Novellas that go to infinity and beyond

Lee Harris (Photo credit Steven Meyer-Rassow)
Lee Harris (Steven Meyer-Rassow)

Naturally, the people who tell us about intergalactic travel and robot romance have no fear of newfangled publishing formats. After all, the Web, the e-book, the hyperlinked novel — they’re all science fiction come true. And science fiction readers have been some of the most passionate early adopters.

One of the biggest planets in this solar system is Tor.com, an online publisher of science fiction and fantasy with  1.5 million readers a month. It recently announced plans for a new imprint — called the Imprint — to focus on selling novellas, a literary form that’s often been lost in space.

The leader of that mission will be newly appointed senior editor Lee Harris, formerly of the British publishing house Angry Robot. “There isn’t a day when I don’t wake up and look forward to getting to the office,” he says. “That’s largely because I not only get to meet and work with my heroes, but I get to read brand new talent — the heroes-to-be of my 6-year-old daughter’s generation — and I have the privilege of helping to launch their careers.”

At his new post at the Imprint, he says, “We’ll be looking to publish commercially attractive fiction, of course, but we fully intend to publish only those stories that excite us.”

In addition to reviving the novella, the Imprint also plans to create a better, more transparent financial arrangement for authors. Writers will be able to choose between an advance or a higher percentage of each sale. Titles will be offered as e-books (without DRM), print-on-demand and audiobooks.

The shift from bound paper to free electrons doesn’t erase the need for eye-catching design. Harris says that the Imprint’s art director, Irene Gallo, will “commission covers that are just as astonishing as the ones she has been commissioning for the last two decades.” (He’s currently looking to hire a publicity manager and marketing manager.)

Harris rejects my claim that novellas are the lonely stepchildren of literature. He points to “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Time Machine” and two recent favorites: “Whitstable,” by Stephen Volk, and “The Language of Dying,” by Sarah Pinborough — “all firmly camped within novella territory.”

But he concedes that “it’s often harder to sell a novella in-store these days than a novel. It’s tempting to view a 544-page epic fantasy at $7.99 as better value than a 160-page book at the same price. But there are plenty of readers — myself included — who enjoy the opportunity to consume literature in healthy snack-sized chunks.” He notes that the e-book platform — such as his new Imprint — is particularly well-suited for stories too long for magazines and too short for traditional publishers.

Pressed to named some of his favorite authors, Harris mentions Chuck Wendig, “one of the most exciting new talents out there”; Kameron Hurley, whose “God’s War” “shows how good a debut novel really can be; and Ramsey Campbell, “the best author working in the horror genre for decades.”

Considering shorter fiction, he praises Joe Hill, Robert Shearman, Catherynne M. Valente, Kij Johnson, Aliette de Bodard, N.K. Jemisin. “And there are so many others,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time to be working in genre.”

Nevertheless, he admits, “It is hard to get attention in the mainstream press.”

Then a thought: “Hang on — you work in the mainstream press. Let’s do lunch.”

Resistance is futile.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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