Novels and Novellas and Tomes

From Counter Craft:

We like to pretend that art is art. That an author writes what they are inspired to write, with no concern but the voice of the muse. This is a useful fiction. It is good for writers to focus on the art when writing and worry about the business side later. But it is a fiction. Writers are aware of market demands, what kinds of novels get buzz, and what subjects award judges gravitate towards. Even writers with high artistic aspirations are—consciously or unconsciously—warped by these pressures. Especially those of us hoping to make a living on our writing.

In my recent post on the literary fiction and SFF short story markets, I mentioned how the short story was the economically dominant length of fiction in the first half of the 20th century. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald bemoaned the fact they had to write short stories to subsidize their novel writing. In 2021—and really the last 50 years or more—the dynamic has been the opposite. Today, short story writers frequently (if mostly privately) grumble about how they have to write novels if they want any chance at earning money or even just getting an agent.

. . . .

This got me thinking about one of those rarely-spoken-about-but-interesting-to-me topics: what determines the lengths of novels?

The novel is an extremely flexible form. It can come out in countless shapes, include infinite content, and end up almost any length. Let’s call the lower limit of a novel 40,000 words. Long novels like Infinite Jest and The Stand are more than 10 times that length, and that’s not even getting into series or In Search of Lost Times type works that are published in dozens or more volumes. So why are most novels published in a relatively narrow range of 60k to 120k words?

Or to put it another way: why doesn’t anyone publish novellas in America? Novellas as a form thrive in many parts of the world. They’re very popular in Latin America and Korea, and hardly uncommon in Europe. Yet it’s almost impossible to find a book labeled “a novella” in America outside of small press translations or classics imprints.

. . . .

The length of books is one of those things that varies from genre to genre as well as era to era. Take high fantasy, a genre famous for its massive tomes ever since Tolkien. Even those tomes have grown longer as the decades have passed. The last individual volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has close to the same wordcount (422k) as all three volumes of Lord of the Rings combined (480k)! There’s been similar bloat in children’s fantasy. The Narnia books were all 39k to 64k in length, novellas to short novel range. Compare that to the volumes of His Dark Materials (109-168k per volume) and Harry Potter (74k-257k).

In general, popular genre fiction—thrillers, mysteries, etc.—and commercial fiction tends to be longer than so-called literary fiction these days, although all genres of novels became more bloated in the second half of the 20th century. Then again, pre-20th century novels were often quite long. Charles Dickens novels like Great Expectations (183k) and Bleak House (360k) or Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (126k) or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (183k) and other novels of that era were frequently tomes by even today’s standards.

So what explains these novel fluctuations? One obvious factor for the length of 19th century English novels is that they were typically serialized either in magazines or else as a series of pamphlets. The more you wrote, the more you were paid. Pretty simple. The economic pressure was to write long works. Serialization of course also changes the content of the novel, not just the length, as you need to have cliffhangers and hooks at the end of each installment that will keep the reader coming back. Art is never free of economics in capitalism.

. . . .

Americans expect bang for their buck. Yet the price of novels is unrelated to length. Trade paperbacks are around 16 bucks a piece whether they are a 100-page novella or a 400-page tome. Even among highbrow literary readers, I’ve heard people say they rather get a long book than a short one for the same money. Why pay the same for 2 hours of entertainment when you can get 10 hours of entertainment for the same price?

Link to the rest at Counter Craft

4 thoughts on “Novels and Novellas and Tomes”

  1. This is another example of publishing living in the past: An awful lot of these memes are based on relative production, transportation, and fulfillment costs over half a century ago. Novellas, etc. make much more sense when transportation and fulfillment is relatively cheap compared to production; and the more-compact spaces of Europe (plus, well, tradition, especially Spanish, but one also has to remember that in Latin America historically book culture has been in the cities of production, not rural areas). Conversely, weight and other “size per unit sold” issues matter more when one is paying by the ounce/carton for long-distance shipment.

    The irony that this would be less of a concern if American publishing were centered in Chicago, or St. Louis, than in New York seems to have escaped a lot of people. Less, but still a significant concern: The distance from Chicago to New Orleans is greater than the distance from Rome to Berlin, or from London to Berlin, or from London to Barcelona… and for those of us on the Left Coast, Chicago is two-thirds of the way to the utter East.

    It’s the old military aphorism:
    Amateurs think about the hardware and weaponry
    Dilletantes think about tactics
    Politicians think about strategy
    Professionals think about logistics

  2. >> I used page count instead of word count, since, to be blunt, that was easy to look up online.

    As a complete and total aside, you’d think the latter rather than the former would be used for everything published this century, maybe even earlier, since it is far more objective and with current technology easily determined. Yet publishers and book retailer sites continue to make this difficult to find.

    • Page count or thickness is the only way they know how to sell books.

      I have old mass market books that are slim, thin paper, almost see through. They were starting to “fox” so I bought new mass market to replace them. The new books were twice as thick because they were using a light weight yet thick paper.

      I have too many trade paper books that are really only 60k. They went double space and large font to puff up the page count.

      Other hardbacks use a huge margin, and small font to puff out the page count. Yet I know that they could have used smaller margins and larger font to have a more readable book with less page count.

      They are going for thickness over readability.

      Then there was Bookburners by SerialBox.

      They are selling ebook episodes. I bought the book rather than ebook episodes. They literally puffed out the paper book to 800 pages. They wanted to discourage buying paper so they made it ridiculous.

      Use the “Look inside” on the paper book and see how they puffed it out. If they used 6×9, better margins, smaller font, they could have brought it down to 400 pages.

  3. When I was a kid, having to walk to Middle school, I’d stop at the 7Eleven and get one of those bubblegum cigars. It would take the length of the walk to school to chew the bubblegum, then discard it when I got to school.

    That intense chewing would make a special kind of ache in my jaw.

    Books were not long when I was a kid. All those Andre Norton books were usually shorter than 75k. Hardy Boys was less than 50k. I would devour them, one a day. Then I found some long books like The Mysterious Island, or When Worlds Collide(the two volume hardback).

    On a regular basis my jaw would start to ache as if I was chewing a bubblegum cigar. It was a signal that I had to pull out When Worlds Collide and read a big book. As time passed I discovered Stephen King, LOTR, etc…, and since I have routinely read big books, so that ache in my jaw never had to prompt me to read big.

    I’m reading Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton. It’s a 948-page hardback with small print, and I’m staying up well past my sell-by-date each night to read it, even though I have read it before. I just read The Salvation sequence. That’s three hardbacks, each around 500 pages.

    I read 10k words in an hour, so Duma Key at 210k takes me twenty-one hours to read.

    I need big books to keep my jaw from aching.

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