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Throw off the Covers / Dan Russell

If you listened to episode one of my new podcast last week, you probably heard Sheldon Lee Compton and me discussing the many issues permeating the modern publishing industry. One of the issues we touched on was the overabundance of books that were so similarly named and so close in plot and structure that they are nearly indistinguishable from others. We deemed them “cover books.”

I wanted to go a little deeper with this thought and really nail down what I mean by a cover book. As authors, we do steal. Hell, every story out there is stolen from somewhere. Most of them, whether we realize it or not, came from the Bible or ancient Greece. Stories, like melodies, are not infinite. At the heart of a story is a plot, and that is where we can really make some headway as writers. However, the literati in New York are not interested in plot as much as they are in sales. So that leaves us in an interesting position. Do we sell out and write what we think others want to read, or do we stick to our guns and our guts and write what we want to, in the hope that readers will enjoy it and follow us on our artistic journey?

As a writer, I hope it is the latter. I am not knocking New York; if they would have bought my book, I would have signed the deal and hopefully banked a decent advance, but my work is not mainstream. Neither is that of many of you. The work we do, we do because we love it. We do it because we feel a deep connection to the craft, and we want to tell stories about the greater human condition. Do books from New York do that? Yes. But at what cost?

The primary thing you will run into when submitting is length. Is this book long enough? I have news: if you are under 50,000, you better keep writing. You better pump that thing up to 75-80,000 words if you want the Big 5 to look at it. I’ve been rejected on word count alone.

At a time when no one is reading, and children stare mindlessly at screens, it seems odd that those who run the reading show want longer books. I just don’t understand. If I asked you to name the books that touched you the most, I bet half are under 300 pages. Wanna play? Let’s go.

Of Mice and Men

The Outsiders

The Sun Also Rises

The Great Gatsby

The Things They Carried

The Moviegoer

A Prayer Before Dying

As I Lay Dying

Child of God

The Orchard Keeper

Where the Red Fern Grows

The Pearl

Winter’s Bone

The Last Picture Show

In the Forest

I could go on and on here, but you get the point. A book is not a book based on length. A book is a treasured object because of the plot and the relationship the author can build through the story. Who has more talent, the writer who bloats a story arc, or the author that gives you everything you need in a succinct narrative that pulls every emotional string you have in the process? I would argue the latter. I have read long books. As a history major in college, I had to. But those books were not for pleasure. Those books had to be that length to tell their story, THE story, the truth. History books are that way. Works of fiction are not.

Take, for example, The Brothers Karamazov. What do you remember about it? I’ll give you a second…

I bet you remembered The Grand Inquisitor part. Am I right? Why? Probably because it connected with you and was the most emotional (for me) part of the novel. You may have chosen something else, but I bet not. See what I mean? That is a big-ass book, and I read it, and you should have, too. But even after all that, all I recall with certainty is that single portion of a classic book.



As a southern writer, nothing means more, whether you believe or not, than religion. I present Flannery O’Connor, for example. Cormac McCarthy, etc. Write about God, family, love, and loss, and you will connect with almost everyone. Good writers know what hits home, and when you want to get a point across, you better wrap it in bacon and make that reader eat it up, because THAT is what you are after. You want the reader to tear through that son of a bitch so fast, that when they get finished, they stop and say, “Damn, I wish that was longer!”


So they’ll buy the next one!

So here is where I will end. Write a big-ass book. Give it to a hundred or so folks. I bet 25-30 come back for more. Probably less.

Write a 250-300 page book, and, if it's good, those hundred folks won't be able to wait for the next one.

Don’t sell out, friends. Don’t. Like music, write your experience, because somebody somewhere will feel it and dig it. It may not be for everybody, but neither is music.

I am not Nostradamus, but I can guarantee this. The publishing industry is about to have its Nirvana moment. Right now, the world of books is cookie-cutter bloat. Just like in the 90s, something is brewing, and I believe indie and self-publishing are about to destroy the monolith. So get on board, friends. We are at the forefront of this slow-moving train. I say we throw some coal to that bitch and let it eat!


DAN RUSSELL is a writer. His work has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Tributary, Close to the Bone, Poverty House, and You Might Need to Hear This. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University-St. Paul and is the host of The Fair to Middlin' Podcast. He and his wife and family live in Arkansas atop Crowley’s Ridge. His debut novel, Poor Birds, will be published by Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2025.

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1 Comment

Mark Rogers
Mark Rogers
Jan 19

I definitely think there's a change coming. Novella-length work is a perfect fit for these attention-challenged times. I've always been a fan of the paperback originals from the 50s - books as an evening's entertainment, before TV took hold. I'm lucky that my publisher NeoText has a preference for novellas.

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