And the ideal length for a book is…

Earlier this week I posed a question: are books getting shorter? It’s a question that should be occupying us now because the rules are changing.

Outside the Little Bookshop...
Outside my favourite bookshop…

In the old days – ‘as recently as five years ago’ – scale was mainly driven by cost. Make a book too big and the cover price would be driven up – pushing it outside the market slot and killing sales. Sure, there were big books – especially non-fiction hardback picture books. And there were long epics that rendered out at 15 cm thick, especially in B-size paperback form. But by and large, publishers worked from cost of production, and page size to come up with an optimal length that would be priced for the market.

Publishers also wanted readers to get value for money and a ‘good read’ – something that wasn’t over in a flash, but which they didn’t have to wade through. I still remember discussing this with my publishers at the time, Random House, over the scale of a book I was writing for them.

For fiction, that was typically about 80,000 words. Non-fiction  was much the same for a non-illustrated book (same size calculation). Depending on page design, this translates to around 200-250 pages in a typical C-size ‘Royal Trade’ paperback.

Books can be longer or shorter; I’ve written transport histories that were primarily picture-based, topping out at 15,000. But my paperback C-size books – the ones published by Penguin, for instance – all ran to around 90,000 words.

Enter Kindle, Smashwords and the rest. Suddenly, that calculation is out the window – printing costs don’t enter into it. In theory, somebody can knock out a 1,000,000 word epic novel on their cellphone and publish it with the same purchase price as a 5,000 word essay, and they’ll still make on the deal (as long as time isn’t an issue…)

That hasn’t reduced the reader calculation, though – that ‘good read’ balance between a satisfying reading experience and something that’s either too brief or over-long. And that, as far as I can tell, still stands at around 70-90,000 words for a typical book.

Or does it? I wonder. There’s a trend these days to shrink book size – counter-intuitively, given that the marginal cost of a longer e-book is effectively zero. Why? I think tastes are changing; we look to the web for a constant flow of novelty. It surrounds us with choice, and interest spans are dropping on the back of it (‘interest’, not ‘attention’). Add to that the fact that most e-books don’t sell much, individually, and the pressure is on to issue books of much reduced length, though an author will likely write more of them.

Right now I’m wondering whether the optimal size should be closer to 50,000 words? Or maybe less. I have precedent. Back in 2001-03, I signed a multi-book contract that produced three history books of 40,000 words each, all closely linked – a trilogy. I wrote them as if they were a single large volume of 120,000 words. But they were published individually. I can see that sort of thing becoming the norm now, providing the material is amenable to that sort of structure.

What do you think? Do you see individual books shrinking as time goes on? What’s your take on this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


17 thoughts on “And the ideal length for a book is…

    1. We did. I’ve had further thoughts…I’m inclined to think that although individual tastes are going to vary, in general what you say is true – the market is shifting to shorter.

  1. I have to admit that since reading solely on my kindle or iPad (due to the dust and ink fumes affecting my breathing nowadays), I tend to go for shorter stories, with only occasional sorties into the 200+ page books.

        1. I suspect screen size also plays a part in the reading experience – I’ve got a novel sitting on my phone right now – in PDF format. It’s a bit of a challenge to read on screen in that format, not least because if I stop, I can’t bookmark it.

      1. On my Kindle, I definitely prefer shorter stuff, although I’ve got a lot of very long fiction books on there that I’ve already read in paperback, and am reading again on Kindle. (Kindle is much, much better for reading in bed.) So for several series I’ve got more than 1,000,000 pages about the same characters, which I said last time I really like.

        I prefer proper books for non-fiction – it’s much harder to research in an electronic book, and until they make that easier I’ll be sticking to proper books for that. If it’s a subject I’m just reading about for interest and not research, I’d rather have a shorter Kindle book. I like the idea of a series of three 40,000 books rather than one at 120,000.

        I also think a lot of people find long books daunting, and anything to get more people reading is a good thing. Get them interested in a subject with a shorter book, and they’ll keep wanting more (hopefully). Long-term, I think they might spend more money that way – I think they’re more likely to buy two shorter books for a lower price than one longer one for a higher price, but end up spending more overall. e.g. 2 x $10 or 1 x $15.

        1. I agree. I think Kindle is well suited to fiction – and shorter fiction at that. Non-fiction works better still in print. So do coffee-table type books. My publishers did release my “Illustrated History of New Zealand” on Kindle, but with 600+ photos it was a very fat download and I’m not sure how well they’d display on some models. The print copy was a much better bet – over 400 pages, slightly over A4 size paper for a net weight of 2 kg. What one calls a weighty tome.🙂 My text was virtually as long as Michael King’s, plus I had the pix. I could have made it a lot longer, quite easily, but books have to be kept within marketable length and size…

  2. I don’t know about market trends, but I prefer longer books. Not GRR Martin-type epics (though I enjoy those once in a while), but something that can occupy me for a few days at least. Paying for a novella feels like a waste of money, even if its much cheaper than a novel.

    That said, I’m currently on a short story bend, but again I’d rather buy a collection or anthology of short stories than singles. The latter just doesn’t feel worth it.

    1. I agree – a single short story isn’t satisfying as a one-off purchase, especially when 99 cents can also buy some novellas or even novels. Anthologies work far better in that sense – and there’s one coming up for release in November which I can thoroughly recommend. Eight SF/horror stories, including one by Yours Truly…

  3. Ah, now here’s an equation with a multitude of variables. First of all, thank you very much…I’m having a difficult time removing the image of an e-reader on a coffee table in place of a coffee table book. I shall chuckle about that all day. I agree that the overall trend is towards shorter books. Another factor in that argument is impatience. Many readers would rather hear from their favorite author once or twice each year rather then once every couple of years. Thus, the days of massive trilogies is giving way to serials.

    Another factor is genre, with mysteries and romances more often near 80,000 words (or less) and fantasy reaching towards a back-braking 120,000 words (ah, but when they work they’re epic!—when they don’t they’re doorstops). Maintaining suspense for a long mystery or squeezing more romance out of a book is a difficult task. On the other hand, schooling readers in the intricacies of an alternate world takes a few extra words (that are hopefully not dumped on the reader as Chapter 1 backstory). It could be said that if you’re skilled enough to produce a world as vivid as Middle Earth with engaging stories and enticing characters that readers won’t want to leave…and again we’re back to the growth of serials. You can also mix it up and produce a more epic tale every few years while sprinkling smaller stories between much like musicians used to release EPs between LPs.

    These days the options available to writers to interact with readers are enormous, as is the pressure to do so: social media, a blog, short stories (anthologies, collections), serials, and every length of novel imaginable. The trick is to find the right mix for your audience and to master the formula.

  4. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I believe the book should be as long as it takes to tell the story. Yet I also don’t believe the big thick books are not selling as well except for the few exceptions like the Harry Potter series. My first novel was short. I wanted it to be a quick read since I like those kind of books myself. My next one will be thicker and hopefully will be entertaining enough that the reader will not get bored and stop reading. I don’t plan to write any 3″ tomes, but you never know.

  5. I’m a paper holdout. Just do not enjoy electronic reads, and the lack of PDF bookmarking is a real thing for me.

    I also refuse to read short books/stories. They just don’t interest me and I go through them too quickly.

    As for trends… one ought not to be surprised of the move is towards shorter books/stories. This electronic culture seems unable to focus on much of anything that actually involves a significant investment of attention span. Just one reader’s opinion — as not many of the folks I know actually read anymore.

    1. There’s no question in my mind that paper is the superior reading medium – and there’s science to back it up. Part of the issue is that humans are geared to look at reflected light, not broadcast. Studies done here in NZ revealed that on-screen reading is about a third slower than on-page reading. That said, the world of ‘electronic’ IS where things are going. I don’t think it will kill the print book – certainly, I think, there will be markets for ‘coffee table’ productions. But I think it’s already killed the ‘airport paperback’ and the disposable pulps that publishers used to issue as list-fillers.

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