A Brief History of Publishing, and Story Lengths

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Editing and Writing
* A Brief History of Publishing
* Story Lengths
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“An artist discovers his genius the day he dares not to please.” French novelist Andre Malraux

“The secret of fiction writing is to have fun with it, do the best job you can, write only what you want to write, and then release and do it again.” Dean Wesley Smith

Editing and Writing

For anyone new to the Journal, I post a new edition on most days, but not all. Sometimes I just don’t have anything to say, other than reporting my numbers, which most Journal readers probably skip.

Yesterday, for example, I didn’t post a new edition of the Journal. That doesn’t happen often, but occasionally.

I’m primarily a novelist. I love the deeper exploration of the longer form. But I did write a new short story the day before yesterday titled “The Mahogany Sea.” It’s a magic realism tale based on an inlaid-wood picture I bought somewhere.

I was going to put Gervasio Arrancado’s name on it (my magic-realism persona) but the POV character mentioned one of Gervasio’s stories in the text, so I claimed authorship for myself.

Then, since I hadn’t done any editing at all (yeah, I blew off my new schedule) I spent all day yesterday editing and writing this Journal entry. So here it is. (grin)

A Brief History of Publishing

The tradpubs stood up with mass-market paperbacks in the post-WWII 1940s. Before that, if you can wrap your writer’s mind aroung this, there were no novels padded out to meet an artificial length requirement.

And any length requirement is artificial. Just sayin’. Let the story be whatever length it needs to be. (See “Story Lengths” below for a guideline for what to call a story after you’ve finished it.)

At first, the tradpubs’ artificial requirement was 50,000 to 60,000 words for the typical novel. Today, depending on genre, the reqirement ranges anywhere from 50,000 words (Romance, Westerns, SF) to well over 100,000 words (Thrillers, Epic Fantasy, and pretty much everything else).

And get this: Before the tradpubs stood up, most short stories and novels (some serialized) were published in the pulp magazines of the 1920s through the 1950s. Most books that were published separately as novels were — wait for it — self-published, no stigma attached.

(The “stigma” re self-publishing was also invented by traditional publishers to set themselves up as self-appointed gatekeepers, again, out of sheer greed.)

That era before the tradpubs stood up was called The Golden Age of publishing. Fiction writers wrote whatever they wanted to write in whatever genres they wanted to write in, and they did it all on clunky manual (and later, electric) typerwriters!

Time was money. The more stories and novels they churned out, the more money they made. They generally made 1 cent per word. Many became millionaires.

They were writing into the dark, letting the story unfold as they typed and letting the characters simply be who they were.

Beginning in about 2011 with the advent of ebooks, we entered a second Golden Age. Just like before the tradpubs stood up and proclaimed themselves gatekeepers, we can again write whatever length we want in as many genres as we want, and we can publish straight to readers and let their personal taste decide what they like or don’t like.

We no longer have to cross our fingers and rub our lucky charm and hope to satisfy some 20-something freshly minted English major who’s being paid minimum wage to read slush piles in New York.

If you are or want to be a professional fiction writer and you aren’t writing your fingers to the bone and publishing ebooks regularly (and by regularly, I mean ever month or two or three), you’re missing an extremely obvious boat. Plus publiction to paper is available through print on demand (POD) services.

Writing fiction should never be labor, or drudgery of any kind. If you’re passionate about writing fiction, I strongly recommend you follow Heinlein’s Rules.

Then just have fun and enjoy the journey.

Story Lengths

This feeds directly off the History above.

First, the only difference in the short story and the longer forms is that the short story is about One Event.

  • Flash fiction is generally up to 100 words, including the title.
  • The short-short story is about one event and is usually up to 2,000 words in length.
  • The short story is about one event and is usually 2,000 to 7,999 words.
  • The novelette is simply a short story (again, about one event) that runs 8,000 to 14,999 words.
  • The novella is about two or more interwoven or interrelated events and runs from 15,000 to 24,999 words.
  • The short novel is 25,000 to 44,999 words
  • The novel is 45,000 to 79,999 words.
  • The long novel is 80,000 words or more.

Disclaimer: The above are story lengths I assigned based in large part on what was going on before the tradpubs reared their greedy heads.

If you look for story lengths at professional writing organizations online, you will find that most of them disagree with me. So do many writers, primarily because they’ve been brainwashed with tradpubs’ “requirements” (see the History above).

But the antiquated lengths they quote are all based on the tradpubs’ price points. A novel had to be a certain lenth or a certain number of folios in order to maximize their profits. Of which, by the way, they paid those who wrote the novels in the first place only pennies on the dollar.

I was traditionally published with nonfiction books on writing and poetry collections long before I started seriously writing fiction. The publisher offered me 6 cents on the dollar, then 7 cents after some discussion. I held out and got 10. Even that was truly bad math, but the second Golden Age hadn’t started yet.

Today, I receive a minimum of 70 cents on the dollar, and I receive 80 cents on some. On books I sell directly from my publisher site at StoneThread Publishing, I do better than that even with a discount.

Just sayin’. You do the writing, and you should be paid more than a pittance for it.

As I told a youngster at a writer’s conference one time, Do you know what writers would do if there were no editors or publishers?

They would write.

But do you know what editors and publishers would do if there were no writers?

You want fries with that? (grin)

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

Write Only For Yourself

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 850

Writing of “The Mahogany Sea “ Based on an inlaid-wood picture

Day 1…… 3182 words. To date…… 3182 (done)

Fiction for September…………………… 57362
Fiction for 2023………………………… 209671
Fiction since August 1………………… 114911
Nonfiction for September……………… 20590
Nonfiction for the year……………… 195060
Annual consumable words………… 398079

2023 Novels to Date……………………… 4
2023 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2023 Short Stories to Date……………… 6
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 75
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)… 234
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

8 thoughts on “A Brief History of Publishing, and Story Lengths”

  1. Can I get a “Hallelujah” for this post? Freedom from imposed length requirements may be the best thing about the New Golden Age.

  2. publiction – noun. a newly coined terminology used by independent writers to indicate ownership of their intellectual property upon publication; eg. a typo contraction of public-fiction. Also possibly a back-formation of public and infliction.

  3. Great article though, sir.

    Ha ha, ya. I won’t take all the credit. It is your word or typo. “Plus publiction to paper” (grin)

  4. Hey Harvey, good post as always. I did wonder though if you meant 1,000 words for flash fiction, instead of 100, which might be more of a micro fiction length?

    • Thanks for the comment, Todd, and the question. But nope. First time I heard of flash fiction, the term “micro-fiction” hadn’t come around yet. Flash fiction is anything up to 100 words, including the title. It’s a great form if you want to see Character, Setting, Conflict and Resolution working in a small space. I liken it to watching four large fish swim in a 5-gallon bucket vs. a 100-gallon bucket (short story) or a pond or lake (novel). (grin)

      For an even greater challenge, there use to be a magazine (might still be) devoted to “55 Fiction.” Every story had to contain those four elements and be exactly 55 words, again, including the title. Of course, when you write that tightly, much is implied. One of my 55-word flash fiction stories (“At Confession”) was actually adapted into a film, and then into another film later. Great fun.

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