Essential writing skills: what is it about book size envy?

I often bemused by the attitude – which I find both among fiction and non-fiction authors – that there is some kind of status to be gained from the size of one’s books.

Wright_Typewriter2I still recall an academic historian, here in New Zealand, noting that one of his books – in two volumes – was the biggest in that territory. I had to smile. Did he really just assert that the dimensions of ‘his one’ were the biggest? Yes he did. Am I to suppose from this and similar performances that his academic history community is filled with deeply insecure intellectuals who pin self-worth on the dimension of their books, all the while enviously glancing sideways at each other, just in case the guy next to them has whipped out a bigger one. I guess I must. And oh, wouldn’t Freud have fun.

The reality, of course, is that writing isn’t about scale. If you find yourself writing purely to say you’ve penned a 180,000 word novel, or whatever, stop. Step away from the vehicle. Word count is a tool, a device for measuring scale so the work comes in at intended length, and its component parts are balanced. Word count is not a target, and it certainly isn’t a measure of status as a writer. Or anything else.

The real arbiter is whether the book achieves the intended aims of the author, and then takes the reader on the intended emotional journey. This is true for fiction and non-fiction alike. For J R R Tolkien, even 600,000 words wasn’t enough for The Lord Of The Rings. And yet Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea, which won a Nobel prize for literature weighed in at just over 26,600. A novella. The quality of both, and the pleasure both have brought to generations of readers, is clear.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.
Me being a geeky Tolkien fan. Point being that not every great book has to be of the scale of The Lord Of The Rings.

In a practical sense, however, most commercial publishers look to books around the 75,000 – 90,000 word mark. It’s a practical issue. That scale translates into a handy size – think ‘airport paperback’ or ‘Mills and Boon’. It’s enough to provide the proverbial ‘good read’ without daunting buyers who might blanch at a ‘doorstop’. And it’s containable relative to production cost, including editorial work. It works out to about 230-240 pages in Royal Trade format.

In theory, e-publishing changes the paradigm. Scale and physical size/cost are no longer related issues – meaning an author can happily churn out their 250,000 word epic, and the cost of getting that published as Kindle is little different (apart from the editorial work) from the cost of a 50,000 word novella.

But actually, things HAVE changed – and not in the way imagined. A blog post I read recently on trends in e-book pricing argued that readers seem to be going for more but shorter books; and a 50,000 word book will command the same price as a 75,000 word volume. In an industry where returns to the author are always marginal, why write the longer tome for the same money?

There is, I think, a good deal of wisdom in that point. Readers do want more variety – there is a far bigger ‘churn’ of titles than there used to be. They also want the faster pace that a 50,000 word novella must, by definition, carry. I conclude that the commodity over which people now make value-judgements about books, these days, is less cover price than it is time. So paradoxically, e-books have resulted in novels becoming shorter than they used to be. And maybe that’s a good thing.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


6 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: what is it about book size envy?

  1. There is a huge debate over 50k books, they’re not really books. Nano does amazing things for pushing creativity, but too many publish those 50k books when they’re just not reads and aren’t ready for readers.

    I would sooner pay more than buy a book which is under developed or poorly presented. Some things in the industry do need to change, but I can’t see it.

    1. I agree – far better to pay for quality than get rubbish for nothing. 50k is a classic novella size, which I suspect NaNo selected because it’s not such a daunting scale for beginning authors, but long enough to create a goal and sense of achievement. The issue there is that what emerges from the month-long effort is, really, a first draft – there’s work to do, possibly including a total re-write, to make it publishable.

  2. If the trend is for 50 000 word books, and a lot of those books are first draft NaNo things, won’t readers eventually suss out they’re buying duds? I keep reading about people having no time to read – keep sentences short, use bullet points, etc – and I wonder, if that’s the case where do these same people find time to read a novel?

    But word count is a fools game. It doesn’t help when you see advice saying try to write at least a thousand words a day. And am I the only one who thinks the whole Nanomamo 50 000 word event is a distraction?

    1. I do too. Word count is a measuring and planning tool for writers, not a target. I’m not sure how many NaNo books end up being self-pubbed as they stand, but there are a fair number of bad novels and bad non-fiction works in the marketplace anyway. Although it’s nice to think the good ones will float to the top, the more likely outcome is that they’ll get drowned in the ‘noise’ of mediocrity. Sigh…

  3. Hi Matthew. Considering Amazon’s latest move to rent all-you-can-read on a monthly basis, it makes more sense to write greater numbers of shorter books than just one long book. Silent

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