How long should your book be?

Beginning writers often ask how long their story should be. How many pages makes a novel?

There are a number of answers, most of them contradictory. For starters, writers don’t work in pages anymore, it’s word count. A three hundred page word document does not translate into a three hundred page trade paperback. Page size, font, font size and line spacing make a huge difference in the length of the end product, which is why word count is the more accurate way to judge the length of the novel.

So how many words make a novel? Before I answer that, I want to give a little history. The novel, especially the genre, trade paperback novel, is a relatively recent invention. For a long time, there wasn’t a set length for a novel.

Prior to the twentieth century, printing was a cottage industry, handled by master printers, typographers and book setters. In other words, craftsmen. They made books to fit the stories the writers of the day gave them. The length of the novel depended on the writer.

traditionally books were a cottage industry, each one created and formatted by hand.

In 1935 Allen Lane launched Penguin Publishing, the first mass market publisher in the U.S. Mass market publishing emphasized large print runs and wide distribution. It quickly transformed publishing and the novel. On the good side, they made reading a cheap and popular form of entertainment. The cost was treating the novel, and it’s writer, as a commodity.

In particular large print runs and wide distribution meant that every paperback had to be of a relatively standard size. Part of this was practical, books had to have a consistent trim size for convenient boxing, shipping and display purposes. Part of this was marketing. Publishers weren’t looking to sell these new books in bookstores, but instead were selling them in drugstores, grocers and newsstands. In order to get into these retailers they had to have a consistent price across their entire selection, 25 cents per book.

With pulp fiction, publishers were as concerned with having a standard product as having a good story.

They needed a steady supply of new stories to fill these novels. But those stories had to fit the container, not the other way around. The idea that a novel had to be a certain length was born.

The early mass market paperbacks were shorter than most books we see published today, a hundred fifty to two hundred pages. Forty thousand words was considered a novel, and anything longer was likely unpublishable, unless it was a literary novel (which were still be produced in hardcover.)

By the late sixties the average novel length had risen slightly to fifty or sixty thousand words. When Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle submitted Lucifer’s Hammer which ran well over a hundred thousand words, they were told it would have to be cut. The editor called them back a few days later and said, “I couldn’t find a word I could do without.” They published it as is, 640 pages in paperback. It sold incredibly well.

After that the word counts on novels began to rise in specific genres. This was in part because they realized that readers would pay more for a thicker book. And this was in part because they wanted to justify charging more.

This is where things start to get wonky, and this is why there are so many different answers to the question, how long should a novel be. Some publishers and some genres decided they wanted to sell big thick books. For science fiction and fantasy, fifty thousand words was suddenly too short. They wanted a hundred thousand words. Other genres continued to sell well with the old strategy and continued to produce shorter, smaller books. To make matters worse, first time authors are often stuck with whatever “average” word count exists in their genre, but writers that have proven they can sell can safely ignore the rules. Just look at J. K. Rowlings. The first Harry Potter books is much shorter and conforms much closer to rules for YA writing. But as the book series took off, publishers stopped asking her to follow the rules.

Estimates for how long a novel should be range from forty thousand (wikipedia) to fifty thousand (Nanonwrimo) to a hundred thousand or more (some sci-fi publishers.) This Huffpost article gives the word counts on a smattering of classics, and shows how varied they can be.

If you are seeking to get traditionally published, it pays to know the expectations of publishers in your genre. If you don’t you might be facing the difficult prospect of significantly rewriting your novel to fit some editors expected word count.

The bottom line, though, is this, novel length has more to do with printing and pricing of books then it has to do with the actual writing. The downside for the writer is that sometimes you simply run out of story before you hit your word count goal. You have to pad the story out with subplots to make it fit. Other times you run long and are faced with a painful process of cutting. For the reader the downside is padded out stories or stories that could have had that much more impact, if the writer had been allowed to write a tighter story. And books that seem short, that have lots more that the writer could have given us.

All books are the same size on the Kindle.

Luckily, times they are a changing. ebooks are slowly coming to dominate the market. And ebooks have none of the limitations of print. They can be any length, especially if they are indie. Just looking over my Amazon account, I have “books” ranging from short stories that would run under twenty pages in print to books like Neal Stephenson’s The Cryptonomicon, which ran over a thousand pages in print.

How long should a novel be? Long enough to tell the story you want to tell, not one word longer or one word shorter.

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