How Long Should a Novel Be?


Recently in one of the many groups I belong to, we got the questions:  “What is a novel?” and “What is a viably commercial novel?”

This is an interesting question, in the same vein as “Why is a mouse when it spins?” –e but the answer is much more complex than it seems at first sight.

It used to be easy, and I suppose still is, if your goal is to sell to one of the big four traditional publishers. For reasons of economics having to do with print, transport, and placement on shelves, they prefer novels larger than eighty thousand words, and sometimes larger than a hundred thousand words.

Note that length has absolutely nothing to do with what readers want, or what readers will buy, except in the sense that as the price of paper climbed and the price of books went up, people buying the book as a physical object wanted to see some heft and hold.

If you go back to books from the “Golden Age” of science fiction or even romances from the sixties and seventies, you find that they were much, much thinner. Back when I was trying to round out my Clifford Simak collection, we received a book in the mail – I want to say it’s The Fellowship of the Talisman from 1979, but it could be a different one – and my husband was amused at how thin it was. So he counted the words on a page, then multiplied by the number of pages, and realized the “novel” was probably under forty thousand words  I remembered reading it as a kid and didn’t remember its feeling particularly short.

Going back still further, the reason that the National Novel Writing Month people decided the goal was fifty thousand words was that most novel-length books averaged about that.

Sure, there was a growth in book length as we moved from writing with pen on paper to typewriter and then from typewriter to computer. However, those were almost “individual” growths. As in, some authors that were well known stopped being edited. It’s also a matter of careful picking because Dumas wrote books long enough to compete with the bloated products of the nineties fantasy series. So did Dickens, for that matter.

However, classics like Pride and Prejudice, Animal Farm and countless others pegged at around fifty thousand words.

In fact, most genre books through the eighties pegged at between sixty thousand and eighty thousand words. The publishing houses might make the smaller ones look bigger with more white space, but in general no one complained.

In the nineties there was some kind of Clinton-approved/endorsed regulation requiring that half the paper in a book be recycled.  Little known – or ignored – by Clinton is the fact that recycled paper is more expensive than new paper.  It’s also worse for the environment, as the chemicals used to recycle paper are far worse than initial wood pulp processing. For that matter, contrary to the beliefs of most left-environmentalists, making paper does not cut down old-growth forests. Instead, it cuts down fast-growing trees, planted for that purpose. Saving those trees is the equivalent of trying to save the onions, or thinking of the plight of baby carrots. However, as an old leftist, Clinton was more interested in his feels and the feels of his voters than in reality, and so the price of books climbed.

At the time, I was a young mother on a strict budget, and my favorite indulgence (cheap paperbacks) climbing from five dollars to eight felt like a kick in the gut. I moved most of my buying from new paperbacks to used, just out of necessity.

I’m going to guess my reaction wasn’t unique. The way the publishers dealt with this was to demand that books be longer. In my working life, which started around then, I saw the demand for the “minimum length” go from around 70,000 words to 120,000 words. I understand that friends working in epic fantasy had it worse, with demands of up to 260,000 words.

I’ve never written one of those books. My friend Dave Freer, who has, calls them goatgaggers. I did try to write one once (that deal fell apart, and I have the novel fragment somewhere). The only way to write a novel that length is, in fact, to cram several novels into one, and have six or seven characters each going through their vaguely related or occasionally interacting adventure and growth. Those novels could easily be separated and sold as a series of 50,000-word or so novels.

Did the ploy of making the books heftier make them sell better? I don’t know.

Look, since the 1960s the sales have been falling year on year. Whether they fell more or less because of the size of the book, I don’t know.

I know the perception in New York publishing was that giving longer size is giving more value for the money.

Maybe it is. Or at least, perhaps most readers are convinced of the link between size and value (said the actress to the bishop).

But in the end, on the face of it, this is not a rational belief.

Yes, I know, two or three of you there in the back are saying, “I won’t buy a novel that’s less than a hundred thousand words.  That’s stealing my money.” And you’ll say it even if the electronic form of the novel is $2.99 at Amazon. Because that just happens to be the way you are.

But indulge me for a moment, will you?

Think of your favorite classic novel. I have no idea what you’ve read, but let’s say you love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Animal Farm. Or let’s assume that on a rainy afternoon you ensconce yourself in the comfy chair with The Door into Summer or Murder on the Orient Express.

None of those are hefty books. I’d guess The Door into Summer falls right around 80,000 words, and the others are lighter.

So, you love these books. You’d be much happier if they were twice as long, right?

Price and Prejudice, say, includes the love affair between Mr. Darcy’s valet and Elizabeth’s maid. Murder on the Orient Express adds another twelve or so suspects.

Or, and we saw a lot of this with Heinlein re-editions, The Door into Summer just gets more words added in. More description.  A lot of thoughtful passages on the nature of cats.

Perhaps Animal Farm continues on and on to the eventual starvation of everyone at the farm.

If you think that no novel under 100,000 can give value, surely those suggestions are added value, right?

Well, no. As on one of the reviews of the recent Star Wars movie said: “It suffers from bloated length.”

A lot of books suffer from bloated length, particularly those the publishers demanded be over 250,000 words. At some point, the storylines would benefit from being individual rather than being crammed together in a “plot” that requires a cast of characters and a cheat sheet.

Are there people who love both writing and reading that type of story? Sure. I’ve met them. They also have a tendency to enjoy series that never end, but that’s something else.

On the other hand, there are also people who love reading and writing the forty to fifty thousand words novels. Not me. At least not me as a writer.

I confess as a reader, buying electronic books which is what I do now most of the time, I have no idea how long novels I’m reading and enjoying are.

Some of them feel skimpy, in that a character is not fully developed, or the plot resolves too fast, but I’ve found that problem in very long traditional novels. Other novels will feel bloated. Recently in reading a book that was – sort of – a romance, I saw the author blow through the happy ever after and go on into the first years of marriage, then the children, then the children’s romances, and I started fearing she was going to follow these characters to paradise after death. And okay, I don’t see that problem in really short books (difficult to do, given length limits) but I’ve seen it a lot in traditional books.

Mostly these days, I buy a book if the blurb seems interesting and the price is affordable. I don’t worry about getting “x amount of words per dollar” because a book is not a length, but an experience.

And sure, I like my experience to last x amount of hours (for novels usually three) but the thing is, somedays I read faster or slower, depending on what else I’m doing and how focused I am. So I can’t judge books that way either.

How long should a novel be?

Well, why is the mouse when he spins?

There is no particular answer that fits. For traditional publishing, aim for 100,000 words at least. For indie? Bah. The novels should be long enough to tell the story you want to tell.

After that, it’s up to you to make it worth the reader’s money. And it’s up to the reader to buy more novels from you or not.

Isn’t the free market a wonderful thing?