The Art of the Novella

NSThe novella has always been a difficult literary genre to sell, especially to publishers who reject them on the basis that they’re too short for their time – novels sell better, after all – and even when they are published, they’re often filed away with short stories in anthologies or collections. Even Stephen King, who once joked that he could ‘publish his laundry list if he wanted to’, had to publish four novellas in one collection to make them marketable.

The Art of the Novella was publisher Melville House’s attempt to make novellas a more widely-read medium. To test the water, they began by publishing five well-known authors’ novellas: Henry James’s ‘The Lesson of the Master’, Anton Chekhov’s ‘My Life’, Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Devil’, Edith Wharton’s ‘The Touchstone’ and a Herman Melville classic, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’. They were rebranded with monochrome covers, French flaps, and no blurb, quotes or annotations. The covers simple held the author’s name, the title of the book, and a quote on the back. They priced them at $9.00 and sent them out to the public.

Melville House’s move was met with a lot of scepticism. Many stated that this idea was ‘a very public form of suicide’ – or so the sales reps believed. No one expected it to go far. The books did begin to sell, however, and in large numbers. It became apparent that these lesser-known books by much-loved authors were incredibly popular, as customers snapped them up.

The general consensus was that these books sold because they were unpublished works from writers that had already built up large fan bases. Customers who had the entire collections from certain authors were finding novellas by them they had not read and did not own. They were already popular writers. The books, in a sense, sold themselves.

When Melville tried to do the same with lesser known authors, though, the sales decreased exponentially. They did not give up on the initiative, however. To this day they still publish a small group of novellas infrequently to keep the genre in the stores.

Another initiative is ‘HybridBooks’, a technological advance in terms of book writing. Each book is given bonus content, called ‘Illuminations’, that can be found from a QR code at the back of the book. It allows the reader to read on, past the book and into additional information, such as pictures, interviews and music. These interactive books could well be the future for contemporary novellas – or indeed, fiction in general.

Since Melville House created The Art of the Novella, other publishers have produced their own take on the series. Penguin Books’ Mini Modern Classics took its lead from Melville House’s success – will other publishers follow suit?

The Art of the Novella can be found at  http://www.mhpbooks.com/series/the-art-of-the-novella/

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