Are you interested in writing a novella? Novellas are often discussed in the publishing world. They are both a great way to tell a less expansive story, and a flexible marketing asset that can be used as a lead magnet. But, what exactly is a novella? And how do you publish one? Keep reading for the answers to these questions and more.
What is a novella?
A novella is a work of fiction that’s shorter than a novel but longer than a short story. There’s no official length for a novella, but most are somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words and can be read in a day. But because there’s no official rule, what one reader, or publisher, might consider a novella, another might consider a novel.
Author Ian McEwan writes in The New Yorker that the novella is “long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.”
By some measures, novellas are less complex than novels, but there are plenty of novellas that achieve or even surpass the depth and complexity of longer works. The Stranger, by Albert Camus, for example, is a great work of 20th-century existentialism and is just 37,000 words.
There may be fewer characters or plotlines in a novella compared to a novel, simply because there is less time to introduce, develop, and resolve multiple storylines, but that doesn’t mean they are any less challenging to write.
Novella vs. novel
Novellas are shorter than novels, but there are forms of fiction even smaller than novellas. The word counts below are not official, but should serve as a guide.
|Type||Approximate word count||
|Novel||50,000+||Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
|Novella||20,000–50,000||Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri
|Novelette||7,000–20,000||Morality by Stephen King
The Vampyre by John Polidori
|Short story||1,000–7,000||“Henosis” by N.K. Jemisin
“How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar
|Flash fiction||Fewer than 1,000||“Like a Feather, Like Bone” by Kristi DeMeester|
|Micro-fiction||Fewer than 250||The writer Lydia Davis is famous for her works of micro-fiction. You can read five of them here.|
Can you publish a novella?
Novellas have been published for hundreds of years. It’s thought that the first novella was Libro di novelle et di bel parlar gentile (The book of tales and of lovely gentile speech), an anonymous work of Italian fiction from the 13th century. Called, at the time, a novellino. The Decameron, a collection of 100 stories that aren’t quite novels and aren’t quite short stories, was published in 1353 by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and is considered the first great novella.
Since the novella first appeared in Italian literature 700 years ago, writers of all origins, genres, and traditions have adopted the form. Some of the most famous writers in history have published novellas: Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Franz Kafka.
In fact, there are awards given to the best novellas published today, many of them famous and highly respected. The Hugo Award for the Best Novella, awarded by the World Science Fiction Society, and the Nebula Award for Best Novella, awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, both recognize the best science fiction works, and the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella is awarded to the best work of psychological suspense, horror, or dark fantasy.
Because there is no official rule for how long or short a novella must be, some of the works below may be considered by some to be novels, others may be considered novelettes or short stories. Such is the nature of the great novella debate.
|The Divorce||César Aira|
|The Stranger||Albert Camus|
|The House on Mango Street||Sandra Cisneros|
|The Awakening||Kate Chopin|
|Ship of Fates||Caitlin Chung|
|Notes from the Underground||Fyodor Dostoevsky|
|The Grownup||Gillian Flynn|
|The Old Man and the Sea||Ernest Hemingway|
|A Sleep and a Forgetting||William Dean Howells|
|We Have Always Lived in the Castle||Shirley Jackson|
|The Turn of the Screw||Henry James|
|The Awakened Kingdom||M.K. Jemisin|
|The Metamorphosis||Franz Kafka|
|You Should Have Left||Daniel Kehlmann|
|Chronicle of a Death Foretold||Gabriel García Márquez|
|Tokyo Ueno Station||Yu Miri|
|A Cup of Rage||Raduan Nassar|
|Lion Cross Point||Masatsugo Ono|
|Grief Is the Thing with Feathers||Max Porter|
|The Hole||Hye-Young Pyun|
|The President’s Room||Ricardo Romero|
|Bonjour, Tristesse||Françoise Sagan|
|Carmilla||Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu|
|Of Mice and Men||John Steinbeck|
|Journey Into the Past||Stefan Zweig|
|First Love||Ivan Turgenev|
|The Jewel and Her Lapidary||Fran Wilde|
How to write a novella
Writing a novella has its advantages. This kind of short fiction presents an excellent opportunity to experiment with form and style. It might be difficult to sustain a prose poem for 300 pages, but 150 pages may be possible.
One of the best ways to write a novella is to simply let it happen, and there are all kinds of ways you might arrive.
You may set out to write a novel and realize the story you’re telling is shorter than you imagined. You may set out to write a short story and realize it’s longer than you imagined.
Perhaps you write 50,000 words on your first draft, but by your third edit, the story is only 30,000. If that’s what feels right, that’s what feels right.
Cultivate your characters
Great fiction requires great characters. Even though the characters in your novella will occupy less space than they would if they appeared in a novel, their development is just as important. Consider writing out their backstories, including their motivations, faults, and virtues.
Because you have a limited amount of space in a novella, limit the number of characters as well. Tolstoy uses 559 characters in War and Peace—that’s too many for this form. For a novella, one to two central characters and fewer than 10 characters overall is a good rule.
Map your plot
Novellas may be shorter than novels, but this doesn’t mean they have to be shallow. Like any work of fiction, it’s a good idea to map out the story you’re going to tell. You might do this on a whiteboard, a piece of paper, or on sticky notes you can move around.
If you want to trim a novel-length manuscript to a novella, limit the story to only one subplot, one setting, or a short period of time.
Get feedback: hire an editor or ask a friend to read it
When you feel like you can’t make it any better on your own, show it to someone. Hire an editor from a site like Reedsy to get an impartial evaluation, or ask a friend or fan to read it and give you feedback.
If you’ve got more to say, keep going
If one wasn’t enough, write a series of novellas. Not only can you publish them individually as you write them, you can later publish a complete collection of the series.
How to sell a novella
Choose a (self) publisher
Self-publishing is a great option for those who want to go to market faster and keep more of the profits.
Selling a novella has its advantages too. If you choose to self-publish your novella, it can be cheaper to print your book because it has fewer pages. If ebooks are your preferred format, it can be easier to sell a shorter book to those who don’t want to read 80,000 words on an e-reader.
Check out our resources for self-publishing your book.
Alert your readership
You don’t have to identify your book as a novella, but it does have its advantages. Some readers prefer shorter works. One of the best ways to let your readers know about your new book is to get on social media and slide into their inboxes. (Learn how to build an email list.)
You can pitch your new book to readers as:
- A new title by Lillian Bridges you can read this weekend / in a single sitting
- A quick new read for your book club
- Knock another book off your TBR this weekend
Don’t forget to ask your readers for reviews!
Contact book clubs
Another way to sell your novella and win new readers is to contact book clubs about your new release. You can find clubs interested in your form or genre at local bookstores, libraries, or through a quick Google search.
Reading might be in-person or virtual. You can partner with a local bookstore or library to host a reading, or make an appearance at one of the book clubs who read your novella.