Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Ideal Length of Books - Then, Now and Tomorrow

Last week I confessed that my first drafts are too short. With 30'000 words, they are a kind of bare bones drafts or extended plots. However, is 30'000 really too short? How long should a novel be? Well, it depends...

The Traditional View
If you google "book word count" you get tons of links. Scrolling through them, the answer to the question for the ideal novel length isn't an easy one.

Based on Wikipedia a novel is between 60 and 80'000 words, while thrillers might get up to 100'000 words. For NaNoWriMo it is more than 50'000 words and for the Nebula award over 40'000 words. A blog post from Writer's Digest from 2012 differentiates between clients and different genres. Middle grade is around 30'000, Young Adult around 40'000 and an adult novel around 80'000 words. On the upper end, the spectrum reaches 115'000 words for Sci-Fi and Fantansy.

But why all these rules? A blog post from Harvey Chapman on novel writing help gives a hint: Publishing Industry standards.  It seems that these numbers are a sweet spot for print books:
  • "Thin novels might be cheaper to produce, but book buyers won't feel that they are receiving their money's worth - a 150-page book does not sell for half the price of a 300-page book.
  • Thick novels will be more expensive to print, meaning more units will have to be sold to reach the same amount of profit - 600-page novels are not twice the price of those of 300 pages."

I get it - it's an industry standard that has evolved out of year long experience. Still, it has changed over time adopting new technologies as well as the overall market demand. Based on a blog post from Charlie Stross on his diary. SF book length evolved from somewhere around 50'000 in the 1930ies due to the weekly magazine style via 70'000 words in the 1960ies to the current size of 115'000 words. The blog post suggests, that the inflation between the 1970ies and the 1980ies triggered also a demand in thicker books (i.E. customers would accept higher prices much more if they also see that they get more).
You get a similar result looking at the average word count of famous novels:
  • The Crying of Lot 49: 46,573 words
  • Slaughterhouse-Five: 47,192 words
  • Lord of the Flies: 62,481 words
  • Brave New World: 64,531 words
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 70,570 words
  • Lolita: 112,473 words
  • Madame Bovary: 117,963 words
  • Moby-Dick: 209,117 words
  • East of Eden: 226,741 words

The average word count on Amazon is about 64'000 words. Given a bell shape curve, Animal Farm with 29,966 words and War and Peace with 544'406 words seem to be the tail end.
The Indie View
Again, technology triggers a change. E-books and new distribution channels enabled the indie revolution. A writer can publish a book with 30'000 words via KDP - no industry standards, no restrictions.

Even the main argument from the publishing industry with readers expecting a certain numbers of pages to justify a certain price is not relevant anymore. With an e-book price of maximal $2.99 and a book without visible size the number of words is secondary as selling point. And even if we translate this back into the printed world, with print-on-demand, the cost to have smaller books is affordable to a writer.

However, there is the craft-vs-the-money trap again. Writers might tend to write shorter novels in order to be able to produce more books and hence, sell more books. Nothing wrong with that, but less words should mean less characters and subplots, not flat characters or lousy subplots. A shorter story needs to be less complex. Exceptions apply, however, I would go with this as a general rule.

The Outlook
So far, we looked at the impact of production and cost on the lenght of books, but we haven't factored in the demand side of the equation. What do reader want and how is the reading behaviour changing the landscape.
I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball, will say I don't have empiric data to underline an analysis. However, I do have an opinion based on observation.
I think, there will two different kind of reading behaviour, one that is time spent on reading for the purpose of reading and the other one is reading as a gap filler. I love to dive into a good strory and read for hours and I don't care if I have a physical book of 500 pages. It's the rainy-day-cozy-sofa-and-coffee reading. On the other side I have a commute of 45 minutes twice every day and I see a lot of my fellow commuters reading with their e-readers or smartphones. Now think of yourself, if you  have 45 minutes time, how far do you get. Additionally, if you have only 45 minutes you will be much less patient to read through non-action scenes as if you are deep in the story on a  rainy-day-cozy-sofa-and-coffee. You will scan these pages until you get to the next action scene.
You see, it's a different reading and I predict, that there will be a growing market for shorter novels, maybe even serials, and longer books will adapt in a way to be digestable in 45 minutes.

At least in the next decade - for everything beyond I would definitely need a crystal ball.

Happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land

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