The Length of a Piece of String

If I was to tell you an interesting story about the first time I went to Brazil, I would tell you about the time I woke up face-to-face with a bull’s severed head.

I wouldn’t tell you about the weeks beforehand when I did nothing but lie around on the beach and drink too much, or the months of planning, trying to decide which flights to buy, and wondering whether I needed malaria pills.  The point is, you start a story at exactly the point where it gets interesting, and you end it before it starts getting boring.

But how long should that be?

Traditionally, the writer’s options have been limited.  Market forces and cost considerations have tended to strait-jacket a writer, and the only length acceptable was a short story or a novel.  A short story is generally defined as anything below 10,000 words.  Some people say 7,500 words, others say 20,000, but I think 10,000 is pretty common as an upper limit.

For novels, the preferred length, set by publishers and agents, is 80,000 to 100,000 words (with slight variations for genre, and much shorter lengths for Children’s/YA novels).  There are good reasons for this.

First of all, the longer the book, the more it costs to print. And the more you add to the print costs, the more you have to add to the price of the book. Naturally, there is a point where the reader will baulk, especially if you aren’t J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Similarly, if you are a new or relatively unknown writer, readers want to know that if they are risking their $10, that they least get some minimum entertainment time.

Really successful writers can break these rules (they can pretty much do whatever they want), but for the other 99%, they have to play the game.  And for unpublished writers trying to hook an agent, the rules are very strict. Most agents won’t even look at a book that is outside this word count.  If they see a query letter, and the word count is 150,000 words, they probably won’t even read your query letter, or even bother to reply.  If you’re lucky, you will get a short, curt message, advising you to trim it, but that’s it.

Over the years, there has been some classic work produced outside these word lengths.  On the longer side you have War & Peace (460,000), Les Misérables (510,000), Middlemarch (315,000), and two that I thought were shorter Catch-22 (175,000) and Crime & Punishment (210,000).  What you will notice about these books is that they are doorstoppers and/or the text is tiny.  The other thing is that they were written a long time ago, before the corporatisation of the publishing world.

If you are a new novelist, or your sales are modest, a publisher (and hence an agent) is not going to want to take the extra risk of producing a more expensive, outsized book, not when there are thousands more people banging down their door with perfect-sized novels. Detailed profit and loss assessments are made on every book before the editor makes an offer, and it this stage, they don’t even bother with work that falls outside the preferred length.

One form has fallen by the wayside completely in the modern publishing world.  The novella.  Generally between 17,500 and 40,000 words (shorter again is a novelette), this for has produced a string of classics you will all remember: A Christmas Carol, Of Mice and Men, Billy Budd, Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, The Old Man and The Sea, and Heart of Darkness.

Unfortunately, it is no longer economical for publishing houses to produce novellas for the vast majority of writers.  Even though they have less pages, there are fixed production costs (cover design, marketing, etc.) that the publisher has to be regardless of length.  And customers expect to pay less for something half the size of a novel, meaning publishers’ margins shrink to the point where it’s only worthwhile producing it if you are sure it will be a runaway hit.

So what is a writer to do? Up until recently, it meant either stretching or cutting your story so that it would fit into the preferred form.  But as I mentioned at the top, the right length for a story is the right length. I’m sure there are thousands of novels on everyone’s bookshelves that would have been better if the writer had been allowed a length of their choice. And I’m equally sure that there are thousands more stories that we never got to read because of these restrictions.

Well, not anymore.

With digital publishing, length doesn’t matter anymore. You can tell your story in the length it takes to tell the story. You don’t have to add unnecessary sub-plots to pad it out, and you don’t have to cut that minor character you were so fond of to trim it down. You can tell the story your way, the way it was meant to be told.

The production costs for an e-book are pretty much the same regardless of length.  Of course, you will spend more on editing the longer the story is, and formatting will take longer, but that’s it. You have no commercial restrictions outside of that, especially if you are self-publishing.  And for self-publishers, as they have complete control over pricing, they can entice the customer into taking a risk with a low, low price.

While this hasn’t led to a boom in War and Peace-length stories (yet, maybe they are still being written!), it has led to a resurgence in the novella. And if this leads to the production of new classics like those listed above, everyone wins.

MSAM5U8RU5AD

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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24 Responses to The Length of a Piece of String

  1. Werner says:

    Hi Dave,

    With so much information hitting us on a daily basis and the generally shorter attention spans of people; I think both novellas and short stories (written in the economical style of an Elmore Leonard) are going to make a big comeback in the e-book format.

    Werner
    Werner

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  2. I agree. Many of the guys who have been doing well out of self-publishing have been doing it with shorter novels. And it could be a factor in the YA boom in the US (with more and more adults buying YA books for themselves).

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  3. Hektor Karl says:

    I share your optimism, Dave. The production flexibility is exciting.

    One additional point: There are so many non-fiction books that are padded with repetition, unnecessary anecdotes, weaker chapters, etc., in an effort to fill 300+ pages. Novella/pamphlet-length non-fiction could also be great for readers.

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    • Exactly – and it has been in the past, when self-publishing was much more common pre-1950, people could make money out of pamphlets.

      Poets, of course, have been self-publishing work, of all sorts of length, for years. It’s just that chapbooks are moving online.

      I have a 100,000 word novel that I am considering self-publishing. I had a thought the other day about whether I should offer it as one, large novel, or two shorter ones (there is an easy place to split it in the middle which would only require a little editing). Maybe I should do both, price appropriately, and let the reader decide. After all, it will only increase visibility on Amazon and elsewhere.

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  4. Elisabeth says:

    I’ve had this same thought myself, and it’s encouraging to see that someone else has. I write short stories, but probably my biggest challenge has been pushing myself to stay under the word limit prescribed by most short story markets (and a lot of the time it’s closer to 5-6,ooo at the most). Some stories really need to go past that limit but don’t have enough material for a full-length novel.

    I have seen some people complaining that self-published novellas in ebook form are cheating buyers who think they’re getting a longer book, but I don’t think that’s a problem as long as authors are very clear about length in their product description. So far as I know, Amazon doesn’t have separate categories for short and long ebooks yet, do they?

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    • Amazon have a category for Short Stories. However, with the way they list books, and the way that tagging works, your short story will appear in multiple places (e.g. Short Story & Science Fiction). Some authors aren’t clear in their descriptions about the length of their work, and they often don’t list word or page counts, which is unfair on the reader, and comes back to bite the writer in reviews. Amazon don’t force you to do either, of course, but that may change.

      A good strategy is always to be upfront with the reader, especially with the proliferation of $0.99 novels. You must post the word count clearly so that the reader knows what they are getting. Amazon could do a better job here in highlighting this, you do have to look for it if the author doesn’t place it in the actual text description, so it’s a good idea to do it there too.

      With regard to short story markets, a story is more marketable if it is between 2,000 and 4,000 words. Editors have reasons for this – it’s what their readers want to read, plus keeping the upper limits helps to keep down costs (they usually pay by the word). But there are plenty of markets where they take longer stories, http://www.duotrope.com is a great search engine for short story markets. And if you can always try posting in forums such as Absolute Write which have both short story and various genre subsections where you can get quick answers to questions like this. The people there really know all the (U.S.) markets.

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  5. David Larson says:

    There’s anecdotal evidence that novellas aren’t selling nearly as well as novels, but I think this is mostly a marketing problem. The term novella is so variable, it doesn’t tell us much about the product. Writer A calls his short work of 10,000 words a novella, whereas Writer B calls it a long short story. Another writer might call 35,000-40,000 words a short novel (which is certainly better for marketing; has a lovely ring to it.) Most readers just don’t know how to conceptualize a novella. It’s been too long removed from the public consciousness, so there needs to be a new push to reintroduce it.

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    • I think you are spot on, David. When I was researching this post, I was surprised at some of the titles that were actually novellas. I guess when you buy the paperback, they are usually padded out with introductions, notes, biography and the rest, so the reader wouldn’t shirk at the length, and instead think they are getting value for the price.

      Perhaps if some e-publisher was to publish a load of novellas, they could easily raise consciousness of the form by referring to these classics. Then again, with the rise of self-publishing, I think people are becoming more fluid of their conception of novel-length, and accepting, as you said “short novels” of 35,000 words as acceptable.

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      • David Larson says:

        I think it’s important for people to know how novel lengths have grown over the years, and partly because of publishers’ desires, not because authors became more longwinded. Look at science fiction. This is a notoriously weighty genre, with books that often come in at 120,000 or more words. However, many of the seminal science fiction works were far under this count. I don’t remember the exact word count, but Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was around 60,000 words, or 221 pages in hardback. It probably wouldn’t have been accepted by publishers today. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about 46,000 words long.

        Writers have been forced to build their stories up to an arbitrary word or page count instead of making the story as long (or as short) as it needs to be.

        There is a danger in this new old movement. If writers pad their short stories (or simply not edit them as severely as they might’ve done before) just so they can slap the title Novella on them, either out of laziness or to charge a higher price, it could undercut the whole thing.

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      • Yes, and many new writers are particularly bad at cutting their story where it needs to be cut, and first novels (unpublished ones), often run far too long. When they realise that this won’t fly, they cut, and often end up with a better story.

        Without the gatekeeper in self-publishing, I wonder how many people will go through that necessary process.

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      • Another one I was surprised by was Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut’s debut, only 45,000 words. No new author would get away with that today, and good luck converting THAT into a YA novel!

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  6. David Larson says:

    hahaha. A few months ago that probably would have been my exact thought process. Only at that length I would’ve thought Middle Grade. Maybe throw in a wizard or two to make it fly.

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    • I think the key though, as always, is a good, professional editor, whom you respect, and with whom you develop a good working relationship, where you listen to what they say. We can all point to experienced writers who seem to have gotten a little flabbier in their prose as their star power grew and they felt more comfortable overruling their editor. I’m not saying you should slavishly incorporate each editorial suggestion, but they should be given a lot of weight, and never simply dismissed out of hand because you think differently.

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  7. Hektor Karl says:

    The Vonnegut and the Bradbury might have found a home as literary fiction, which seems more open to shorter novels.

    Charles Yu’s How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe was about that length. Last year’s Pulitzer prize winner, The Tinkers, was as well. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey was also quite short. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son still sells fairly well.

    I agree that “short novel” sounds more marketable than “novella.” I also think people will come to expect exact length listings.

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    • David Larson says:

      Amazon could easily require that information, either in the form of word count listing (which most people don’t understand anyway), or category (Short story, novelette, novella, short novel, novel–which most people don’t understand anyway.) But then authors might be back to padding for length to achieve a higher price with a higher word count or the more desirable “novel” label.

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      • Hektor Karl says:

        True, though padding will always be a vice when it comes to writing🙂.

        Readers will speak their minds if they feel the product was sub-par. With e-books, the reviews are always right there (which wasn’t true when buying off a store rack).

        In the long-term, (relatively) honest descriptions will probably be the best policy, especially for writers with many books for sale. Cheat a reader once, and they won’t return.

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      • Exactly, and this is what is so attractive (to me) about the “readers as gatekeepers” model. I don’t really care that much how much extra crap is published, I care more that readers get to decide what is good and what is bad, not Time magazine, not The New York Times, not agents, not editors, but readers.

        Although ask me again after my first one-star review…

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      • They could and they should.

        It could be easily solved. Nearly all readers will have read physical books, and there is a standard size (more or less), so why can’t they give a rough guide at least?

        Or they could say X pages on the standard Kindle at standard font sizes, or whatever. But something.

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      • David Larson says:

        I agree that readers are the ultimate gatekeepers, but relying solely on individual word of mouth to spread your book’s popularity is problematic. When buying wine, I don’t do research ahead of time, but I know the genre of wine I like, and I always look for a rating card beneath it. If Robert Parker says it’s over a 90, I’ll believe him, and if the price is right, I’ll buy it. Same thing for beer. A four pack of ale may be a whopping 12 bucks, but if it’s rated a 100 by someone I’ve heard of, I’ll likely try it. Maybe we need a Book Spectator. Or we need nothing of the sort and I should stop avoiding my writing and get back to work.

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    • It’s interesting that out of the four examples you gave two were small, independent presses (Harding & Mason), and two were large publishers. And out of the two from large publishers, one (Yu) was by a specific imprint with lots of editorial independence, and the other (Johnson) was from 1993.

      I think it’s harder today with a large house to get something published at that length that is not YA. And for a new writer? It doesn’t matter how good it is, the agents won’t even look at the manuscript. It’s not impossible, but pretty close.

      Small, independent presses however, will often try something a little different, and it was great to see them garnering so many nominations in the awards this year.

      But your general point about literary fiction holds – shorter works are acceptable, just as in Epic Fantasy longer works are permitted.

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  8. J. T. Shea says:

    Interesting points, David. A few thoughts occur to me:-

    I take it the French law prevents discounting BY more than 5% of list price rather than BELOW 5% of list price?

    I don’t agree that price-cutting is the solution to theft. The only price thieves will pay is zero.

    I too was surprised publishers charged more for e-books than for mass market and even trade paperbacks. But it seems to be working. Most bestselling e-books are quite expensive, and their prices are going up, if anything. Many, if not most, readers seem as ‘conservative’ in their choice of e-books as in their choice of paper books. Not what I expected! Then again, I didn’t expect the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I don’t hold myself out as a prophet.

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    • Hi John, thanks for following me over from Nathan’s place. You are correct in your assumption re. the French law (did I say the second one? must correct).

      I wrote a longer piece on piracy a few days ago. But in short, I believe (and there is evidence for this), there are two kinds of pirates. The first kind are the techies who crack the stuff in the first place, often as a badge of honour, share it around, and fill their hard-drives full of the stuff, and probably rarely look at it. I don’t think this group represent lost sales in any significant numbers. But there is a second kind. They are the people who don’t really want to pirate, but have found a way to justify it to themselves. Either the book they want is unavailable as an e-book (Harry Potter, and much backlist stuff), or its priced too high, and they feel justified in taking it. This second group (which I believe is smaller in terms of actual pirated copies), is where the publisher/writer is losing sales. The first you can do nothing about. The second, you can combat with low prices and convenience. I could lay out the whole argument for the latter point, but take a look at the piracy post (it’s called Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle of Rum), and see what you think.

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  9. Pingback: Making Money From Writing, Part 1: Short Story Markets | David Gaughran

  10. A Writer says:

    I write under a few different pen names and my experience has been that while some readers love novellas, a lot more readers in the general public just “don’t understand them”. They think they are getting a “rushed and underdeveloped novel” or are in some other way being short-changed. This is especially true when you add in the “bargain shopping reader” who buys an ebook novella at a bargain price and thinks they’re just getting a bargain but then feel doubly cheated in the end.

    It also doesn’t seem to help to be very specific in descriptions… listing the word count, how many pages that translates to, and even how long reading time will be, tends to only reduce the drama you have to deal with, not eliminate it.

    It seems the shortest novella you can get away with without dealing with fallout and bad reviews from people who can’t read descriptions is about 35,000 words. Even then you’ll have complaints that your work is “too short”. (Interestingly all the complaints about underdeveloped and “too short” stories, completely disappear when you combine several novellas in a collection, which leads me to believe readers don’t know what they are reacting to and are reacting to the amount of time it takes them to read something, not how good it is, or how developed it is.

    Unfortunately, due to all the years of publishers insisting on very narrow word count ranges, the general public has no real understanding or concept of things like the novella. I do think they are more receptive to shorter novels in ebook form like 50k to 70k short, and that 35k novellas don’t produce “too” many problems. But generally speaking, anything under 35k that you intend to sell on Kindle, no matter your price point, writers should be prepared to meet some resistance and deal with a few obnoxious consumers who think they are purposefully cheating them.

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