print and shipping.

  16. Avatar Wendy Qualls says:

    Definitely look into epublishing. As a reader, I'm hesitant about novellas – it's so easy to do them poorly! We tend to assimilate the requirements for a full-length novel based on what we spend our lifetimes reading, so most authors have an innate sense of what the pacing for a longer book SHOULD be. It's certainly possible to write a novella which is paced correctly, but it's hit-or-miss and I think the chances of a "miss" are much higher for a non-standard length work.

    Some of the shorter series romances out there are in the 45-50K word range – maybe after editing, the writer can find another 15K in her?

  17. I'd never buy a 33,000 word romance – but I have bought anthologies that had four stories of roughly that length in them.

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Unless it was an author I loved, my eyes would pass right over a book that size. My teen daughters and I only want the big thick books (400 to 500 pages). I don't want to invest money or my time in something that will entertain me less than a day.

  19. One of Diana Gaboldon's Lord John books is actually two novellas and a short story. I didn't mind that. I would never have bought them individually (and in fact, didn't buy them as a whole either; I checked them out from the library).

    If the writing is strong, it may pack a bunch in 33k, but I'm still not going to buy it.

  20. @Phoenix: There isn't an exact science behind the word count. Publishers haven't done long-range studies, following readers over decades to determine what their preferred word count is. The real concern is paper.

    Beginning in 2004, China's rapid production expansion constricted the paper market. Prices skyrocketed and pre-order times grew much, much longer. Where before a production manager could play fast and loose with paper requisition, one of the first things that has to be done now is order the paper. This makes word count very important.

    (Also, the cost associated with that paper. If you wrote a 350k epic and you're not going to earn out your advance, you're book isn't worth the paper it's printed on.)

    Now, while publishers haven't done studies on word count, they have done market research on spine width. Depending on the subject matter, a book spine that is too narrow or too thick impacts sales. There are tricks of the trade to modify this, different paper weight and types to make a book thicker or thinner, but that only gets you so far. Eventually the word count has to be taken into consideration. The preferred word counts not only take into consideration paper cost, but buyer preference.

    Anecdotal evidence can provide plenty of exceptions (someone will inevitably point to ORDER OF THE PHOENIX), but when the market is viewed as a whole, those individual exceptions are just that, exceptions.

  21. Probably anything worth saying can be very well accommodated in 33K words, so the issue is not whether the romance can be written as a novella, but whether that would be commercially viable.
    Novellas (?novellae?) used to have a market. I have the impression that fiction(genre)books are now getting thicker and 300 pages is getting puffed out to 450, with no more story.
    Yes. I know, it's all about bottom line, and who can stay in business and ignore that?

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Until recently, 33,000 words was always too short.

    However, there are many authors (romance is one genre) who are, and have been, writing and selling books in the 33,000 range and they've been making money.

    If you (I'm talking to other commentors) check out or and take a close look at what is selling on the bestseller lists, many of the books are about 33,000 words. The word counts are listed along with the book description, reviews, and some sales figures. These authors have good, loyal fan bases and their average royalty checks can range from three to five thousand a quarter. Sometimes higher, depending on the time of year. I know this for a fact. I'm one of them.

    And one author who is well known by e-book readers (a constantly growing fan base) was recently signed by an agent and it made the rounds everywhere. Evidently, this agent sees changes and sees potential with this author. And this author's books range between 33,000 and 50,000 words.

    In the past, publishers have always frowned on books with 33,000 words and they haven't bothered taking them seriously. But this is one of the changes in the publishing industry that's been happening for a while, and I'm not sure everyone is getting it yet.

    I'm not talking about quality or personal opinions here. These are just a few facts I've noticed in the past three years. And though I'm not fond of these changes, as long as readers are happy that's all I care about.

  23. Avatar Clara says:

    I think trying to publish it in small stories in a magazine could be a nice option.
    The problem, ofcourse, is to please the editors in a level that they have to think your story is one of the best things they´ve ever read.

    Short stories are always a nice option.

  24. Avatar JDS says:

    I'm with Steeleweed. I don't understand why so many people are against reading novellas. As a reader and writer of short stories, I find that often shorter length works are just as powerful, if not more so, than many of the novels I've read. Personally, I think novellas can be a perfect length to convey a story effectively.

    All that said, they are difficult to write and because so many people won't read them (for whatever reason) I understand a publisher's hesitation and refusal.

  25. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I think I may actually prefer novellas, assuming they're well-written. Short stories are a little TOO short and too many novels throw in plot twists and characters that detract from the story in their efforts to be longer.

    Of course, my buying decision would depend on reviews, word of mouth, and whether the cover blurb sparks my interest.

    If the author will have multiple works, she could consider posting the novella as a free sample online to garner interest for her "more marketable" novels, right?

  26. I always loved Rex Stout's trilogy books, which had three novellas in each. Each were long enough to have the meat of a novel, but made for a quick read.

  27. Avatar Katt says:

    While I wouldn't buy a single that size I absolutely love finding three of these in one cover.

    Each story just the right length to read in one sitting and not feel guilty.

    So I'd say, write two more and try to sell them together.

  28. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    The only time I enjoy novellas is when I'm reading an anthology I've bought because there's a favorite author represented, and then I discover a new author among the other stories in the book. That just happened when I bought WHAT YOU CAN'T SEE for Allison Brennan's story and discovered the BULLET CATCHERS series by Roxanne St. Claire. That damned anthology just cost me $50 for eight books…

    But no, I would not be interested in buying a stand-alone novella.

  29. Avatar Susan says:

    Warning: Bluntness ahead.

    I hate it when I read books under 300 pages because, without fail, the author didn't do enough work. I'm left wishing a subplot had been fleshed out better or the author had spent more time leading up to the ending.

    I can't imagine reading an adult book that comes in at just around 150-ish pages. I read Evanovich's novellas because, well, she's Evanovich, and even those peeve me and leave me with a bad taste in the mouth for being so stingey with the wordcount.

    You could sell the book through an e-press, but that pretty much means you're not willing to to do the work to figure out how to make your book better. Because 33,000 words? It might be e-publishing good, but it's not big publishing good.

    Put it aside and come back to it in a couple of months. You'll be amazed with how you thought it could ever go out as-is.


  30. Avatar Inda Lauryn says:

    The length is not as important as the work itself. Nearly all of Banana Yoshimoto's books are novellas and her work has more substance than most people who can crank out full novels any day.

  31. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I love short fiction, although I'm not sure if I've ever read a novella-length story. As another poster suggested, definitely check out, as well as for possible markets. I think with the rise of e-pubs, you'll probably find a good home for your work–if the work has been thoroughly revised and carefully polished. If you're not in a critique group, I'd recommend finding at least one person (a fellow suspense writer) to review and comment on your work.

  32. Avatar patlaff says:

    My initial reaction is there's not enough sustained suspense in 33,000 words to offer a satisfactory resolution, but then I read a 250-word piece of flash fiction that does it right.

  33. I wouldn't pay full book price for a novella…but if I happened across a Kindle version for $.99 or $1.99 and it sounded interesting, I would.

    And the comments at are full of people making money…some of them tens of thousands…selling kindle books at those prices.

    Granted, it's still self-publishing, but if no agent will look at it, and you can't make it longer, then what other choice do you have? If you stick it in a drawer, you get nothing. If you put it up as a cheap Kindle book, you get to find out if your writing is good enough to attract people or not. So that's what I'd consider, if I were you.

  34. Avatar Taryn Tyler says:

    I think two or three novellas put together make a nice anthology. Or if its all the same author a novella and four or five short stories.

  35. PS. 33,000 words IS too little when you're in the mood for a full-length story. But when you've only got an hour and you don't want to start something you won't have time to finish 'till next week, it's perfect. Those are the times when I WISH there were more novellas out there. I suppose that's why ebooks more frequently have these shorter lengths…NY can't afford to print them, and many travelers wanting quick reads have e-readers already, and love the convenience of downloading a book just the right length for their plane flight.

  36. Avatar JDuncan says:

    While 33k is short, I wouldn't necessarily say it needs to be 3 times that for a novel. Harlequin's romantic suspense line has submission guidelines around 60k I believe. If I were to guess, I'd bet this 33k novel needs to be fleshed out more. Either it's short on the relationship development side or the plot is too simplistic (my guess mind you). Build it up another 20k and you could probably submit to Harlequin or one of the epubs who take on romantic suspense. Myself, I like longer. My urban-fantasy-suspense is 116k, and my contract for the next one stipulates 100k minimum.

  37. Some of the comments here are a little too gun-shy. The Q simply asks whether a literary agent would acquire an author based on a novella. Jessica responded no, because literary agents acquire full-length fiction, since that is what NY publishes. And they typically acquire genre fiction novellas for anthologies, not to release by itself unless the author is mega popular (Random House and Berkley experimented with releasing novellas from previously released anthologies a few years ago).

    A novella may not be your choice of story-length, but it does not mean an author doesn't have the talent to write full-length novels. In fact, short stories and novellas are ten times more difficult to write than books with a 90-100,000 word count because you have to focus on the plot and the characters, and that's it. And back in the day, most of the writers revered today (classic literature and genre/popular literature) cut their teeth on short stories and novellas before they began writing novels. It's a lost art, and one I am glad has returned with the rise of e-publishing. It may not seem like "real" writing to many, but I've discovered as both a reader and a writer, that shorter cuts through the superfluousness that can bog down a full-length novel.

  38. Avatar Bethany says:

    I write and read novels and novellas and I must say, when people express an inability to read novellas, I must wonder on what basis. Is it because you so frequently hear agents talk about how you shouldn't write them? Personally, I think for a romance suspense – being a genre I don't read – that would be a great introduction or taste for someone like me.

  39. Avatar Stephanie says:

    I think novellas are finding more success in the ebook world. My publisher is Lyrical Press and they publish fiction from 15,000 to 100,000.

  40. Avatar Bernita says:

    Steeleweed, Carina Press is most definitely NOT a vanity or semi-vanity press.
    I can assure you I am not paying them to publish my novel.
    ~feeling vaguely insulted~

  41. Avatar Anonymous says:

    In a few words: Way too short.

  42. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Evangeline & Bethany,
    I prefer longer books, because if I invest my money and time in a book, I want to completely be able to lose myself in the story and characters for a good length of time. I want the feeling a good book gives me to last as long as possible. And I know on a short book that isn't going to happen.
    And apparently there are lots of people that feel the same way. So from a publisher and agent's perspective they are going to want to appeal to the majority not the minority.

    For me reading is all about escape from the real world, and there is nothing better than getting off work knowing that wonderful book you started reading is going to be there for you when you get home. Everytime you try a new book you never know what is waiting for you. So at the least, a book should last a few days for me.

  43. Avatar Mira says:

    These comments are interesting. I expected everyone to say they wouldn't read a novella – not long enough.

    Maybe e-books are the perfect place for shorter fiction – Personally, I'm not one for short stories, because I like to settle in (although I like to write short stories) but a novella is perfectly fine for me.

    But there may be a readership for short stories, too.

    This is really interesting – thanks.

  44. When I'm choosing a book I look at the back cover but if the book is too thin I pass. I read to fast and want a book that lasts. 33,000 words? I'd finish that in a day…then what would I read?
    On another note:
    Next foster pup comes Sunday. She and her littermates were dumped in a high-kill shelter in NC. I heard she was a shepherd mix with short legs. hmmmmm, getting a visual…

  45. I like books of all lengths. In fact, I someetimes get annoyed that every single book is 300 pages.

  46. I would read a novella. I wouldn't buy one.

    When I commit to paying for entertainment, I'm also committing to engaging my mind in it, and the pay-off I get for doing so is relevant to whether I lay down the dollars.

    A novella is too light-weight a reward to overcome my psychological resistance to coughing up cash, even if that novella is priced appropriately.

  47. I'd only read it if it were included in a similarly themed collection. Is the writer sure the story is finished?

    I'd suggest the author re-read to see if one or more of the characters might have more to say…. or show!

  48. Avatar ellisonblog says:

    I wouldn't read it. I like a book with a more developed characterization (particularly if there is a strong romance element.)

    I don't like short stories or anthologies either for this reason.

    Oh, and I write romantic suspense.

  49. Avatar ellisonblog says:

    I forgot to add: anyone who uses the term "with its weight in gold" would be an automatic form rejection for me, for at least two reasons.

    1. It's cliche.

    2. No, it isn't.

  50. Your original question was whether 33,000 words packs the punch we look for and the answer is yes. I am thinking of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novel (some call it a novella but it's officially a novel) Memories of My Melancholy Whore which is only 137 pages and even though I have never read a traditional "romance" book, I would consider this romantic and wow…it clobbered me with its beauty and punch.

  51. Avatar Carol Ann says:

    I read short stories and novella length in ebook format only. I wouldn't purchase a print book of that length. However, I LOVE my Kindle and I will read all length novels on it. I believe there is a market in epub for these shorter lengths.

  52. Avatar Jenna says:

    Yanno, there are some awards given out which have categories for novellas and novelettes. Like the Hugo and Nebula awards, for example.

    I know that modern publishing says that they can't justify the costs associated with such a small book, but I can't help but realize that my 2 favorite books check in at 27k and 21k! And I've bought them both multiple times. And yes, they are printed as whole books.

    Granted, these were released 1976-78ish, but the point is still there. So is the market, even though publishers can't afford to print it.

    Of course, if some of the antiquated systems which publishers used were brought up-to-date, then they might save enough money to print quite a few novellas. But that's another topic. 😉

    I wouldn't try to snag an agent using a novella. However, I would certainly give my preexisting agent a novella to handle if she thought she could find an anthology for it.

    Of course, I'm saying all this while I have a 55 page hardbound cookbook / entertaining book in my hands. Sometimes, there are exceptions.

  53. Avatar Uma says:

    I think it can work, I hate rambling novels.

  54. Well, novellas can't be that bad or Diana Gabaldon wouldn't have received $10million for her three John Grey novellas.

  55. I forgot to add I would read anything in novella size providing it was written well, and it doesn't matter in what specific genre either.