Have you ever gone into a used book store looking for old fantasy or science fiction? You look through all the old paperbacks and all that stuff that was written in the 1970’s and thereabouts are nice concise reads of around 180 to 250 pages. Fast forward to 2012 and you walk into a new bookstore and see ALL the stuff written in the past few years in the fantasy/sci-fi market are a bloated 400 pages or so in length. This was something that jumped right off the shelf and bit me. Every book seemed a plump clone with different cover art.
When did this start happening and more curiously, why?
I don’t claim to have all the answers but I have noticed some things in my years of observation that I would suggest and invite any comments form other writers and readers that have a good insight on this topic.
The bottom line is that readers drive the market and not writers, at least as far as technology can deliver. Marketing and bookstores have some influence the way they present the product but if it isn’t what the reader wants, the market will eventually roll back to what the consumer demands.
With digital technology and cheaper printing equipment these days and the elimination of the traditional typesetter form the equation, it is simple to print thick books at a decent cost and not have to charge an arm and a leg for the product to recoup overhead. Right now, a writer can print-on-demand a small paper cover novel for about $3.25 – author’s cost. That tells me that providers such as Amazon’s Create Space probably have about $2.00 or so in time and materials. In today’s money, this is very cheap for a book that you are printing one at a time. Mass production really isn’t a big factor any more except for the publisher that has to cover his cost of editors, artists, and such.
If you consider “Lord of the Rings” is actually one book of 473 thousand words, not a trilogy as some say. It was written as one massive epic story. However, because it cost so much to publish books of that size in those days and especially because of limitations in wartime when it came out, the publisher decided to split the Middle Earth story into three parts to make it more cost effective to produce and market.
These days, yes, Lord of the Rings is still a bit hefty for one publication but you can find it in a single book if you look hard enough. But the effect that Tolkien’s world had on readers left many wanting for more. When writers such as Terry Brooks came around and began creating similar works to Tolkien and gave readers the epic feel they could immerse themselves into, his more epic style began to catch on and take over fantasy in the 1980’s. Printing was getting a little more economical. Then as the digital age took hold around year 2000, book size was not as much as a cost factor any more. This meant more immersion into longer books that the public could afford.
The Decline of Short Stories
In the early part of the 20th century short stories in pulp magazines were very popular. This was because, in large part, pulp magazines could be produced in large quantities fairly cheaply for the amount of entertainment generated. The public loved this venue and writers focused a large part of their time to creating short stories to fill these periodical publications. Then when paperbacks came on the scene, many of the first published books were naturally collections of short stories and novelettes created for pulp magazines.
Authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft were prolific in their short story writing that carried over into the age of paperback. From there you had others like Michael Moorcock that bridged the gap with both shorter works combined into short novel-sized paperbacks, to novellas, and full fledged novels. But still, people were getting novels that were in the sixty to one hundred thousand word length, or roughly 180 to 250 pages. These were easy to typeset, simple to manage by authors on manual and electric typewriters, and to ship to stores to be set on a rack.
As people grew accustom to these mass produced fantasy and science fiction novels they grew to like them and people began buying books more than pulp magazines. Over time, the short story began to fade away and novels were the choice of the readers. Readers began imagining their favorite author’s universe as they would read. This immersion effect took hold and instead of buying long strings of short stories to achieve this effect, readers would live in an epic tale to explore every corner of the creator’s universe as long as there was a decent subplot or story thread that had a reason to take them there.
The Lord of the Rings took a long time to catch many reader focus but when it did by the 1960’s and 70’s, the fantasy novel was here to stay. These were longer than normal even in their three part division. The style that Tolkien used coupled with the influx of other authors started a new wave of fantasy and science fiction that attempted to infuse a “higher literary style” into the genre meaning more complex plot elements, more side stories with subplots going on, and so this was pushing the genre more and more away from the short story.
Sword of Shannara came along by Terry Brooks giving people that epic feel of Lord of the Rings and that opened the door for more LotR clones. Then when the technology was ripe, from word processors to digital printing, the novels began to grow. Publishers set pricing and standards at a higher mark capitalizing on more weight equals higher price and you won’t see a short novel any more. Some say the peak was in the early 2000’s and that word counts have fallen some but certainly not back to the post pulp days. There are those epic authors continuing to bang the drum like George R. R. Martin and his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series that ranges between 300 thousand and 450 thousand words per novel. Nevertheless, there seems to be a formula that sells just like the 90 to 100 minute picture show we see today with an occasional extreme epic thrown in.
Will the short story market ever come back? Perhaps if people get tired of the long drawn out epics they might come back to appreciate some of the old school masters and there could be a revival, however I haven’t seen much of a move in that direction. Fantasy has evolved into many different sub-genres. Old sword and sorcery is not as popular as it once was where the story focused on a single brooding or embattled hero. Nowadays you see more stories with multiple heroes and heroines working together or against one another in elaborately structured plots.
If there should come a medium to deliver stories in an attractive format, perhaps it might bring in new more casual fantasy readers that don’t read in long marathon stretches and can limit their focus to a single hero. We will have to see.
– by J.Wade Harrell,