Can the New Short Capture Reluctant Readers?
By Dawn Ius
Hey, reluctant readers! James Patterson is gunning for you.
The author of 156 bestselling novels that have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide is poised to further expand his readership by launching a line of cheap, concise page turners that are “impossible to put down.”
Harkening back to the era of the dime store novel, Patterson’s BookShots are aimed at the 27 percent of Americans that haven’t read a book in the past year. Writers, take note.
“Unfortunately, people aren’t reading in the same way that they have in the past,” Patterson says. “While there are still wonderful stories out there, many people have turned away from books as an accessible form of entertainment.”
The hope is that this “Netflix generation” poised for a shot of pop culture will get their fix from these 150-page, $5 novellas, rather than the barrage of media forms competing for audience attention.
“BookShots are designed to help all of you fit reading into your busy lives,” Patterson says. “Books that you can read in an hour or two, and the plot will keep you engaged the entire time. It’s like reading a movie in one sitting—people will want to pick one of these up because they won’t be intimidated by the length, or ever bored by the plot.”
Boredom is subjective, of course, and Patterson’s concept isn’t entirely new. Many literary giants including Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King, for instance, have succumbed to the lure of penning shorter reads for Amazon’s Kindle Singles program which has sold millions of “shorts” since the program’s premiere in 2011.
In the young adult market, novellas—typically in e-book form—have become a popular way to give fans an extra shot of a character or storyline while they wait for the next full length novel. Indeed, the concept dates back to the days of Edgar Allen Poe whose well-publicized comments about the importance of “rigorously plotted, short fiction” spanned an era of bite-sized entertainment.
“Look back at old-school pulp paperbacks. Those are not long books,” says author Rob Hart, a recent addition to the co-writing team selected for Patterson’s BookShots imprint. He scored the coveted gig after buzz about his novels New Yorked and City of Rose caught the eye of Patterson’s team. “I think people have always enjoyed shorter stories—stuff you can read in a sitting, or that doesn’t weigh thirty pounds and can easily slip in a briefcase or purse.”
BookShots fits the bill of course, but it’s not the only game in town.
“There’s a lot of great crime fiction coming out in the novella format,” Hart says. “Look at small presses like All Due Respect, Broken River Books, and One Eye Press. Patterson’s got the cachet to normalize the concept for a mainstream audience. If it takes off and readers embrace the format, everyone wins.”
Including writers like Hart. While the first two novellas out of the gate will be familiar to Patterson fans—an original Alex Cross story featuring a villain from one of his earlier books, and Zoo 2, the short follow-up to the book featuring a planet under siege by ferocious animals—BookShots will publish two to four titles a month, including Hart’s upcoming contribution, SCOTT FREE.
He remains mum on the details but will confirm that the novella he’s co-writing with Patterson is right up his alley.
“When Patterson pitched me the idea, it really resonated with me, as a new father,” he says. “The narrative structure had very different demands from what I’m used to doing, too, so it seemed like a great challenge.”
SCOTT FREE is currently in revisions, and although Hart admits he was a bit anxious to co-write with such a publishing icon, the process has been smooth, and somewhat eye-opening.
“It’s been a great experience and I’m open to doing more, though I’ve got a lot of other ideas I want to explore, too,” Hart says. “I’m just laser-focused on making this the best book it can be.”
Notice he didn’t specify genre either. Although Patterson’s name is somewhat synonymous with “thriller,” BookShots will explore numerous genres including science fiction, mystery, romance—and maybe even children’s lit down the road. For books outside his wheelhouse, Patterson will continue to handpick authors he thinks fit the mold. He’s already tapped New York Times bestselling romance authors Jen McLaughlin, Samantha Towle and Erin Knightly, whose BookShots titles will release in June and July.
And of course, the publishing industry’s Renaissance Man isn’t opposed to dabbling in these other genres himself.
“Once I noticed a space for it in the market, I knew that I wanted to explore other genres on my BookShots list,” he says, noting that although traditional bookstores will be the first point of sale, he hopes the novellas will eventually flood the shelves of pharmacies, groceries and book stores. “It’s been fun to pair up with bestselling authors to publish some fantastic romance novels that I hope all readers—whether romance or otherwise—will enjoy.”
Patterson reveals the imprint will also expand to include non-fiction with short, newsy books that play on current events. Perhaps not surprising, the first title is pegged to the U.S. election.
But with all these big plans for small books, should writers be ready to axe even more of those darlings in a quest to fit a growing trend? Not necessarily. A third of the American population may be hesitant readers, but the other 70% are eager for more books—in any length and genre.
“If you already love reading, book size isn’t going to matter,” says avid reader and reviewer Sara Goodman. “In fact, I prefer a novel with some substance, even the less exciting parts. That’s necessary back story! Life may move fast, but I like taking my time to read. The thicker the book the better—as long as it keeps me interested. This trend of shorter fiction isn’t going to be for everyone.”
The proof of whether BookShots has a genuine shot will be determined June 7, when Patterson’s first novellas are released.