Stephen King has, to date, published a jaw-dropping amount of novels and short stories; fifty-six of the former and nearly a dozen collections of the latter. Just let that sink in for a minute. Fifty-six novels. But in the midst of these, King has only published a small handful of novellas, the literary middle ground between his huge doorstops like The Stand and five-minute tales like 1408 and Children of the Corn. In the Afterword to his novella anthology Different Seasons, he explains why:
“I had gotten to a place where people were saying King could publish his laundry list if he wanted to… but I couldn’t publish these tales because they were too long to be short and too short to be really long. If you see what I mean.”
He describes the difficulty in trying to sell novellas to publishers, with only a few American magazines still accepting them, and then, typically, only literary novellas. King has no illusions about his writing, calling it “plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s”. But it illustrates a larger point. If one of the world’s best-selling writers had trouble finding a home for four of (in this writer’s opinion) the best stories he’s ever written, purely due to their length, what hope do the rest of us have?
The answer may lie in e-publishing. King eventually got lucky when his new editor accepted his proposal to tie four of his novellas together in a single collection, the success of this fuelling a few more novella collections over the course of his career. In recent years, however, following the rise of Kindles and e-books, King’s shorter fiction has taken a notably digital turn.
In 2000, King’s novella Riding the Bullet was released as the world’s very first mass-marketed electronic book. 400,000 copies were downloaded in the first 24 hours, crashing the hosting server multiple times. The novella was published in a collection (Everything’s Eventual) two years later, but some speculate it may have been a major flagship in the rise of e-books. Later that year, King released a full-length digital novel, The Plant.
2009 saw King release Ur to coincide with the release of the second generation of Amazon’s Kindle. Exclusively available through Amazon’s Kindle store, the story revolves around a writer’s purchase of an e-reader that can access books written in parallel universes – for example, four novels Hemingway wrote in a universe where he lived for three more years. Some aspects of the novella have led critics to label it as an ‘infomercial’ for the Kindle – something King denies. “I decided I would like to write a story for the Kindle, but only if I could do one about the Kindle,” he said. “Gadgets fascinate me, particularly if I can think of a way they might get weird. I had previously written about homicidal cars, sinister computers, and brain-destroying mobile phones; at the time the Amazon request came in, I’d been playing with an idea.”
Since Ur, King has published five e-books, four of them novellas. It’s no coincidence that his fiction of a certain length lends itself to being released in this way, considering the risks involved in marketing and selling physical copies of much smaller books in a world where ‘more is more’ is often the case.
In the aforementioned Afterword to Different Seasons, King referred to novellas as “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic”. If anything, though, he has proved that there’s still some life in the form yet – life that will no doubt continue to flourish as e-readers continue to dominate the literary market.