How Long Should a Book Be?

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From Medium:

Of all the questions I’m asked about writing how long should a book be? is right up there at the top. It comes up so often.

Often, it comes up because someone’s already written 120,000 words and they’ve got their fingers crossed that I’ll tell them that’s no big deal.

Or they’re hoping I’ll tell them that 40,000 is plenty long enough for a novel.

In theory, your book should be as long or short as it needs to be in order for you to tell your story.

And if you’re self-publishing, it really is that easy.

But if you plan on trying to be traditionally published, there are guidelines that are important to know and understand. Because agents and publishers use your book’s length as a way to decide whether or not to pursue your project.

Here’s the thing: Agents and Editors get gazillions of submissions every year. They actually take on a tiny percentage of them. Like, less than ten percent. So, they need a way to quickly weed out what they don’t want.

Manuscript word count is one of those ways. They know they won’t be able to sell a debut novel that’s 120,000 words or 40,000 words very easily, so they just pass.

. . . .

A standard adult or young adult novel should be less than 100,000 words. This is a hard stop for traditional publishing. Once you’re established, you can write longer books, but for a debut novel? Stick to the 70,000 to 90,000 word range. Like glue.

. . . .

Middle grade books are written for readers who are between the ages of about 8 to 12. The standard word count for this type of book is between 35,000 and 55,000 words.

. . . .

There are two kinds of writers out there. Some of us write short first drafts and in revision, we have to bulk things up. Some of us write long first drafts and in revision, we have to lean things down.

So, if your adult or YA book’s first draft is 40,000 words, you have some work to do — just like someone who’s first draft is 150,000 words.

I can practically hear you telling me that your book has to be 150,000 words — there’s nothing you can cut without ruining your story. Or that you’ve told your whole story in 40,000 words and adding anything is unthinkable.

Here’s the thing. If you indie publish, you can publish whatever you want. Including your 150,000 word monster of a book or your very slim volume.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG notes that the OP never discusses the length of ebooks.

18 thoughts on “How Long Should a Book Be?”

  1. A useful article, because reader expectations are still shaped by their favorite genre’s conventions. (And yes, if your e-book is too short or too long they do often notice. Particularly if they’re price-sensitive.)

    Me, I’ve often found the thing I have to plan for most is the size of the print edition. Because if it gets too large, you can’t get it through the POD wringer without making the text too small for a lot of readers’ comfort. And if you decide to split the print book up but leave the e-book a single volume you mess up the metadata, and readers get confused whether they’ve already bought something or not. (“Is this a sequel only available in print? Wait, I read this already…” ) Once a book starts getting into the 500+ page realm I start thinking about splitting things up.

    • Even if the story doesn’t call for it?

      I’ve see it done in times past (Zelazny’s AMBER CHRONICLES is really a single big novel in three acts, not the five skinny volumes it was released as) but in more recent times it is more common to see big print volumes than artificial trilogies. At least in SF&F.

      From where I sit the growth of digital and online seems to have loosened the “tyrany of the word count” in at least some genres.

      • I think the key is genre and sub-genre. What we can do in fantasy (big book) or humorous sci-fi (smaller books) might not work in sweet romance, or horror, and literary fiction is something different again.

  2. “In theory, your book should be as long or short as it needs to be in order for you to tell your story.

    And if you’re self-publishing, it really is that easy.”

    Which is why I do that self-pub thingy.

    Amazon’s crazy system says my first ebook was only 150 pages. 490 for the second, and the third got away from me at 771.
    $2.99, $4.95 & $4.95 and people are buying the silly things. 😉

  3. Yes, “your book should be as long or short as it needs to be in order for you to tell your story.” I choose to ignore the “In theory” part, without which the thought makes perfect sense.

    Yes, of course there are genre conventions. But if you read in that (those) genre and then write in them, your subconscious knows the conventions too, including those for approximate length.

    I’m pretty glad Steinbeck didn’t beef up Of Mice and Men, Elie Wiesel didn’t beef up Night, etc.

    And there’s also another kind of writer. The kind who trusts the characters to tell the(ir) story and writes through in one clean draft. Thank goodness.

    • I’ve seen quite a few authors talk of how they started with one story and the characters made it into something else or how a secondary character took over a story. Almost always, for the better.

  4. In Indie Self-Pub, it’s not Words that matter, it’s Print Length (Pages). And Print Length can be easily adjusted in book design (for paper). And ebooks (at least with Amazon KDP) take the print length of the paper book and assign that to the ebook.

    • If you’re exclusive with Amazon, maybe. They’re the only bookseller who places emphasis on “pages read.” Otherwise, that hasn’t been my experience. And not everyone publishes to paper.

        • Hi Harald,

          Oh, none that I know of. Nor do readers probably wonder how many words there are to a “page” that they read. I’m sure Amazon has an algorithm that covers it though, especially since the readers (of ebooks) themselves can vary the word count per page by simply enlarging or decreasing the font size, etc. (grin)

          But as M.C.A. noted earlier, readers do have an expectation for particular genres. The length of a Romance or Mystery, for example, depends on the sub-genre. Many Westerns are shorter at 35,000 to 50,000 words. Fantasy generally are much larger as are modern Thrillers (though the expectations that generally make a Thriller are Pacing, Stakes, and Scope, which usually requires higher word or page counts).

          The only way to realistically compare word counts with pages is to go with the old standard 250 words per page. But of course that varies widely from book to book and even chapter to chapter, depending on the author’s personal style, pacing, etc.

  5. I’m sure Amazon has an algorithm that covers it though,…

    Yes, it does, and it applies it to ebooks until/unless there’s a print version, from which it takes the “pages” count.

    But as M.C.A. noted earlier, readers do have an expectation for particular genres. The length of a Romance or Mystery, for example, depends on the sub-genre. Many Westerns are shorter at 35,000 to 50,000 words. Fantasy generally are much larger as are modern Thrillers (though the expectations that generally make a Thriller are Pacing, Stakes, and Scope, which usually requires higher word or page counts).

    True enough.

    The only way to realistically compare word counts with pages is to go with the old standard 250 words per page. But of course that varies widely from book to book and even chapter to chapter, depending on the author’s personal style, pacing, etc.

    Indeed. e.g., lots of dialogue or shorter paragraphs = more pages.

    • “lots of dialogue or shorter paragraphs = more pages.”

      A little bit of empirical backing for this (which I may have posted before, I can’t recall):

      On my PC I have two incomplete typescripts, one for a memoir and one an adventure novel (both by the same author, not me). By chance the both run to just over 221,000 words. The novel has lots of dialogue and shorter paragraphs, the memoir a lot less speech and longer paragraphs (on average twice as long as for the novel).

      In Word, using exactly the same styles for both books, the memoir runs to 312 pages and the novel to 414, so one third more pages for the latter.

      I don’t find Amazon’s page numbers in the book description very helpful and would actually prefer word count, though this attitude may be a bit uncommon. For text based fiction I think that using word count would actually be fairer for KU authors (until the scammers started manipulating the word count) though it wouldn’t really work for heavily illustrated books.

  6. James P. Hogan would answer that question with, How Long Should a Piece of String Be?

    – As long as needed to wrap up a parcel.

    His answer made perfect sense, if you were alive when they would tie up parcels with string. Many things were lost when we switched to bags. People would take the string off the parcel, and add it to their ever growing ball of string.

    The main point, was the way you tie up the parcel, was the same way you would structure the story. The twists and turns of the string around the parcel was the same as the twists and turns of the story.

    I always recommend The Time Mercenaries by Philip E. High. It’s only three bucks on Kindle.

    It’s less than 50k words, yet every time I read it, it rips me to pieces. The story is tight, nothing wasted. It has the same story arc as LOTR. The same book written today would be multivolume, 500k words, and tell the same story.

    • The same book written today would be multivolume, 500k words, and tell the same story.
      ———
      Yes, because that’s a smart business model. Read-through is how most authors make a full-time living today.

  7. The point of this article is about the realities of traditional publishing. Just like runway supermodels need to be roughly the same height and weight so the designers don’t have to send out multiple sizes of their custom, one-off clothing, there are realities of traditional publishing that dictate the length of a first-time author’s novel.

    The major one being convincing the editorial board to purchase the novel in the first place. Increasing the length of the novel increases the number of units that need to be sold in order to make back the outlay on author advance, editing, book selling to stores, shipping, warehousing and printing.

    Like a Realtor pricing a house, acquiring editors have to put together comp books to convince the purchasing board that they won’t be wasting money. For first time novelists, those comps are ALWAYS other first-time novelists in the past few years. They use the sales of those comp books to determine what a realistic sales number for the book will be. The longer the novel, the greater the risk.

    Ebooks obviously offset this dynamic — somewhat. But the bulk of revenue for traditional trade fiction sales is still coming from physical editions, so the same formulas apply.

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