The Growth of Romance Novellas in the 2010’s
By Rachel Helman (2021)
Between the short stories of serials and the full length books on library shelves there lies a grey space, works too long to be put in an anthology or magazine but too short to merit the descriptor of novel. Novellas have had a rich and somewhat tumultuous history, one which has reached a new era with the increasing use of ebooks and the lowered cost of binding for shorter books. In particular, the mass market romance fiction industry has taken advantage of the growing feasibility of novellas as a profitable product in the past few decades. After the dip in popularity of novellas in the late 20th century, the form took off once more in the transformed publishing world of the 2010’s, authors, publishers and readers alike turning to novellas as a short, snappy fix to a romance craving. Here, we will explore the contributing factors to the growing popularity of romance novellas in this period: increased economic feasibility for publishers with the advent of digital publishing, advantages for authors, and increased demand from readers who are able to make their desires known to the market through modern media.
Defining the Novella in Romance
What, precisely, qualifies as a novella? In romance, any short work of between around 20,000 to 40,000 words qualifies as a novella, with novels being at least 45,000 words in length (Carr). As Susanna Carr, romance novelist and blogger, points out, novellas are a form of instant gratification, a quick injection of satisfying romance. Other authors also note the benefits of novellas, in particular the clarity of form the novella forces: “the demands of economy push writers … to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.” (McEwan). This can be particularly attractive to readers looking for a well written story that will not take an excess of pages to reach a satisfying conclusion.
Novellas in romance are enormously popular today. Goodreads has multiple lists for romance novellas, including lists specifically for M/M romance and historical romance (Goodreads). Publishers are aware of the appeal of novellas to romance fans — Avon Books even used the medium to create a crowdsourced romance novella with fans as early as 2006, firm in the knowledge that the novella is an appealing form for romance fans (Newitz). Many authors are able to roll out novellas fairly quickly, making them a good investment for established authors. Not only that, but novellas meet the needs of many modern readers – they are shorter, by necessity less complex, and they can explore specific storylines that the reader is interested in, such as side characters of an existing novel.
While novellas have, historically, been quite popular — Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men are all novellas that have reached classic status — they suffered a dip in popularity in the modern mass market. Gillian Redfearn, deputy publishing director of Gollancz, noted in 2013 that when novellas are typeset, they are normally much smaller than traditional novels. The average book buyer in a physical store may have considered the slim book a worse deal than a chunkier novel (Charman-Anderson 2013b). Plus, publishers often have had to charge less for the novella, slimming down profit margins.
Ebooks and the New Market for Novellas
However, in the 2010’s, a sea change occurred: between 2010 and 2019, sales of ebooks in the US increased over three-fold (AAP). Digital platforms remove much of the stigma from novellas — readers cannot as easily compare the length of ebooks as they can with physical copies. Some publishers used short stories and novellas to “trial” new authors, releasing their works for free as ebooks to test the waters for a potential paper copy, as was the case for romance author Colleen Hoover, whose novella was later released in print by popular demand (Gilmartin).
Some high profile romance authors jumped on board the novella with enthusiasm: all 10 of Beverly Jenkins novellas were published between 2010 and 2019, although another is expected to be published this year. Similarly, the thirteen Courtney Milan novellas on Goodreads were published between 2011 and 2019. Caroline Linden’s novellas, many of which are continuation novellas, were all written after 2010, with eleven written between 2011 and 2017. One of her novellas, Will You Be My Wi-Fi? Was nominated for a RITA Award (Goodreads). The success established romance authors such as Jenkins, Milan and Linden had early in the novella boom likely influenced newer entrants.
It was around this time as well that many major publishers developed digital imprints which published a growing number of novellas as e-books, likely in response to the positive response to novellas by known authors. In 2011, Avon Books announced its digital imprint, Avon Impulse, which started with an e-novella by Katherine Ashe. The announcement on Smart Bitches Trashy Books was met with comments which suggest a self awareness on the part of the romance community: one commenter, carly m. notes the influence of author Julia Quinn’s short story success on Avon’s move to online shorts and novellas (Sarah). The first titles released by Impulse were entirely novellas, short stories and anthologies. Harlequin’s Carina Press began publishing direct to digital in 2010 (Rooney). Random House brought back its Loveswept imprint as a digital only publisher in 2011 (“Random House”). An analysis of a list of 123 Carina Press releases found that 34% were tagged as novellas or anthologies of novellas, and that of the 91 books with lengths available on Goodreads, the average length was just 206 pages — the size of a short novel or long novella (Goodreads).
Industry research from the time also indicates a shift. The focus on shorter works of romance such as novellas and anthologies among growing e-book imprints is clear. As the report notes, “[experimenting] with lengths and forms is another of the similarities the digital imprints tend to share. In addition to full-length novels, short stories and novellas are part of most digital imprints’ list. Forever Yours, for example, has found novellas that introduce new characters and reacquaint readers with characters from previous novels sell well” (Milliot). These are the continuation novellas, which are further explored in later sections.
While digital publishing made novellas more popular and big name authors set the stage for an increased demand for the medium, traditional publishing also became interesting in the novella industry in the 2010’s.
Traditional Publishing and Novellas
Deputy publishing director Gillian Redfearn did suggest in the early 2010’s that there were advantages for authors to writing novellas. Publishers, Redfearn encouraged, were becoming increasingly open to shorter works – and submitting a novella could be just the thing to get an author’s name into the public eye (Charman-Anderson 2013a). According to Writing Tips Oasis, romance publishers such as Avon Romance, World Castle Publishing, Entangled Publishing, Carina Press (Harlequin), and Forever and Forever Yours were still seeking romance novellas as recently as 2018 (Cihodariu). Deena Drewis, an editor at publishing house Nouvella, noted in a 2018 interview that, “there will be more and more opportunities to publish [novellas]” (Smith). While self-publishing novellas is, of course, always an option for authors, the interest of major houses in the form speaks to a growing hunger for novellas in the romance fiction industry during the 2010’s.
Even writers saw the enormous potential of novellas. In 2016, popular fiction author James Patterson began a venture called “BookShots”, a series of novellas in a wide variety of genres, including romance. He believed that the shorter books would appeal to an audience of consumers used to social media and TV’s instant gratification. His BookShots would, in his mind, not be revolutionary, but rather a return to an American classic – after all, not as ebooks – Patterson believed there was a mass market for quick genre reads just waiting to be tapped in the grocery stores and drug stores of America. Judging from the demand for novellas from traditional publishers at that point in time, he may have been on to something. According to Publishers Weekly, BookShots sold 30,000 copies in its first week of sales, a fairly impressive showing for books with upper limits of 150 pages (Shea). BookShots are still around, although they are now limited to only thrillers and romance novellas, including pieces by Renee Carlino and Jessica Scott. The books are available through the BookShots website as well as at major bookstores like Barnes & Noble (Barnes & Noble).
Novellas from the Perspective of Authors
For authors, novellas have always presented a unique opportunity. For some writers, a novella is not so much intentional, but the result of an idea that simply runs its natural course in a length that is shorter than that of a novel (Smith). For others, novellas are a relief; as Redfearn noted, novellas are relatively easy to write in comparison to a full novel, and can be a way to avoid burnout. What is particularly interesting, however, is the place of continuation novellas in an author’s psyche. In a 2017 interview, famous romance writer Courtney Milan noted that her novellas and novels started the same way, but the plots differed: her novellas are strongly based around the character arcs of her main characters, while her full length novellas have more developed subplots. Her novellas were very streamlined, and tightly focused around the main characters (Grinnan 2017). That said, her novellas often were a continuation or prequel to her full length novels. The Governess Affair, for example, was a prequel to her Brothers Sinister series, while A Kiss for Midwinter and Talk Sweetly to Me were continuations in the series focusing on side characters. Her Worth series also features continuation novellas, notably featuring the increasingly popular fractional numbering system – Her Every Wish is 1½ in the series, The Pursuit Of… is 2½ , and Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure is 2¾ (Milan). The premise of an introductory novella is not uncommon in romance — four years after The Governess Affair was published, Shana Galen used a novella to kickstart her own Covent Garden Cubs series (Goodreads). Additionally, there is a tradition of Christmas novellas, short stories in an existing world that writers release ahead of the holiday season as a themed romance for readers. Based on an analysis of the continuation novellas released in the past decade, holiday novellas, and in particular Christmas themed novellas, are a lucrative and growing area for authors (Goodreads). Other continuation novellas often focus on side characters or loose threads of side plots. Famous authors such as Beverly Jenkins (Crystal Clear) and Caroline Linden (I Love the Earl) have written successful continuation novellas (Goodreads).
Opinions on Novellas from Readers
Continuation novellas specifically, and novellas more generally, are very popular among romance fiction readers. In the comments section of an ask on All About Romance, which called for suggestions of readers favorite romance novellas, there are 24 threads, of which 18 mention or discuss continuation novellas. Some of the commentary is very revealing: One commenter, Maria Rose, notes that, “a novella is a great length for me as I just don’t have the reading time I did when I was single – I’m lucky to squeeze in 30-60 min a day so novellas and category length stories are more my style,” supporting our theory that for the busy romance readers of the 21st century, novellas are far more digestible. Another commenter, june, says that, “None of these books need to be a full-length novel; they’re wonderful just as they are,” while oceanjasper adds “traditional publishing’s arbitrary page counts make many a romance a hard slog because the plot just doesn’t need 350-plus pages.” They support the evidence already noted that novellas are not short novels, but a form all of their own. Nan De Plume added that ebooks, in their mind, make novellas more accessible. A number of commenters, such as Chrisreader, noted that the characters from their favorite continuation novella either attracted them to the main series or were characters from the main series they particularly liked (Grinnan 2020). Further commentary from Goodreads posts supports a thesis that continuation novellas are popular partially as a way to explore undeveloped stories from full length novels (Goodreads).
From the perspective of readers in the 2010’s, novellas had a number of advantages. Normally, the books were priced lower than a full novel — as we have seen, they were even free sometimes. They were also shorter and more easily finished in the limited spare time busy readers had. Perhaps more vitally, though, novellas filled a niche. Romance novels often have subplots, which give rise to intriguing side characters. By nature, romance novels cannot explore the inner lives of these popular members of the chorus, leaving fans curious and hungry to know more. In the 2010’s, fans had the tools (namely, the internet) to let their hunger be known, and they used those tools to great effect. The side characters may not merit a full blown novel – or the author may not have the energy to write one just to satisfy eager fans – but they certainly can fit into a continuation novella that ties up loose ends in a HEA for the beloved characters. Additionally, novellas were often a venue for authors to test the waters with “riskier” material such as queer stories. One list of a reader’s favorite romance novellas from 2018 emphasises this point by including categories for specifically ace-spectrum representation and for polyamorous representation in novellas (Alexander).
Romance novellas’ popularity in the busy, fast moving world of the 2010’s should not come as a surprise — as James Patterson suggested in 2016, novellas were a perfect fit for a readership growing used to the instant gratification of social media and Netflix. However, blog posts from the time warn of the difficulty of getting novellas published; even when novellas were published, they were often offered for free to readers with no chance for profit (Charman-Anderson 2013b, Gilmartin). Despite the lack of incentive from some publishers, romance novellas enjoyed popularity in this period, partially by utilizing the increased use of ebooks as an avenue for publishing shorter works. The attraction of continuation novellas for readers already invested in an existing storyline ties back again to the needs of modern readers for “instant gratification” — there is limited added emotional and intellectual investment needed to continue reading in a story a consumer is already familiar with. That there is a high correlation between readers of full length novels by an author and novellas by the same author suggests an advantageous relationship — either reading novellas such as prequels increased the chances a reader would continue on with the rest of the full length (and full price) books, or reading the books inspired readers to pay for the comparably cheap-to-produce continuation stories. In any case, it is clear that novellas have reached yet another stage in their metamorphosing history — they are cheaper to produce and distribute than ever before for publishers, increasingly in demand from fans, and, as ever, popular to write among authors.
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