Shorts and Omnibuses - Good Idea?

I have been considering publishing a series of interconnected shorter works over the next six months or so, and then pulling them all together in an “omnibus” collection. As many of you probably know, this strategy worked very effectively for Hugh Howey with his Wool, Shift and Sand series. Michael Bunker has also taken this approach with his Pennsylvania, Wick and Dunes over Danvar series.

A key aspect of this approach is that you can draw people into your series through the first installment, which is often free, and then hope that they buy the remainder of the series for 99 cents each. In addition, given that “content is king” on Amazon, and indie writers are expected to produce lots of material on a regular basis, shorter works allow indie writers to accomplish this and build up their offerings quickly. It also allows you to potentially be in the "hot new releases" more frequently and make more extensive use of KDP's kindle countdown sales.

Photo Credit:  gynti_46  via   Compfight

Photo Credit: gynti_46 via  Compfight

I also gave some consideration to simply writing shorter works not part of a series in addition to my novels, which some indie writers, such as Jason Gurley, have very successfully done, and which Amazon itself is doing with its kindle singles. However I already have a series of interconnected short works half written, so I thought I might pursue the omnibus approach first.

Despite the obvious simplicity of the overall approach, I had several questions regarding the specifics of implementing it. In particular:

  1. How long should each installment be?
  2. How frequently must they be put out?
  3. Must each be a self-contained story, with a short story arc, or given that they are interconnected, can one leave off and lead into the other?

Nothing that a little research couldn’t solve.

Installment Length

Wool 1 by Hugh Howey was 12,000 words, and Pennsylvania 1 by Michael Bunker was 16,500 words. However Sand 1 and Dunes over Danvar 1 were only around 8000 words each.

The subsequent installments of both Wool and Pennsylvania were each longer, between 20,000 and 50,000 each for Wool, and hovering around an average of about 20,000 each for Pennsylvania. Later installments of both Sand and Dunes over Danvar remained shorter though, ranging from between 15,000 and 23,000 for Sand and 10,000 to 15,000 for Dunes over Danvar (which is not yet complete).

So are these short stories, novellas or novelettes? I checked the word count of each, which are as follows:

  • Short Short Story - no more than 2,000 words
  • Short Story - Generally up to 7,500 words
  • Novelette - 20,000 - 25,000 words
  • Novella - a short novel, around 50,000 words

Okay, so it seems that for interconnected shorts akin to Howey and Bunker, we are looking at long short stories or novelettes. In general these are all longer than true short stories for sale on Amazon. Gurley’s stand alone short stories, based on a comparison of page numbers, appear to be in the 10,000 word range.

The bottom line is that even though they are shorts, they are still longer than short stories, and longer than most kindle singles. Amazon at one point indicated that it was removing all kindle books from KDP that have fewer than 2,500 words, because:

“Content that is less than 2,500 words is often disappointing to our customers and does not provide an enjoyable reading experience.”

However, Howey’s most recent stand alone short, is only 4 pages long, and therefore very likely is under 2,500 words. So perhaps Amazon reversed this policy, or reversed it for Howey.

Installment Frequency

Looking again at Howey and Bunker’s approaches, it seems they put their installments out pretty fast. Wool 1 was published in July 2011, and 2, 3, 4, and 5 were all out by January 14, 2012, coming fast and furious between the end of November and January. Sand 1-5 was put out every few days between December 15, 2013 and January 6, 2014. Given that pace of output, Howey must have had Sand entirely, or mostly, written and put it out in installments because that is his signature approach and his fans seem to like it.

Bunker put out Pennsylvania 1 sometime in November 2013 and Pennsylvania 5 at the end of March 2014 with three weeks to two months between installments. But note that he was also putting out Dunes over Danvar installments at the same time!

My take home from this is that they are fast. Very fast. In six, months, Howey put out over 140,000 words for Wool. 

Self-Contained Story

Looking at the reviews of shorter pieces, including those for Howey and Bunker, one of the biggest complaints is that the stories just end abruptly or with a cliff-hanger and do not have a self-contained arc. Although Bunker’s reviews are generally positive, this is a complaint of some readers – that his installments are not book one or two in a series, but rather chapter one or two with no resolution, and that even though they liked the chapter and the writing, they find that approach annoying:

“You can't call it a short story because it's not a complete story. I'm not going to start buying books one chapter at a time. Count me out.”

“Come on, author. I finished this short work in under an hour and am now searching for another book. This is so annoying. I think I will LOVE this when it is FINISHED. Please notify me when it is a completed work and I will gladly buy it and probably rate it 5 stars.”

And even though it appears that Howey got away with this approach a little bit more because his stories are slightly more self-contained, some people obviously did not like it.

“This is an example of an author once again, taking a story and selling off only parts of it at a time. This is getting ridiculous.”

Hmm… Definitely something to consider. If you are going to go this way, I would definitely suggest making it as self-contained as possible. On the other hand, Howey and Bunker are doing great, with fantastic ratings overall and tonnes of sales, so maybe they can afford a few naysayers. And I don't quite get it. It is not as if Bunker does not clearly state up front that his pieces are shorts, and they are generally only 99 cents.

In reading about other writer’s experiences publishing shorts – interconnected or not, many of them recommend packaging more than one story under a single title to satisfy readers. Interestingly, in Dunes over Danvar 1, which is the shortest of the series, Bunker chose to include two bonus chapters of Pennsylvania.

Well after all that, I am no closer to my decision. I have a 10,000 word short called Manifest that is part of a mystery regarding a train disaster set in a small smelter town queued up for editing in July. Each installment of this particular series called Bifurcate is written from the point of view of a different person in the community and draws you gradually closer to determining how the disaster happens. I had planned this novel/collection of interconnected shorts out to be similar to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. However perhaps I will reconsider. Lindsay Buroker has taken a slightly different approach to shorts by offering prequels or short stories based on her best-selling Emperor's Edge series. That is also an approach to consider.

What do you think? Do you like reading shorts? Do you like reading a longer piece in installments, or is this just frustrating for readers?