Dirt: We need more novellas
Daisy Alioto thinks the publishing industry is leaving sweet IP money on the table.
I don’t need to tell you that everything is intellectual property now. The only way to make a sizable creative living is to be several steps ahead, imagining the inevitable adaptations (and extractions of value) your work will produce. Your novel being translated into Italian? Great! Your novel being translated into HBO promotional copy? Even better.
We live in an attention-based economy. Bitcoin is an attention-based currency. Streetwear is an attention-based aesthetic. Politics is attention-based nation-building. There are two ways to take advantage of this: go long, or go short. Game of Thrones goes long. The “Snyder Cut” goes long. Quibi went short, and we all know how that worked out, but TikTok shows that going short can suck up quite a lot of attention indeed.
On the day that Victoria’s Secret finally killed the “Angels” that once fluttered the runway of their annual lingerie show, I watched a pre-taped fashion show on TikTok featuring the D’Amelio sisters and their Hollister collection, Social Tourist. The brand copy for Social Tourist exemplifies the ephemerality of attention and profiting off of it: “When it comes to this whole life thing, the journey is the destination.”
This isn’t word salad. It’s saying exactly what it intends to say. Attention doesn’t have an endpoint online, it simply is. For attention to abide, it needs something to latch onto. The fundamentals. Either character and conflict (a plot, an arc) or a mood and a vibe.
I thought the publishing industry understood this, but I am forced to conclude that they don’t. Because otherwise we would be SWIMMING IN NOVELLAS. (Publishers would literally rather put out a Don DeLillo “novel” in massive font than go to therapy.) A novella is where the attention span of the author and the reader intersect. Novellas have the fundamentals of a novel but generally take less time to write and read. If a short book is good, people will fork over the same amount for it as a longer book. Source: I bought Crudo at full price. (Meanwhile, Ploughshares Solos is paying $450 for 7,500-20,000 word works.)
Writers want to get paid for work that can be written over the course of 6 months with a day job. Readers want to be enriched and entertained. HBO wants the seed of a story that they will inevitably veer away from anyway. Spotify wants you to think they have something more intellectual than Joe Rogan. So why not serve every master? (I mean it’s one novella, Michael. What would it cost, one-fifth of a Zosia Mamet advance?)
All things being equal, a 100-page book with a $20,000 advance by a first time author has the same chance of being adapted as a 250-page book with a $50,000 advance.
But publishers are too busy betting big on the likes of American Dirt to bet “medium” on multiple books with an equal shot at being picked up by the modern attention algorithm. Publishers might engineer hits, but platforms have the final say. I’ve read the premium mediocre novels, I’d rather see genuine talent paid for the 35,000 words collecting dust in a drawer. — By Daisy Alioto