Writing the “Big” Book

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From Dave Farland:

When you look at novels carefully, you will notice that the bestselling books of all time are usually big “doorstoppers.” In each genre, we see this pattern.

When the novel Dune was published, it was rejected by every publisher in the business until a company that sold engine books illustrating engine parts (so that you could easily order parts for repairs) decided to publish the novel. It became the bestselling science fiction novel of all time.

A Tale of Two Cities was rejected by so many publishers, the author finally published it himself with the help of an investor—and it became the bestselling mainstream book in English for the next 150 years.

With Harry Potter, the twelve largest publishers in the world rejected it because it was “too big” for Middle Grade readers. It has since gone on to sell 500 million copies and become the bestselling Middle Grade novel of all time.

Yet as authors, we are told over and over again to write skinnier novels. My editor at Tor used to try to cut every novel down to under 130,000 words. I like to write them a bit closer to 200,000.

I’ve heard several reasons why we should write skinny novels. 

  1. Publishers complain that paper costs are usually steep enough so that if you have too many pages, it’s hard to get customers to pay the higher price required for a big book. I recall one publisher complaining of a bestselling novel by Robert Jordan—“We’re selling millions of them, but we are wondering if we’re losing money on every book we sell, with today’s paper prices being so high.”
  2. One editor pointed out that with fat books, there are only a couple of binderies in the US that can handle a book that holds over 400 pages, so they are tougher to make. Indeed, with mass-market paperbacks, we didn’t have glue that would bind 600-page books together until the mid-1980s.
  3. Booksellers like Barnes & Noble often complained to publishers that fat books were unprofitable because they took up so much space on the racks. In fact, the US’s largest bookseller warned publishers that they would refuse to take fat books if the publishers kept printing them.

Yet people keep reading fat books.

. . . .

When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he intentionally wrote a “long book.” I believe that he understood the effect that he was trying to achieve. In the 1950s, he taught a class at Oxford where he discussed the importance of telling stories from multiple narrators so that an author could create a “dreamlike state” as quickly as possible.

So when he wrote LOTR, he imagined it as one huge novel. He typed it up and sent it to his publisher in an orange crate because, back then, orange crates were made of wood and were sturdy enough to hold his 2000-page manuscript.

The publisher looked at it and declared it an “act of genius,” but worried that they’d lose money on it.

So they broke it into three pieces and sold it as a “trilogy”. Suddenly, authors could write longer narratives so long as we kept them in a series.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

6 thoughts on “Writing the “Big” Book”

  1. If you’re wondering whether you are losing money on the material production cost of a book – it’s time to fire your current accountants and find a competent set to replace them.

  2. One problem with breaking a big book into a series is the beats and hooks. Often it leads to padding and unneeded cliffhangers and break points. Or volumes that just…end…

    With ebooks, length doesn’t matter; only reader engagement and satisfaction.

    That is a double win: authors tell their story as it “wants” to be told, readers get a complete story with no artificial breaks.

    • I’m still torn by that concept of going all ebook or still have a mix of ebook and paper when it comes to big stories. The choice is controlling how I consider publishing big stuff like the series examples we discussed awhile back.

      A 13 episode series, for paper, needs to be broken up into two books(6, 7) to have paper books that don’t cost too much.

      I found the complete works of Nathanial Hawthorne on Kindle. His novels like the Scarlet Letter are awful, but his short stories are amazing. I have those in a trade paperback, but with small print. It is nice to have everything in one ebook.

      BTW, I watched the TV series Picard and that is the way to do Star Trek.

      It is ten episodes, 42 minutes each. The ten episodes are a story arc, rather than individual stories that start and end in the same episode(ABA).

      I watched all of Star Trek: Next Generation many times, yet I can only remember a few episodes. If they had done ten episode story arcs, (10, 10, 5), over a 25 episode season, they could have taken their time telling a story rather than burning through so many great ideas in minutes.

      They could have started the Klingon war at the end of one season, then finished it at the beginning of the next. (10, 10, 5) (5, 10, 10).

      The problem comes in with the paper books. It would take five books(105k each), with five episodes each to have the price per book low enough for a season.

      Paper still controls how I look at big stories. Grrr…

  3. My first novel was 160,000 words. Pretty fat. Then I switched gears and am now writing 50-60,000-word novels. I’m now in SciFi/Time Travel, and that length feels about right. My readers think so, too. Different strokes.

  4. There are actually technology reasons for some of the “size limitations” on books — primarily binding technology. Unfortunately, the alkaline papers now used (because the paper lasts longer) make binding harder — most of the glues that are both strong enough and flexible enough to be part of a large-book binding (more than about 640 pages) stink. (Literally — they offgas.) And “640 pages” matters because that’s about the maximum for fully-mechanized sewn bindings, which are necessary if the glues aren’t quite, um, up to snuff.

    So that means hand binding (which all by itself explains why almost all print runs over 5,000 copies or so of these books are done overseas, or conversely cost oodles of cold hard cash; priced the current volume of West’s Federal Reporter (3d Series) lately?). Which is slow and expensive… and error-prone. Plus, remember those alkaline papers? They’re not as good a match for the existing Smyth-sewing machines, plus they tend to throw off more dust when torn or punctured and that requires more maintenance on the machines. And don’t get me started on coated papers, interior color, etc. I’m a little out of date, but only two or three years.

    One notorious example from a few years back: The third volume of Tad Williams’s trilogy MEMORY SORROW AND THORN, To Green Angel Tower, had to be split into two mass-market paperback volumes, both of which themselves were doorstop-length despite really small type. And both of which constantly fell apart (resulting in lots of spoiled returns) because of both design and production problems, but that’s for another time.

    The things one learns in-house at academic publishers… which frequently have books calling for unusual sizes…

    • Sounds familiar. My first nonfiction trade paperback (specialty consumer, not academic; all coated paper) was only 385 pages, but the pages literally fell out and scattered across the floor after a few uses. After the returns started rolling in, they finally admitted they’d used the wrong glue (they said). I have a giant bulldog clip holding it together. With the second edition two years later, the glue held. No bulldog required.

      Now I’m an Indie doing fiction on uncoated interior paper (for print). No more issues.

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