TOR’s sci-fi novellas aren’t just good for the publisher – they’re great for readers.
Over the past two years, publishers TOR.com have taken the sci-fi novella and made them an important part of their imprint. They’ve used a form some considered almost dead to put out fascinating new stories by great authors.
So what created this opportunity? How has TOR used it? And what sorts of great stories will you find in their sci-fi novellas?
The Death of the Novella
A novella lies somewhere between a short story and a novel. The definition varies depending upon which magazine or organization you listen to, but anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words – half of your average airport paperback – counts in many places.
Novellas have never been a huge proportion of publishing, and in recent decades they’ve vanished from most people’s awareness. Readers wanted full-length novels. Many wanted long series. Easy access to paperbacks saw short story markets, one of the homes of the novella, disappear from bookstores and newsagents’ shelves.
The sci-fi novella clung on at the fringes of science fiction and fantasy fandom. In the short story magazines with their ever-dwindling readership. In specialist releases from independent presses. In occasional bold experiments like Stephen King’s serialization of The Green Mile.
Then came e-books and the self-publishing revolution. Independent authors started producing novellas that they could sell cheaply on the Kindle. Some succeeded and some failed, just like novels. Without the restrictions of paperback distribution, they showed that there might still be a place for novellas.
As many thrifty readers may know, Amazon is a treasure trove of free or very cheap e-books available to read on your phone, Kindle, or online. However, due to the ease of self-publication, the treasure trove doubles as a garbage barge, piled high with bad alien porn and Twilight fan-fiction disguised as real books. It’s taken me years of being a poor college student to set my dignity aside and search desperately for free e-books that don’t suck, because sometimes as a book-addict, you gotta choose between another value-pack of Top Ramen [Click here to read more…]
TOR Takes on Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novellas
TOR is the only major sci-fi publishers to have tried this. In 2015, they grabbed the opportunity with both hands, announcing science fiction and fantasy novellas by over a dozen different authors. They planned to publish three or four novellas a month, pumping out a steady stream of short books.
From the start, TOR offered this as a form of reading for people with less time on their hands. Time is precious in the modern world, and we don’t always have the opportunity to sit down with a long book. TOR novellas would let people enjoy a whole story without having to commit a whole day to it.
Looking at what they’re doing, it’s easy to see the advantages for TOR and line editor Lee Harris. By moving aggressively to occupy the novella market, they’re stealing a march on their competitors and luring back readers who have moved to the indies. It provides regular work for authors they want to maintain relationships with, letting them foster a stable of talent that includes new writers like Kai Ashante Wilson and seasoned award winners like Seanan McGuire. It lets them compete strongly in the awards for best novella, adding prestige to their brand.
A Wide Range of Fascinating Stories
TOR sci-fi novellas aren’t just good for the publisher – they’re great for readers. With so many stories being produced, there’s a wide range of creative ideas and fascinating possibilities in this publishing line.
Even in the early releases, there was plenty of variety. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor explored first contact with cultures utterly unlike our own. Michael R. Underwood’s The Shootout Solution: The Genrenauts Episode One stepped through the quantum envelope to worlds defined by literary expectations. David Tallerman’s Patchwerk was a non-stop action sequence sliding through a stream of closely related realities.
Alongside the science fiction, there have been fantasy novellas covering everything from sword and sorcery to fairy tales via caterers serving Manhattan’s demon population.
If you want to try something new, if you enjoy seeing lots of fresh concepts, or if you want a story that gets to the punch quickly, then these provide some great reads.
One-Shots and Novella Series
Within this, TOR has taken two different approaches to what novellas offer.
Some of the stories are one-shots. Patchwerk, for example, is a stand-alone adventure. At the start, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Dran Florrian, traveling on an intercontinental flight. We quickly encounter the device that will cause him so much trouble and the people who want to do him harm. From there, the book turns into an action spectacular.
Patchwerk relies on the novelty of its concept – a chase scene across alternate realities. It wouldn’t be enough to fill a whole novel, but it works perfectly as a novella, leaving readers wondering what will happen to the end.
On the other hand, there are the series’, such as Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour books, starting with Envy of Angels. Again, there’s a strong high concept – a catering company that serves special delicacies for demons. We’re thrown into this world and its wild consequences.
This time there are possibilities to explore and characters to develop. As a string of novellas, it becomes like the old penny dreadfuls or sci-fi TV serials, each episode capable of standing on its own, the separate parts letting readers explore the world in more depth.
As a way of reading more widely, sci-fi novellas are a great low-cost option. They’re often cheap to buy on the Kindle, letting you try something new for the price of a cup of coffee.
They’re also low cost in terms of time. Not sure about a story? For a 400-page book, that means you have to slog through hours of reading to find out if it was worth the effort. Not so with a novella. You can quickly find out if the author knows how to land an ending, then decide whether to try more from them.
There are still a couple of reasons to be cautious about the TOR’s sci-fi novellas.
Firstly, there’s the price for print editions. The extra costs of printing, shipping, and stocking mean that print books this length are over-priced compared with full-length sci-fi novels. If you don’t own an e-reader then these may not be for you.
The other issue is whether there’s enough of a market for these books. After a couple of years, TOR is still looking for novella submissions, so presumably they’re making a profit on these books. Whether readers really are after something shorter, or whether most will revert to full-length novels, remains to be seen.
For now, TOR’s line of novellas offers you a great chance to try new sci-fi and fantasy by a wide range of authors.