Word Count is Important

Word Count is Important
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Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is not length of life, but depth of life.” The same idea applies to books. You want to tell a complete story, not over-or-under tell it. Readers always know when a book is the right length because of the sense of satisfaction they have when they read the last page. Book length is about reader experience, not writer ambition. Word count is important.

Novels are Getting Shorter

Novels are entertainment. Before the advent of movies, radio, television and the internet, the only entertainment was novels for the literate and stage plays for the less literate. Since entertainment options were limited, people wanted long novels. As people began to have more diverse entertainment opportunities, novel length went down. Here are some selected samples that demonstrate the trend.

  • War and Peace (1869) by Russian author Leo Tolstoy is 565,146 words in the English edition.
  • American author John Steinbeck used 179,148 words to craft the classic Grapes of Wrath (1939).
  • The Di Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown is 138,380 words.

There are many long novels today, of course. In fact, I’m reading Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace right now. I’m not sure how many words it is, but it is 1,079 pages and a tour de force. Unfortunately, in this day of self-publishing many writers try to mimic his genius, but they fail and their books are just long, boring and self-indulgent.

With a few exceptions, however, the trend is clear: “Shorter is better.”  Kindle Singles is one of the fastest growing categories at Amazon, and to be accepted into that program, ebooks must be between 5,000 and 30,000 words.

Some Word-length Guidelines

Publishers ultimately decide what length is proper for a particular book. However, here are some guidelines you will find helpful.

Nonfiction book – 25,000- 150,000 words
Fiction – Novella – 18,000-40,000
Fiction – Novel – 40,000 – 150,000
Young Adult books – 25,000 – 75,000
Children’s books – 250 – 1000

If you are an Indie publisher, you want to keep these guidelines in mind. They are not set in stone, but some Indie publishers write YA books that are 150,000 words long, for example, because they can, and because they don’t understand why limits exist. YA readers want a shorter form, closer to 25,000-30,000 words, not full adult novel length. Longer novels are in a completely different market segment.

The Economic Benefit of Keeping It Short

Over-writing a book in a particular category kills profits for you, especially if you are doing a print edition. The cost of production, and the sales price, is determined by length. To make a fair profit, longer books need to priced higher, so they are not competitive with normal length books in the same category. When the long book price is lowered to be competitive, profit margins shrink to nothing.

Short books are better than long books from a marketing perspective. From a literary perspective, long books are often a sign of sloppy writing. If you have not seen the movie, Wonder Boys (2000) staring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire, you may not appreciate my point. If I were King of the Universe, I would require all writers to watch the movie before being allowed to self-publish a novel over 75,000 words.

I work with many aspiring authors at my mentoring web site, and when I do substantive editing for overly-long books, I often suggest they break their long book into several smaller books, each part of a series. Shorter books meet market needs because they meet reader needs. Books in a series are often very lucrative for the author. They can get readers hooked on the first one at a low price, then get full market value for all the others.

When I do substantive editing like this, and break a long novel into several shorter ones, I often suggest that the author cut extraneous material. So, not only are books in the series better because they are shorter, but also better because the prose is tighter.

Word count is important. Understand your market and write for it.


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