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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.