Short Novels Sell

After spending years revising my book, MARRIED SEX,  I was convinced that its 37,000 words had split the stylistic difference between James Patterson and James Salter—that this was as novel tight as a screenplay. No adverbs. Few adjectives. Only active verbs.  What Orwell called “prose like a windowpane.”

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Column by Jesse Kornbluth, debut author of MARRIED SEX
(Aug. 2015, Open Road Media). Jesse edits HeadButler.com,
a cultural concierge site. Follow him on his website or on Twitter

“I can’t submit this,” my agent said.  “It’s not long enough.”

“Is something missing?” I asked.

“No, but publishers can’t sell a book this short.”

“THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE is 116 pages. And it got published.”

“In the 1930s. Not now. Beef it up.”

(Will a literary agent search for you online after you query them?)

I added 4,000 words. MARRIED SEX is still 6,000 words shorter than THE GREAT GATSBY but at 41,000 words, it found a home, a movie producer optioned it, I wrote the screenplay, and as soon as we assemble a cast, someone will call “Action.”

But, I’m leaving something out: the 19 publishers who rejected the book, often because they wanted… more.

Publishing has been trying to commit suicide for all the decades I’ve been writing, and if it’s finally making progress on that project. One good reason is the belief that the public wants novels thick as doorstops. But they don’t. Readers who aren’t retired want two things. One is more time. The other is books that are worth reading. Books that aren’t just enjoyable, but necessary.

A book that takes over your life—that’s the book I want to read. And the book I want to write. My ideal reader for MARRIED SEX would open the novel as the plane lifts off from New York and finish as it lands in Los Angeles. And then that reader would text a friend: “You gotta read this book.” And that friend would read it, and tell another friend and so on.

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Leaving the heavy lifting to readers who become fans isn’t a luxury. The publicist at your publisher can focus on your book for no more than a few weeks. There’s no money to advertise your book. And as for making your book “go viral,” how, exactly, do you do that? Only one way: make the book as good as it can be, and grow the audience one missionary reader at a time.

Readers are impatient. A recent New York Times piece describes Jellybooks, a London-based analytics company that’s been hired by publishers to track reader behavior. In a test of 200 e-books, they found bad news: “Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them.” Publishers haven’t yet used the Jellybooks findings to re-consider the length of the books they publish—they mostly use the data to revise their marketing plans, usually downward.

On my website, I review as many as three books a week. Because I have my own books and movies to write, I simply don’t have time to consider long books — books that, as turns out, readers also don’t have time for. And, via Amazon, I help sell those books with my reviews. And they sell in impressive numbers.

(What does a literary agent want to see when they Google you?)

Not today, but eventually, publishers and writers will come to understand the importance of respecting and thrilling readers. As Bruce Springsteen once said, “All the hype in the world doesn’t matter as much as one kid telling another, ‘Man you shoulda seen that.’” That means books built like classic rock songs: three chords, a killer hook, over in a few minutes. Short books.

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