I’ve heard it said that in this post-print day and age of dwindling attention spans, books should be kept short. Why slug away writing an 80,000 word tome when it’ll sell online for the exact same price as a book half that length?
In a way, none of this is really new. Even in the old print days, books spanned a wide range of scales. I’ve written books, myself, that have been as short as 15,000 words – books where the illustrations were the main focus – through to a monster tome that topped out at 250,000. There was also my early military series – now being reissued – which typically ran to around 40,000 words, by publisher specification, to meet a particular physical print size.
In general, though, most of the books I’ve written have been closer to 80,000 words. And that’s for good reason. The typical ‘good read’ sought by mainstream publishers is around that length. The scale is about right for a typical 220-250 page ‘Royal Trade’ paperback. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, that is also about the scale needed to really explore a subject, or to build a suitably in-depth story and character arc that provides a satisfying journey to the reader.
So the question, I guess, is whether books these days – and that, to most would-be writers, means fiction – should be shorter. Maybe 40 or 50,000 words. Back in the old days, that was a ‘short novel’ or maybe a ‘novella’. Reduced size wasn’t indicative of reduced quality, of course – Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea was novella scale, and he won a Nobel Prize with it. So yes, if the quality’s kept up – why not run these things shorter?
There’s also, I guess, the option of the serial novel. These were all the rage once upon a time, published by instalment in nineteenth century ‘penny dreadfuls’ or twentieth century ‘pulp’ magazines. Each of those instalments, usually a story of its own, was around 15-20,000 words. Later, the authors would gang them up as a novel, what A. E. Van Vogt called ‘fixups’. I suspect we might be going back to that world again – shorter novels, or serial stories that collect together to form a wider story arc. To my mind, the onus is always on to keep the quality up, of course – as Hemingway showed us.
More later this week. But meanwhile…thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015