Is that unusually short book you just bought a novella or a novel? What’s the difference? Can you market any brief work of fiction as the world’s shortest novel? Maybe. Here’s how.
Let’s begin with a video of Danish band Týr performing the song “Ragnars Kvæði,” based on a traditional Faroese ballad about a seventh-century king.
Now, let’s take a look at badass Viking metal group Týr. Straight out of Ragnarok and known for a ruthlessly melodic and irresistibly compelling sound, sung in the sword-swinging, skull-crushing ancestor-language of the Vikings, Týr’s “Ragnars Kvæði” is the hardcore music of magic runes, merciless plunder, and jacked-up warriors in furs chasing shield-maidens over towering mountains that would scare Thor himself. This is the stuff renegade Klingons would listen to!
It’s all about how you sell it. Welcome to the world of marketing.
I’ve been fascinated by this video for weeks. Coincidentally (or not? Is it the hand of Odin at work?), I recently found myself involved with an as-yet unpublished book that analyzes the text of Old Norse sagas, the very subject matter sung about in Viking-worthy Faroese in the Týr music video.
Just as we saw in the two descriptions of the video, there are two ways this book could be marketed, which is the business world’s fancy way of saying “promoted to potential consumers.” The first would sell no copies, but it’s strictly honest. The second might turn the book into a best-seller, but it bends the truth. Hard.
This second way is how books are marketed in the twenty-first century.
Before becoming a full-time author, I worked in the marketing department of a book publishing company. I was the person who wrote the plot synopsis found on the back cover, inside flap or Amazon listing of that new book you’ve been thinking about reading. You thought the author wrote it, right? Nope! The publisher’s marketing department writes the book’s description with one goal and one goal only: to entice you to buy the book, and buy it now.
All too often, however, the book-describing flunky is given little to no information about the book in question; if they’re lucky, they get a cryptic verbal explanation of the unfinished product courtesy of the editorial department months before the book is ready to be printed and sold. I’ve written dozens upon dozens of flowery descriptions of books I’ve never read, maybe accurate in the end, maybe wildly wrong. As long as it gets readers to buy the book, the publisher is happy. Now you know why so many of your favorite books have strange summaries that sound nothing like the way the author writes.
Which brings us to the latest book under consideration for world’s shortest novel: Master of Miniatures by Jim Shepard.
Going off just the book description, I had no idea what this book is. Nor what the author thinks this book is. Nor, critically, what the publisher thinks this book is. In short, the marketing for this book is as weak as any I’ve ever seen. The back-cover description consists of two “author blurbs.” These are the gushing quotes praising a book and/or its author that you often find tagged on the back or first pages of a new release. The more famous the author “blurbing” the book, goes the conventional marketing wisdom, the more likely the reader is to buy. “Well, if Stephen King likes it, it must be great!” they believe you will say to yourself.
Offering a few ambiguous, laudatory blurbs by authors your reader probably hasn’t heard of is the second laziest type of book description. The laziest is to simply print an excerpt from an “intriguing” section of the book, without comment or qualification.
I wondered about this choice until I found out more about the publisher of Master of Miniatures. Described in 2011 by Poets & Writers magazine as a “two-person indie publishing operation,” Solid Objects launched with the publication of Shepard’s book, originally titled Gojira, King of the Monsters. Nearly a decade later, the company has produced only 12 titles, one of which was written by one-half of the two-person operation. About the extremely short length of Master of Miniatures, Poets & Writers quipped, “you won’t often find a commercial publisher putting resources behind so few pages.” The modest marketing effort suddenly makes sense.
Marketing aside, the story itself and Shepard’s writing are consistently strong.
Master of Miniatures is the origin story of Japanese monster Godzilla. But it’s not the sort of origin story you’re expecting. Instead of a tale of the beast’s radioactive rise from the depths of the sea, Shepard tells the story of how cinematic special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya created the iconic monster in the mid-1950s — and the toll his workaholism took on his family. The story see-saws between Tsuburaya’s high-pressure job designing never-before-attempted movie effects on an extremely tight deadline, the quiet hostility of his neglected wife, and memories of the disasters — both natural and man-made — that marked his youth.
The narrative plays with the notion that creativity requires cruelty. To achieve artistic greatness, Tsuburaya believes he must sacrifice his family; not in a dramatic fashion, but via the very twentieth-century concept of benign neglect. Shepard offers no easy answers, no earth-shattering epiphanies for his hero. By the end of the book, Tsuburaya is simultaneously contrite and consumed by ideas for the sequel to the Godzilla film.
Master of Miniatures is a good piece of literature — a good “product.” Good products are inherently marketable. But how should it be marketed? Is this product a short story or a novel?
Online sources will tell you the book is 56 pages, but that’s incorrect. The book is really 49 pages, generously margined, and possessed of a word count estimated at 12,700. That certainly puts it in world’s shortest novel territory, as we’ve seen when we explored “How Long Should a Novel Be?” The narrative is complex, covering a number of years and incidents in Tsuburaya’s life. And there’s nothing about the format in which it was published that would suggest it’s meant to be read as anything other than a novel.
Could I sell Master of Miniatures as the shortest novel ever written?
To answer that, let’s circle back to the Viking metal band, the book of Old Norse sagas, and what it would take to conjure a best-seller out of thin air. I was given as much information about the saga book as I ever got during my days in the publishing company marketing department. Here’s what I was told:
Some guy enlisted a 13-year-old girl to type up a handwritten manuscript of his in which he analyzes some Old Norse sagas. He asked the teen to do this because he’s in prison and she’s his cousin. He wrote the book to pass the time while serving his sentence in the entertainment-poor hoosegow. He has, to my knowledge, no expertise in literary analysis whatsoever and is in no way an authority on the history, mythology, or origins of Norse sagas. Even so, some publisher that I strongly suspect is a predatory vanity press is “interested” in the manuscript, but refused to accept a handwritten text for consideration (reasonable). So our prisoner/author mailed the manuscript to “somebody” who scanned it for him, then emailed it to the kid to type because she’s “fast.”
Nobody will buy this book.
And now, let’s pretend all that info was conveyed to me during one of the editorial department’s monthly presentations to the sales and marketing departments back during my Ye Olde Publishing Companye Days. What could I even do with that? It’s important to note that I haven’t read a word of the book; it’s not even done. But these were the usual conditions I was working under.
Well, how about this:
Thor. Odin. Loki. Your favorite characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are back as you’ve never seen them. Get ready for the origin story of the heroes of Asgard, as only someone who’s been to Valhalla and back can tell it. In this inspiring look at the thrilling sagas that made men into warriors, author [whatever the heck his name is] shares how the Viking way of morality, mysticism and magic led him from a life of crime and incarceration to hope. Join him on a journey of spiritual discovery and high adventure that will change your life forever.
So, the answer to the question, “Is Master of Miniatures the shortest novel ever written?” is “Yes. If we sell it that way.”
Lysol was marketed as a feminine hygiene product and contraceptive up until the 1960s. Things are what the ads tell us.
Feeling cynical yet?
Be sure to check out my extremely short novel (or extremely long short story?) The Drowned Town. Right now, it’s free to download and read. What do you think? Is it really a novella, a short story, or something else?
Next up: Scars on the Soul by Françoise Sagan.