Novella As A Series: An Easier Road For First Time Authors

You probably found this article because you are working on your first book. You are likely looking to push past 80,000 words, 100,000 or possibly over 300,000 for a final draft. I imagine your book is consuming much of your time. No matter you say. It will all be worth it because you’re going to hit it out of the park.

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How can you be so sure that your large investment in time and effort will pay off? After all, you’ve never done this before.

What if I told you there are fairly successful and fundamental business principles that you can apply right now to increase your books’ chances of success? However, it will require writing a different kind of book. Would you do it?

Smallest Possible Product

What exactly are these principles you ask. Let’s first get on the same page. Authors are entrepreneurs. Your book is a product. As a first time author, you don’t know if your book is going to sell because you don’t have any readers or customer base.

In this case, many new businesses will make a minimal product rather than going full tilt with months of production. This smaller version of their full product is called a minimal viable product or MVP. The MVP allows the company to put a smaller, working version of their product in front of customers. Customers try out the product and provide feedback. Not only is the company testing to see if there is a market, they’re also gathering customer feedback, which will allow them to better gauge interest and direction of the product. How does an author make use of this concept?

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The Series

Rather than stamping out a 100,000 plus word novel, consider turning it into a series. At 100,000 words, you have four or five good novellas. A novella is smaller than a novel but larger than a short story. Because you only need around 10,000 to 20,000 words, you can get your product into customers’ hands and begin getting feedback with less time and effort than writing a novel.

hughhoweycroppedtransJust as a new company with a new product is in a high risk category, as a first time author, you’re in the same boat. Starting with a novella lets you find your audience quicker and decide if you should add more books to the series or not. If your first book proves successful, you can begin work on book two. Based on feedback from book two, you can decide on a third book. Since you already had a novel length idea in mind, you have a great framework for a series.

I contacted Hugh Howey to get his opinion on writing a series vs a novel as a first time book. Hugh is a self-published author whose book Wool, has sold over 300,000 copies. He had some great insights to share.The success of Wool taught me the value of writing a wide variety of stories and waiting for the market to indicate what I should write more of. When I saw Wool take off a little over a year ago, I dropped what I was doing and followed up the story with sequels. It was the best move I ever made. The combined novel has now sold nearly half a million copies and has been picked up in two dozen countries.

After Wool, I plan on writing more shorts to gauge reader interest. I believe it’s a great way for aspiring authors to break onto the scene and a great way for established authors to choose what to write next. It also provides practice for completing projects and getting them published.

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The Pivot

As Hugh mentioned, getting a shorter book out lets you gauge interest. If the interest isn’t there, you don’t waste time and effort on a series that no one is going to read. More importantly, you don’t end up writing a whole novel that has no readers.

JoannaPennTRANSIf you put your book out there and it doesn’t make any sales, what next? Did your idea just go poof? Not exactly, this is where the pivot comes in. When a company builds a product that they later find out no one is interested in, they take any lessons learned and start a new, different product. This is called pivoting. The concept is to know as quickly as possible if you need to create a different product or not.

I also contacted Joanna Penn, of the thecreativepenn.com, to get her ideas on writing a novella. Joanna is a self-published author and entrepreneur. In this article, Joanna had the following to say about writing novellas:The novella business model = spreading the bets. I am increasingly drawn to this because:
1. length is no issue with an ebook
2. it means more output in a shorter time and more product on Amazon means more chances to catch people’s attention
3. the story arc of a novella is shorter and since I am someone who puts in serious amounts of research I will be able to write faster
4. blending novellas in between full-length novels means my readers are happier, and perhaps I can grow a fan-base more quickly

Slicing It Up

How exactly do you turn a novel or novel idea into a series? Consider cutting up your novel into 10,000 to 20,000 word sections. Each section should be a story that can stand on its own. But the ending should leave a few questions that you can answer in a follow up book.
By the time you are ready to publish book two, you already have a good idea on price points from book one.

When a new company creates a new product, there are no guarantees it will succeed. The same is true for a first time author. However, the process does become a little more predictable and less risky as your readers, publications and experience increase. By creating a minimal product (i.e., novella), you are able to decrease an already risky situation and improve your chances of producing a successful product.

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11 Comments

  • Suzanne Main

    Reply Reply February 14, 2013

    Some fantastic food for thought here. I have just started a novel and I will keep this in mind as an option.

  • Mars Dorian

    Reply Reply February 14, 2013

    Brilliant article, luv the descriptive image as well.
    I think you’re spot on – Hugh Howey writes a lot of shorter stuff in-between,
    ranging from the 25,000 to 40,000 word range. Not only allows it to gauge interest (like you said) I think it also welcomes today’s reading attention. A 100,000 novel or more can deter a lot of readers, as they’re cautious with their time and don’t want to spend on the next big (non)fiction.
    But something that’s half the size or even less, you can consume it in a few hours and see if that’s something you want to spend more time on.

    • Brett

      Reply Reply February 14, 2013

      Hi Mars,

      I agree. As mobile devices continue to increase in market share, shorter reads such as the novella will become more popular. I do believe screens larger than most smart phones (i.e. iPad mini and Galaxy) will also become prevalent in the future.

  • Rashmee Roshan Lall

    Reply Reply February 14, 2013

    But most agents and publishers say they don’t want novellas. Presumably, the novella model is aimed mainly at the e-book market?

    • Brett

      Reply Reply February 14, 2013

      Hi Rashmee,

      Yes – novellas work well for self-publishers as the turn around is quicker. You can get your product on the market much faster than going through a middle man. Many agents look for something over 85,000 with a first-time author, which rules out novellas.

  • susankayequinn

    Reply Reply February 15, 2013

    Each section should be a story that can stand on its own.

    This is critically important IMHO and should be bolded and set off in large type. Readers don’t want just a few chapters, they want a STORY. If you can deliver the goods in a short piece that leaves them wanting for more (as Hugh did), then this is a viable model.

  • Roberto Lebron

    Reply Reply February 15, 2013

    Following this proposition further would suggest that writing short stories, which could be marketed through Amazon Shorts, for example, would be even better. Your thoughts?

    • Brett

      Reply Reply February 15, 2013

      Hi Roberto,

      Amazon Shorts requires that you already have a book published. I do think it is a good way to test ideas and hone in on your audience. wattpad.com is probably one of the best for first-time authors. You can get great feedback on your piece without suffering from possible bad reviews that you may otherwise get on Amazon.

  • Ian Hall

    Reply Reply February 16, 2013

    I’m traditionally and self published and although I began my novella series way before reading the article, I agree with most of what’s above. I had a huge tome of 250,000 words, halfway done, wasting my time writing it, never going to be published. In 2011, I chopped it down in size to about 150,000 words, and put the first part online; Caledonii: Birth of a Nation. (It’s a story of the Roman invasion of Scotland in 80AD) I actually just put it up on Amazon Kindle to store it somewhere… it began to sell. Not many copies, but enough for me to splash another 3 novellas out there, parts 2,3,4. Each is 30,000+ words, and I’m scratching the itch to write more and finish the story. Great idea. The world’s looking out for novellas.

    • Brett

      Reply Reply February 16, 2013

      Great comments Ian. Your series is non fiction? I will be putting another piece together using lesser known authors. If you are interested, send me an email.

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