Skip to content

Books of a Certain Length

August 25, 2011

Author’s Note: This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  Thinking about yesterday’s post about the rise of YA fiction as a force majeure in the SF&F publishing world, it wasn’t far for me to start thinking about book length.  Also, to be entirely honest, Dear Wife suggested both topics.  I’ll also note: this is a very meaty (i.e. wordy) and at times contentious topic.  For that reason, I am going to do something I rarely ever do on my blog: I’m implementing sectional subtitles.  Why?  Because this turned out to be a real, long, in-depth, even semi-scholarly article on the topic of wordcount length, with quite a bit of data and market analysis.  Your conclusions will be your own, but I’ve tried to synthesize a lot of information for this article.  I considered splitting the article into several posts, as I often do when a single post grows this long, but I felt that it would weaken the analysis to have the disparate elements separated onto different pages.  So, instead: one long post with sectional subtitles.  Finally, you’ll find I prefer the compound word “wordcount” as opposed to splitting the word into two: “word count”, which is the more common usage.  The reason for this is that when I refer to “wordcount” I’m referring to a single, distinct idea: that is, the total number of words in a manuscript.  Splitting the word into two diffuses this unified notion. 

~

Books of a Certain Length

If you look around on the internet, it won’t be hard to come up with some solid advice for how long your book should be – depending on which genre and market you are writing for.  I encountered advice on the issue in this post on the Magical Words blog – where you’ll find me entering the fray in the comments.  There’s also this post on The Swivet.  I won’t quote all the genre length guidelines these two posts suggest (which are mostly in accord).  But if you’re either a fan of meaty Epic Fantasies or books like the Harry Potter series, and write in anything approaching a similar vein and genre, you might find some of these guidelines a trifle… strange.  Epic Fantasy is given a high-end wordcount length suggestion of around 120,000 words.  For YA it is suggested you stay under 80,000 words with some flexibility up to 100,000 in special circumstances.

For those of you unfamiliar with relative wordcount lengths, you may consider that and say to yourself: “Okay, so, what’s the big deal?”

The Challenge of a Verbose Writer

Let me first start by offering this full disclosure: my writing style tends toward the robustly wordful.  For example, I’ve participated in several “Flash Fiction” challenges during the history of this blog (with most results posted  here) with the goal of turning out a super-short story under 1,000 words in length.  I rarely reached that goal.  My first attempt at a novel, “Project SOA”, had reached the two-thirds complete mark at approximately 140,000 words before I abandoned that version of the story.  I’m planning on my current novel project, “The Book of M”, to be about 125,000 words… but I fully expect it to be closer to 175,000 (based on my experience of planned length versus actual final length for other, shorter works).

Of course, I’m no professional, as yet.  But I think my writing style is hitting its stride, and is reaching its maturity.  I struggle to write shorter, but I usually find that the only way to say the same thing in fewer words is to make the prose so utilitarian and efficient as to lack any character and warmth.  Artistically, there’s a point at which I’m not willing to compromise.  When fewer words are actually better, I’d certainly prefer to use fewer words.  But so far I don’t often find that to be the case: I actually find that more words are frequently called for – both in my own work, and in the work of others. 

All that said, I reiterate, again, that I am not yet a professional.  And perhaps there’s a reason for that.  Perhaps my wordy prose is, in fact, a true sign of my amateurish lack of polished talent.  Perhaps I am no true author, ready to write and polish and make my work in all ways presentable and salable – but instead a mere poseur.  I do not discount this possibility.  I have, after all, only one small professional publication to my name, and one semi-worthy commendation of my work.  And perhaps that is all I’ll ever have.

When is Bigger Better?

But, it must be said: I believe in myself and I believe in my prose.  I believe that what I write actually is quite good.  I know I still have work to do get myself to the level I want to be at, and to the level I need to be at if I’m going to be successful as a writer, but I believe I’m well on that road and pointed in the right direction.  And I don’t believe that my trending-somewhat-longer writing style is actually a sign of a problem in my writing style.

And I do actually believe that sometimes longer is better.  Sometimes less is more, but sometimes more is more.

As I mentioned last week, I’m a fan of objective, verifiable data.  And as I said above, if you are a fan of either the YA SF&F genres or the adult SF&F (especially Epic Fantasy) genres, you might find yourself bemused at these general wordcount restrictions.  And why should you find yourself thusly bemused?  Let’s take a look at some numbers:

 

A Short Survey of Wordcount Lengths of Popular YA and Adult Epic Fantasy Books

In YA:

Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone*: 77,508
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: 84,799
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: 106,821
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 190,858
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: 257,154
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 169,441
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 198,227
  • Average: 154,973

Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer

  • Twilight*: 118,975
  • New Moon: 132,758
  • Eclipse: 148,971
  • Breaking Dawn: 186,542
  • Average: 146,812

Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins

  • The Hunger Games: 99,750
  • Catching Fire: 101,564
  • Mockingjay: 100,269
  • Average: 100,528

Middle-Earth books by J.R.R. Tolkien¹

  • The Hobbit: 95,022

Dragonlance books by Margeret Weis and Tracy Hickman¹

  • Dragons of Autumn Twilight*: 142,597
  • Dragons of Winter Night: 130,657
  • Dragons of Spring Dawning: 125,142
  • Time of the Twins: 134,202
  • War of the Twins: 129,237
  • Test of the Twins: 96,644
  • Average: 126,413

In Adult Epic Fantasy:

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • The Fellowship of the Ring: 187,000
  • The Two Towers: 155,000
  • The Return of the King: 131,000
  • Average: 157,677

The Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

  • The Eye of the World: 305,902
  • The Great Hunt: 267,078
  • The Dragon Reborn: 251,392
  • The Shadow Rising: 393,823
  • The Fires of Heaven: 354,109
  • The Lord of Chaos: 389,264
  • A Crown of Swords: 295,028
  • The Path of Daggers: 226,678
  • Winter’s Heart: 238,789
  • Crossroads of Twilight: 271,632
  • Knife of Dreams: 315,163
  • The Gathering Storm: 303,630
  • Towers of Midnight: 325,998
  • Average: 302,960

A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin

  • A Game of Thrones: 298,000
  • A Clash of Kings: 326,000
  • A Storm of Swords: 424,000
  • A Feast for Crows: 300,000
  • A Dance with Dragons: 422,000
  • Average: 354,000

Stand-alone books by Brandon Sanderson

  • Elantris*: 202,675

Mistborn books by Brandon Sanderson

  • The Final Empire: 214,752
  • The Well of Ascension: 252,739
  • The Hero of Ages: 244,201
  • Average: 237,231

Stormlight Archive books by Brandon Sanderson

  • The Way of Kings: 386,470

Kingkiller Chronicles books by Patrick Rothfuss

  • Name of the Wind*: 255,986
  • Wise Man’s Fear: 395,000
  • Average: 325,493

Sword of Truth books by Terry Goodkind

  • Wizard’s First Rule*: 279,840
  • The Stone of Tears: 391,375
  • Blood of the Fold: 239,020
  • Temple of the Winds: 272,450
  • Average: 295,671

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

  • Gardens of the Moon*: 209,000
  • Deadhouse Gates: 272,000
  • Memories of Ice: 358,000
  • House of Chains: 306,000
  • Midnight Tides: 270,000
  • The Bonehunters: 365,000
  • Reaper’s Gale: 386,000
  • Toll the Hounds: 392,000
  • Dust of Dreams: 382,000
  • The Crippled God: 385,000
  • Average: 332,500

What Do the Numbers Mean?

Okay, yeah, so for those of  you keeping track at home: the average length of these highly popular YA books is 124,749 words.  The average of the first in each YA series is 106,770 words.

Now granted, what is perhaps the most popular of the YA series here, Harry Potter, has the shortest debut novel, at 77 thousand words.  Except that, actually, the first Harry Potter novel, by today’s standards, was marketed not as YA but as Middle Grades – which has an even shorter acceptable length (around 50,000 words per the linked advice above).  It targeted not the Teen demographic that is the YA domain but 10-11 Year Olds.  Very interesting.

It does indeed seem that children in the YA category prefer longer books.

Meanwhile in Adult Epic Fantasy Land… well… let’s start with Grandpa Tolkien, whose “Lord of the Rings” was supposed to be a single book, but was split into 3 volumes because of the limitations of print technology at the time.  That would have been a single book of 473 thousand words.  Even split, he sets a pace well above today’s 120,000-word-limit.  The Wheel of Time gets totally crazy with wordcount (the longest series listed, by wordcount, for which I have complete data), and starts off big

When you look at all of these popular adult Epic Fantasies together, you have an average novel length of 289,547 words – more than double the recommended length.  And first books average out to a mere 259,958 words.

The common reply to an analysis like this goes as follows: “But you can’t base that on authors like these.  They were already published before they started their big series.  They were known quantities with proven sales records.”  To which: take note of the titles marked with an asterisk.  Each of these is a debut novel: not only the first in their respective series, but the author’s first published novel, ever.  Almost all of them are well above the recommended wordcount limit for their respective genres.    In the last decade-ish, especially, you have Steven Erikson debuting at 209 thousand, Patrick Rothfuss at 255 thousand, Brandon Sanderson at 202 thousand, and Stephanie Meyer (YA) at 119 thousand.

Caveat Numerator

There are a few legitimate complaints with these figures, however.  First, it cannot be said that there is a causal relationship between the quality of an author’s writing or series and the length of their books.  This is correlative, but not causal: author’s whose books prove popular happen frequently to write very long books.  Writing longer books won’t make your writing better or make you popular.  Writing excellent-quality, highly readable and enjoyable stories will be far more important, in that regard. 

Second: this analysis does not take into consideration the potential impact of any additional marketing support longer books may receive from publishers.  In other words, it is possible that publishers see longer books as more significant investments, leading them to support the launch of those books with bigger marketing and publicity campaigns.  In such a scenario, the success of these larger books would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Suffice to say, however, that I have no information about the marketing spend by any given publisher on any given title.  Data like that is proprietary, not public.

Third: my survey of popular authors, books, and series is not in any way scientific.  I took the most popular books I could think of in these two categories.  There may be others that I didn’t think of.  None of these is reflective of actual sales of these books.  A truly scientific survey would consider actual sales numbers of the books, and would ask a random sampling of readers questions about their favorite books, preferred genres, favorite authors, and what they liked and disliked about them (with some carefully-worded questions probing each respondent’s reaction to book length).  I’m not in any position to perform such a scientific survey, so you get this mostly anecdotal survey instead.  But even so, this is some pretty powerful anecdotal evidence.   

However, with that all said, caution is still in order.  This list includes a number of exceptional and/or exceptionally-well-received books.  (I myself have not read all that I would like to read, alas.  You will note the presence of a fair number of them on my current to-read list.)  Those of us who are “undiscovered authors”, however, have not proven ourselves yet to be similarly exceptional.  Some of us will succeed in publishing and never achieve this exceptional level of sales.  Others of us will never succeed in publishing at all.  It’s the rare bird who will achieve that vaunted status.  And though clearly the publishers will bend or break this wordcount rule, by all accounts they do not do so lightly.

The Case for Shorter Books

So why exactly do they have this rule, in the first place?  Both of the linked pages providing this advice cite as the reason for the rule: book sellers.  There is limited space for books on the declining number of book seller shelves.  And book sellers, wanting to maximize the value of their shelf space, naturally want to pack as many books onto those shelves as they can fit.  And as the number of outlets for books declines, the negotiating power of the remaining sales channels increases.  (This is the opposite of what we commonly call a monopoly: a monopoly happens when only one seller produces a product, although colloquially we use the term to refer to occasions when there are very, very few sellers, because the effect is largely the same.  The situation in book sales, with the decline of many mom-n-pop shops has become a monopsony, where one (or very few) buyers are buying books from book publishers, which gives those buyers increased leverage over the seller (the publishers).  Of course, the reality is a bit more complicated than that.)  The net effect: fewer book sellers demanding changes of the publishers, and the publishers accommodating.  And besides that… it’s cheaper and easier to bind a smaller book (smaller books can use cheaper binding techniques), which introduces a cost-constraint.  So there are some very good reasons for publishers to prefer shorter books – and ignoring this fact isn’t likely immediately to endear a brand new author to said publishers, unless that publisher is convinced that the new author’s story is worth it.

And besides all that, it is almost certainly the case that some readers in fact do prefer shorter books.  Not all readers are created equal, and their preferences exist on a multidimensional spectrum.  While on the one hand many of the bestsellers of the epic fantasy and YA SF&F genres are also among the biggest doorstoppers in the market, those books are frequently subjected to the criticism that they’re too long.  Still, it’s hard to make the case that this observation is objectively true when these books sell so many copies.  For a few readers, it undoubtedly is true.  For the majority of readers?  Their purchasing and reading habits seem to speak for them.

What does that mean?  You have to be more than just good.  You have to be among the best

Still… the evidence, anecdotal or not, above gives me reason to pause and consider: is following the recommended course of action wise?

Thinking like a Businessman: Market Conditions and Trends Affecting Epic Fantasy and YA SF&F

Earlier I linked to the article I wrote last week about sales data.  Look, I just did it again!  In that article, I asserted that a writer needs to treat their work like a business.  I really believe that.  As a writer, you are self-employed.  You produce a product, and then you try to sell that product to other people.  In that regard, what are the business implications of all this?  Well, there are two sides to the coin.  First, there is the traditional market.  If you are going to pursue a sales channel model that moves through the traditional publishing market, considering the constraints of the traditional industry might very well be the wisest course of action.  It might be better,the data suggests, would be to write the most amazing epic ever – no, really, it’s got to be pretty amazing and publishers have to agree – and to ignore the rules on wordcount and manuscript length.  But you’re going to have a hard time convincing a publisher that your work rises to that level.  Few enough books get published, fewer still will qualify for the selective enforcement of these novel length guidelines.  Or, perhaps, the best thing to do is to follow those guidelines faithfully and prove your mettle to a publisher with shorter books in order to make room for yourself to grow into a career writing longer books.  (Several of the authors on my list above didn’t start out writing mega-long epics, but shorter works instead.)

But there’s another side to this coin: the traditional publishing world is even as we speak being disrupted by new technologies and sales channels and disintermediation.  And that suggests something very different about what might be the wisest course of action.  Without more statistically accurate data on the tastes and preferences of consumers, a little digging into the lengths of the most popular books in your genre, like what I’ve done here, is probably the best you’re going to be able to do to find out the length that actual consumers prefer.  That, and ask as many of those readers as you can about it.  So this data may not be the best indicator, but what it does tell us is that readers like longer books.  In the disintermediated market, then, the best thing to do might actually be to write longer books – because it appears that’s what readers prefer.  (There is probably an upper-bound to this, and an ideal length.  The data collected suggests to me that the ideal length is somewhere in the 200 to 275 thousand word range for epic fantasy, but that’s a shot in the dark, really.)

Even without the disintermediating effects of digital self-publication, increasingly more and more book sales are through digital e-readers.  This will prove to be true even for books sold by traditional publishers.  E-books are not constrained in the same way that physical books are.  (Digital storage can be an issue, but books of any length compress to generally very small files.)  This fact negates the physical stocking limitations of traditional book sellers and the binding constraints of traditional publishers.  Inasmuch as at some future point the majority of books sold will be in a digital format, nearly all of the assumptions that make the case for shorter books today go out the window.  When that day comes, if my thesis is correct and readers generally prefer books that are considerably longer than publishers today are typically willing to consider, then there will be significant pressures on traditional publishers to relax those artificial limitations and to consider longer books.  (Even those books that are merely very good and not necessarily epicly amazing.)

I don’t know when that tipping point is going to occur.  But I am very confident that it will occur, and that at some near-future point publishers and agents both will begin to relax this wordcount limitation.   I believe it will happen because I believe it has to happen for traditional publishers to remain relevant in the age of disintermediation.  Intransigence isn’t a viable business strategy.  Ultimately, publishers are serving the market needs of a group of customers, and if those customers want longer books, when the cost constraints on supplying that need evaporate or vanish, there won’t be any reason for the publishers not to meet that market need.  Indeed, it will be more profitable for publishers to find that sweet spot – the ideal book length – than for them to ignore it because of old and passed business constraints.

Conclusions

What does this mean for me?  Or for you, Dear Reader?

Honestly, it’s hard to say.  As I said, I don’t know when the shift in the traditional market will occur.  It almost certainly will occur, but the future is murky and uncertain.  It could be next year, it could be five years, it could be ten.  (If it takes much longer than that, I would be surprised; if it doesn’t happen, I might have to reassess my conclusion that readers like longer books.)  For some of us, we’ll need much of that time to hone our craft as it is, so this doesn’t mean much of anything to us.  Those writers will write what they want to write when they’ve reached a publishable skill level, and if they’re really any good, they will find a market for their work.  Some of us are a little closer to being ready to enter the market.  They have books ready now, or will have books ready in the next year or two, that are polished and publishable.  These writers are in a trickier spot – they have to decide whether to write to traditional publishing’s length constraints, or maybe to ignore those constraints and self-publish.  But that’s a decision authors today have to make for themselves anyway, so I don’t think that your debut novel’s length will be the critical, deciding factor in that decision.

For myself?  I must first ask myself: is my writing any good?  If it’s good, then the only thing I want to worry about is how long does the story have to be to tell the story the way I want to tell it?  I want my prose polished and beautiful and as tight and clean as I can make it.  But I have no desire to sacrifice part of my story to fit into any artificial length constraints.  Were I trying to send my book out now, today, that might be a problem for me.  But I’m still at the early stages of this novel.  Tomorrow is another day.  Today, I write.  Tomorrow, we’ll see if those old rules are still around, and if they are, I’ll decide what to do then.  If they’ve gone the way of all the earth, well.  You shall not find me weeping by their graveside.

What do you think, good readers and writers all: how long are your favorite novels?  How long would you prefer the books you read to be?  How long is the novel you’re working on now?  How long do you think it should be, everything else being equal?  Sound off with your thoughts on wordcounts and book length.

_______________________________________

Notes:

Wordcount Figures in italics are estimated numbers; for LotR, ASoIaF, and Malazan they are rounded from other sources, in the links below, and for others (i.e. Sword of Truth) they are by my own calculations.  My methodology was to count words per line on several pages (about 3 pages worth using either Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to get the first few pages, or “Google Books” to find random pages) to generate an average number of words per line, multiplying this first figure by the number of lines per page (which is almost always 40, it seems) and multiplying that by the number of pages (per the same source that generated the copy used for the above calculations).  I discounted this somewhat because first pages of chapters and last pages of chapters typically have fewer lines of text.  I gave up on this after doing two “Sword of Truth” books – thus the short list of titles there – because of how time consuming it was and never attempted another series I was going to include in my analysis, “Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn”.  I actually did this for several books besides the two Sword of Truth books for which I used estimated figures before I found more accurate figures reported elsewhere online.

*Titles marked with an asterisk are books that, as far as I am aware, are the author’s debut, first-ever-published novel. 

¹Both The Hobbit and the Dragonlance books were published before the modern “YA” designation came into being.  But The Hobbit was marketed as a children’s book, and would almost certainly qualify today as “YA”.  The Dragonlance books, meanwhile, I believe are also best read in one’s teenage years.  I loved them when I was younger, but I daresay were I to encounter them for the first time today, as an adult, I would find them less to my tastes.  These books appear to have approximately a sixth-grade reading level, which is just about the age I first discovered them.  For those reasons, I’ve classified them here as “YA”.

Sources:

http://www.magicalwords.net/david-b-coe/back-to-basics-part-v-writing-to-a-certain-length/

http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html

http://www.writersbeat.com/showthread.php?t=15295

http://www.cesspit.net/drupal/node/1869

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wheel_of_Time

http://www.perma-bound.com/ViewDetail/30907-hunger-games

http://www.brandonsanderson.com/blog/690/Answers-to-Questions

http://www.amazon.com

http://books.google.com

(Note: A fair number of books, but not all, have wordcounts listed on Amazon: near the bottom of the page for a book, below the reviews, is a section with the heading “Inside This Book”. Some books, in this section, will include a link that reads “Text Stats” in which you’ll find the wordcount.  Relatively few, that I found, have this new feature.)

Advertisements
22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2011 7:00 pm

    This is really interesting. Since your post yesterday about YA, my mind also turned to wordcount and novel length, and I was considering writing a post about it myself. After reading yours, though, I think I’ll throw that idea away. Mine was just going to be a few opinions, not a heavily researched essay! 🙂

    Nonetheless, my thoughts run something like this:

    I have no problem with “Verbose writing”. If anything, I’m guity of it myself. (Sorry in advance for the long comment!) But the writing style has less impact on my decision about which length book to buy/read/write than other factors.

    As a teenager (age 12+) and into my 20s, I wanted big, solid, high wordcount books. I wouldn’t have even picked up a thin book. If I was going to invest money in buying a book or time in getting to know characters or a world (especially considering it was spec fic), then I wanted it to count. I wanted to stay with those characters and in that world for as long as possible. If a book wasn’t long enough on its own, I definitely wanted it to be part of a series.

    So I was in my early teens when I read some of my favourite books and series of all time, including Clive Barker’s Imajica, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series (both of them), and, of course, LoTR.

    I own and will reread these books/series at the drop of a hat. BUT now that I’m at a different point in my life, there’s absolutely no way that I’d pick up any of these books if I hadn’t read them before. Because they’re just too damn long.

    Any Stay at Home Mum will tell you that looking after 2 kids, a husband, a house, and all the related stuff is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. (I had LOTS more time and energy when I was working full time and my husband was a Stay at Home Dad.) Plus, I write. Plus, I’m looking for part-time work. My time is precious and all-too-little. So when I pick up a book, I need to know that I’m going to be able to read it and enjoy it.

    Bigger books tend to have more characters, more sub-plots, and more complications. They take a longer investment of time and mental energy to read. If I can only spare 30 – 60 minutes a day to read (max!) in between doing other things, I can read an 80,000 word novel in 3 or 4 days. But a whopping 250,000 word novel might take me 3 weeks, because every time I pick it up again I have to try to remember who everyone was, and what was happening.

    (As a note, this is why I can reread long books I’ve already read. I know what’s happening, so there’s less mental gymnastics required even if I only read 1 chapter a day.)

    These days I generally read books that come in at about the 80,000 word mark. I’ll sometimes go out on a limb for something up to 100,000 words if the book looks absolutely fantastic. But that’s my upper limit. Perhaps when the boys are a bit older, I’ll go back to reading bigger books again, but it’s just not possible right now.

    (Thus, the novel I’m working on is likely to come in at about 80,000 words. It’s what I’m reading, and so it’s the structure I’m comfortable with at the moment.)

    • August 26, 2011 8:22 am

      That’s a really great insight: that a given reader might actually have different preferences (in regard to length, but also in regard to other aspects of books such as genre) at different times of their lives. Thanks! And I wouldn’t worry; if you want to write up your thoughts on wordcount length on your blog, I don’t believe my own magnum opus on the topic here really invalidates that. Not by any means.

  2. August 25, 2011 10:08 pm

    Interesting. I really don’t consider word count when choosing what to read. I do (as I said yesterday) avoid long series with complex worldbuilding, but for an individual book I’ll read pretty much any length if it seems as though I’ll like it. I did bail on Against the Day (Pynchon, over 1,000 pages), but that was from the weight not the length, as it were. When it comes out on the Kindle, I’m there.

    My two novels are ~45,000 words and ~170,000 words, so I apparently don’t have any preferred length in my writing either. I write until I get to the ending, then I stop. 🙂 I expect my WIP to end up somewhere in between the first two in length, that’s my only prediction, and I may well be wrong.

    • August 26, 2011 8:28 am

      See, that doesn’t surprise me, considering the tastes and thoughts you’ve shared here and on your own blog. You take a bit of an unconventional approach. 😉

  3. August 26, 2011 12:50 am

    I can’t believe you typed all this up! Haha, I think that’s crazy. In a good way, because this is, like Jo said, interesting.

    Anyway, I feel a lot better now knowing that my WIP is actually below the average WC for the popular debut epic fantasy novels you listed, heh. Wee!

    You know Jim Hines’ parody he did with the “I like big books and I cannot lie?” Well, I think this is true for me! Haha. It’s like I naturally gravitate to longer books (at least 400+ pages). I’m not sure why. It’s not like I sit there physically looking for the thickest novels (most times I buy ’em online); it’s just the stories I’m attracted to–the ones I take home/buy after reading the blurb and first few pages–just so happen to be longer. (Not always, but more often than not they are.)

    Odd!

    I can’t say how long any book should be, other than “long enough to tell the story as it needs to be told.” (Vague, but true.) It really depends on what the author is trying to accomplish.

    Like Jo in her 20s (hey, I’m 23 and single), I like to really sink into a novel and get lost in the world and characters. I feel the same way about movies–even video games! (Though, I haven’t played many games lately.) People complain about movies that are 2.75/3+ hours long (and my lil’ sis hates RPGs because they take longer to beat and are easy to get lost in, she says–which is the whole point for me, haha). But heck, if it’s got a good story and wicked-cool characters, then I feel like I’m really getting my money’s worth!

    And I ain’t got so much as it is, lol.

    Of course, I consume these things slowly over time so I get to savor them that much longer. ^_^

    (It was also interesting reading Jo’s comment. Makes me think about demographics differently and how that might come into play when I have to pitch my own novel to publishers. Hmm…)

    • August 26, 2011 8:36 am

      Yeah, Hines’ parody describes me, as well… What you said about how long a novel should be: “long enough to tell the story as it needs to be told”. That’s why I wrote this post. Because I feel this advice can sometimes cause writers to compromise the integrity of their stories by forcing themselves to fit a bigger story into a smaller space. And sometimes, breaking it up into multiple volumes isn’t really a great idea – a single volume should have a complete plot arc, and breaking a longer book up can wreak havoc on those arcs. And so I really believe that books need to be as long as they need to be to tell the story, and artifical wordcount constraints do such stories a disservice. And I sort of think that those are the sorts of stories that attract reader attention – the same way that they attracted you. So in the long term I feel like such a policy is bad business, because it ignores the needs of this market: the market that you, yourself, are apparently in at this time.

  4. August 26, 2011 12:16 pm

    I like big books, but I can’t seem to write like that! Perhaps I can blame my technical writing career, but that doesn’t explain why the writing styles I prefer to read are opposite my own. The grass is always greener?

    I look at wordcounts like deadlines. Sometimes everything gets done ahead of time (there’s not as much story as you expect). Other times, you need an extension 😉

    • August 26, 2011 12:35 pm

      That’s a good way of looking at wordcounts. A story needs as many words as it takes – but it’s hard to know exactly how many words that will turn out to be. It’s interesting that what you read and how you write are so very different. I wouldn’t be surprised if the large amount of technical writing you do bleeds over, stylistically, into your normal writing. I wouldn’t have thought that based on your flash, though.

  5. August 26, 2011 5:23 pm

    I’m going to have to admit that ironically, the epic length of this article put me of reading it all. You definitely raise interesting points though and there’s some serious stat crunching going on here that I love.

    I personally think that book lengths are going to start coming down due to ePublishing. With it being so much easier to get content out there, there will be more people putting out more content – therefore it will suit both readers and writers that this content be shorter. Although I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more episodic content – so instead of one, huge novel you’ll get mini adventures that also build up a larger picture.

    • August 29, 2011 10:20 am

      Yes, your trepidation about reading this is an example of why I usually break up posts when they get this long. I usually aim for about a thousand words in a regular post, but this one is more than 3 times that – excluding all the notes. So, I would’ve typically split this into 3 separate posts; but I didn’t feel like the message was well-served by splitting it that way. I’m not sure why it being easier for more people to self-publish would lead to shorter works. I think that the ease of connecting content providers with content consumers will lead toward the length of that content asymptotically approaching the ideal length for a given market. In some specific genre markets that might be (and probably is for a good number of genres) shorter. In the SF&F YA markets and the Epic Fantasy markets, in particular, the evidence suggests that the consumers/readers in that market prefer slightly longer works. I think the market preferences for different genre categories will tend to be so different that a single, generalized approach to reaching any conclusions on this question won’t work: you’ve got to take it on a genre-by-genre basis. That’s why I picked the genres I picked – because they’re the ones of greatest interest to me, as a writer. (I could also have included “Steampunk” in that, but I’m not entirely clear on how distinct “Steampunk” is as a publishing category today.)

  6. August 27, 2011 12:04 pm

    Good ramble!
    I feel an irony in my writing – very short, concise. But you named a Fantasy series I am traversing now (and have beloved journeys with years before) The Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan. His series is EPIC, just a huge span – and I could not possibly imagine writing even a quarter of the length of his novels in even a month – let alone on any story.

    I suppose that’s why I’ve stuck with flash fic/prose though.

    • August 29, 2011 10:54 am

      Well, I wouldn’t think that the mere act of enjoying a work of a certain length necessarily obligates you to write works of a similar length. 😉 Each writer has got to approach their comfort zone on issues like that on their own, and no one can figure that out for them. There’s no right or wrong answers there, at least not at a pure-artistic level. (The point of this post, of course, is that there probably are right and wrong answers at the marketing/business level.) As for short stories and flash… I really don’t know enough about short story markets at all to comment on length, there.

  7. September 11, 2011 4:49 pm

    Another good source for word counts is: The Renaissance Learning Store. If you can put up with the fact it is a store and only has young-adult word counts, the results provide word counts for most books.

    When I was younger, I wanted books longer. Now, I want books shorter. I find I get bored of books fairly easily and I sometimes don’t finish the series (I enjoyed the first book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen better than I have the second two and some of that I think is related to length; I haven’t finished Tad William’s Otherworld and there is a good chance I won’t).

    To me, I care less about a wordy vs. trim style (I think you are right that too-trim strips the spirit from the writing), but care more about subplots and try-fail cycles. If these fit in smoothly with the overall part, I’m happy, but I’m growing more crotchety when these just seem to pad the word count.

    • September 12, 2011 11:03 am

      I used a similar Young-Adult-only source to get wordcounts on most of the Young Adult titles on my list. Thanks! I’m guessing those sources are interested in Wordcount partially because, I suspect, they use wordcount as part of their calculation for the reading-level and difficulty of a book… which goes into all sorts of points-based reading merit rewards of some kinds. (My child isn’t old enough to worry about this stuff, but I’m sure I’ll learn about these pro-reading merit reward systems in the future; today I’m just peripherally aware of them.) I’m not yet at the point where I’m down on long books. But I’m increasingly strapped for time (reading time included)… so I am down on poorly written books. When I spend time reading, I worry less about how long the book is and increasingly more about whether the book will be worth the time investment, in terms of enjoyment or mental stimulation.

Trackbacks

  1. It’s not the size that counts… Is it? | The Happy Logophile
  2. Books I Put Down Without Finishing « The Undiscovered Author
  3. Digital Publishing? « Arcane Roads
  4. 2012 Goals Update & A Request for Recommendations « The Undiscovered Author
  5. Interrogating the Text #5: The Hunger Games « The Undiscovered Author
  6. The Stand-Alone versus The Sequel « The Undiscovered Author
  7. 2012 In Review: Writing and Blogging « The Undiscovered Author
  8. Editorial | Why Word Limits are Still Important | Therefore I Geek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: