In 2021, Gini Alhadeff, author and translator, brought a new concept to the venerable publisher New Directions. What if, she proposed, New Directions published short books—novellas or long stories—as stand-alone titles. Alhadeff wanted a place for the non-epics—the brief and the powerful—to go, so they wouldn’t be lost in the often margin-minded business of book publishing.
“It’s a terrible notion of value,” Alhadeff told me on a recent phone call, explaining why few publishers release smaller-than-average books, especially in the US. “The business of getting value for your money.”
Alhadeff’s idea to offer a series of books one can read in a sitting, as one did as a child, arrived at New Directions in 2022. They called the selection the Storybook series to evoke that sense of childlike wonder. She would have liked to have the books made enormous—like a Dr. Suess book—but settled for a normal-size book with a hard cover and silver-colored binding. The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt, 3 Streets by Yoko Tawada, and In the Act by Rachel Ingalls are among the Storybook series’s bright, perfect offerings, and you can get all eight in a $100 bundle.
Books: They can be short. Nothing revelatory here, but more readers (and awards committees) seem to be appreciating the fact. Annie Ernaux is an author whose spare prose earned her no less than a Nobel Prize last year. Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker prize were Claire Keegan’s short word-of-mouth hit Small Things Like These, Alan Garner’s 150-or-so paged Treacle Walker, and Elizabeth Strout’s poignant speed-read Oh William! (the winner of the cohort, it should be noted for the counterweight perspective, was Shehan Karunatilaka’s 400-page political satire The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida). Emma Cline, she of recent The Guest fame, married poster art and short fiction in several thin tomes for Gagosian in 2021. Kate Dwyer deemed 2023 “the year of the slim volume” in Esquire. The novella may have been here all along, but perhaps there’s a fresh appeal of late.
“I don’t think it’s a trend,” Alhadeff said. “I think it’s a necessity. People don’t have the attention and the space. What do you do if you have an hour? How wonderful to have something that is a complete story.”
Booksellers across the country have theories of their popularity too. Jill Yeomans of White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh echoes Alhadeff’s diagnosis. “In our modern age and especially since the start of the pandemic, people are having a harder time focusing, and a short, punchy novella is often just the ticket,” Yeomans said. The bookstore finds that “shorter-than-average books are an easy sell lately,” whereas moving “door-stoppers” tends to require a more recognizable author name.
Likewise, at Birchbark, the Louise Erdrich–owned store in Minneapolis, short books are selling well. Erdrich wrote The Sentence, which is set in a fictionalized version of the store. The book’s main character creates booklists, and there in the real-life version of the store is a display that reflects one of those lists, called “Short, Perfect Novels.” It’s the most popular category, according to Hailee Kirkwood, a poet and bookseller at Birchbark.