How Long Should a Novel Be?

I’ve told a number of people starting novels or thinking about them or shopping them that shorter is better these days, and the old adage about needing to write a big first book is totally not true. There seems to be a persistent meme going around about needing to pad novels.

It’s not true.

First off, you should be more focused on writing the novel to the length it needs to be. That’s the primary concern, I think.

Secondly, it’s not true. Particularly if you’re going to be coming out in hardcover first.
First piece of evidence: me. I am involved in cutting out some words in my novel. Why? The more I can cut the cheaper the hardcover will be, the more likely people will take risks both in carrying it and buying it. That’s how it has been explained. However, I am told not to harm the book to cut stuff…

Second piece of evidence: Peter Watts. In the intro to B-Max he writes:

Behemoth is being released in two volumes, several months apart. I wish this were not necessary, but new policies have resulted from recent changes within the publishing industry. Henceforth, books by midlist authors will not receive wide distribution if they cost too much — that is, if they weigh in at more than about 110,000 words. “Behemoth is over 150,000 words long, and was almost complete by the time this policy came into effect. Hacking away a third of it was not an option (believe me, I tried)…A two-part release was the only alternative.
“Fortunately, Behemoth was conceived and written as two contrasting halves from the outset…If you’re the kind of reader who gets off on cliffhangers, this may work just fine for you. If not, you have been warned: you’ll have to read Volume Two to see how it ends.”

So there you go, a cap of about 110K could be the ‘industry hard cover standard’ if you’re interested in numbers. But there are certainly longer books than that in the Fantasy genre (see Brandon Sanderson).

Third piece of evidence: Cory Doctorow’s first book was just over 50,000.

Fourth piece, this musing by Michelle Sagara

The submission criterion has changed in many ways since the time I submitted my first novel. I don’t believe that Del Rey now accepts unsolicited submissions, for one. When I submitted my novel, length was an issue. In the intervening years, for a while, it was vastly less of an issue — and now it’s an issue again, with a vengeance.

Which is to say: There was a period in which publishers were actively looking for “Big” books from new authors. They’re now actively looking for small books — as in short — from new authors. (Keeping in mind that my last book was over 400,000 words, short for me would be the 140K that is currently the high end of acceptable new-author word count for the largest of the SF/F publishing houses).

There are many reasons (given) for this change, one of the largest having to do with production costs, and the P&L statement. Profit and Loss statements are done for each book at each publisher; I would guess that some of the details differ from house to house, but regardless, there are some base expenses that will be added to the cost side of the ledger. Cover art. Type-setting. Copy-editing. Printing costs. House overhead (which would be the percentage of the book’s sale price that goes towards things like paying the rent, the utilities, the salaries of the editors/reps/etc). In order to keep costs -down- (and cover prices), one of the things that has to go down is page count.

Realize of course, that if you are submitting to a paperback release first house it doesn’t seem to matter as much.

Realize of course, that if the editors -really- like your book, it doesn’t seem to matter as much, and you might get them to take a gamble.

Realize of course, that writing the best novel that you can write should be the primary goal, not writing the novel that falls into the best length for what may… or may not… be the current spread for lengths.

7 thoughts on “How Long Should a Novel Be?”

  1. MUG is just 59,000 words and has been getting serious attention from Bantam and Berkley for a paperback releases — Bantam especially is looking at short books these days, including mmpbs of Etched City and Choir Of Ill Children.

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