On length, and truth in marketing

Recently I was part of a discussion in which an author asked a question regarding the market for their 35K-word novel. Part of the discussion was about the market, and the rest was about how 35K is not a novel by any stretch, and of course brought up the question of what is a novel and what to do (and what not to do) when you’re inside the gray area.

It is no secret that most genres have experienced page inflation in the last few decades, with notable exceptions such as mystery and romance, and so in most genres a typical novel is more like 100K. This means, apparently not without additional controversy, that if you’re in a genre where this is the norm, you should be up front with readers when you stray too far from it. This set off a bit of a row, in part because it’s difficult to maintain tone in written English and something can come off sounding way worse than you mean it, but also because—meaning no disrespect—I think a lot of shorter fiction authors are a bit defensive about their length, which is natural considering the obstacles they face bucking the trend.

The easiest way to explain the whole thing is in a Q&A format, so I’ll rehash the arguments presented (paraphrased) and my own thoughts on them.

Novels didn’t always use to be this big. 100K is no more standard for a novel than 60K.

I should reiterate of course that this is about genres where page counts got inflated, so mystery and romance are right out. Maybe not all romance, but let’s stick with sci-fi and fantasy: two huge genres that have undeniably been impacted. This is also the realm I know more about.

For those who aren’t familiar with the whole page inflation thing, it goes like this: Typical novels used to be much shorter, but over time the publishing industry changed. There were various marketing factors in play that prodded them to want longer manuscripts, to the point where in sci-fi they’d stop considering submissions from new authors that were anywhere south of, say, 80K. (I think that was the figure. I’m going from memory of how this was explained to me.) I don’t know if reader preference had anything to do with that inflation—because a good percentage of readers do prefer longer work—but it happened with or without them, and as a result a lot of readers got used to the longer length.

Some of my favorite books fall way short of 100K, because they were written prior to inflation. But I’ve also enjoyed a lot of work since inflation, and I too am conditioned to expect certain things of a newer traditionally published book, in terms of length, unless I’m told otherwise. I’ll make no secret that I tend to prefer books above 100K, but I don’t particularly have an ax to grind about it. But page inflation happened, and it became part of the reader perception gestalt. This can become a problem, I contend, for authors who don’t follow this norm—inasmuch as it really is a norm—if they’re not clear with readers about it.

Page inflation is definitely a construct of the traditional publishing industry. I do think the norms they established are breaking down as they lose clout. But they’re still there. This should not be a constraint, but it should not be ignored when it comes time to sell the book.

Several prestigious awards like the Hugo, Nebula, etc. say a novel is 40K or above. So does the SFWA.

That they do. And for good reason: they have to draw the line somewhere. For them, this is about the need to place things in categories. It makes sense when categorizing to have the most permissive definitions feasible. Likewise NaNoWriMo says anything 50K and above is a novel. But all that has nothing to do with marketing or what readers have come to expect from the industry. This definition serves the purpose of saying this book goes in one slot, that book goes in another.

Marketing-wise, the industry in most genres (again, with some clear exceptions) has been churning out work north of 90K for quite a while now, and everything below that has been a no-man’s land outside of magazines. Some genres escaped page inflation, or mostly did, and in those places shorter word counts are still the norm. Harlequin romance readers won’t bat an eye at a book no longer than 50K. Sci-fi readers have been led to expect otherwise.

Writers should write whatever they want, at whatever length. There are lots of readers who like shorter work.

Absolutely! This is a wonderful thing, because indie publishing gives writers the freedom to get away from rules that say your manuscript has to be a certain length or else no one will touch it. So shorter novels, and especially short stories and novellas, have exploded in popularity. Lots of writers enjoy that length, and there’s unquestionably a big, hungry market out there for them. I love that readers who were poorly served by the industry before now have a chance to find exactly what they want.

But.

Writers and readers of short fiction have different notions of what comprises a short or long book than the established majority. I think they tend to project too much, and sometimes they give advice based on that projection that’s not safe in the world at large. People who read these lengths may consider 90K to be a long novel, and anything too far above 100 to be huge, while 50-60K is right in the butter zone. And that’s true for them; it’s not true to typical reader expectations in a genre that was hit by page inflation. So when they say to a sci-fi author looking to market a 55K work that they should just treat it like any other book, not even mentioning the word count or that it’s short for a sci-fi, that’s a disservice. It comes from an honest place, but it’s still bad advice.

When a reader expects a longer work—because they’ve been conditioned to, and you haven’t done anything to challenge that expectation—and the book ends too soon, it can and does lead to bad or tarnished reviews. I’ve seen authors complain about getting dinged that way plenty of times, and often it’s been because they wrote to a shorter length than the norm, but didn’t tell anyone. This is like when my in-laws ordered Papa John’s and were shocked to discover only a few pieces of pepperoni on a pizza, because apparently the chain has some sort of weird non-standard ordering system. Likewise this is why I get pissed off when some places put sauce inside a calzone, or (one of the reasons) why my wife hated that one Chinese food place that put corn in their egg drop soup. Maybe those aren’t the best examples because those things are clearly wrong, and writing a short book is not. But you need to let people know when you’re working too far outside of the standard, even if it isn’t much of a standard.

Quick note: In sci-fi and fantasy, you’re usually okay going well over the limit without much fuss. And for under, I suspect readers are okay with slight deviation. The Affix, at around 77K, is about at the lower end of what I think most would accept without being tipped that it’s short. Then again, it’s only loosely sci-fi or fantasy.

But we should make our books look just like traditionally published books, because they have a more polished look. It’s best to emulate what they do. Therefore we don’t need a word count, just a page count which Amazon already provides.

I’m a pretty big believer in the notion that whether trad-pub is right or wrong, emulating their look is a good idea just because it’s what readers expect, so it makes indie work look like it belongs right up there with them—because after all, it does. Except do better in the places where they’re more often wrong, like blurbs. Good gads have I seen some stinkers, even in professional blurbs.

But traditional publishing doesn’t post a word count for two reasons: They’ve never had to before, and they’re also working within the norms they set themselves. If you buy a trad-pub sci-fi, you can expect you’re going to read along and the story won’t end after 60K words. The reason you can expect that is because they won’t publish anything at that length. It’s bad that they don’t, for readers who want it and for writers who’d love to reach out to them. But they don’t, so the expectations stay intact and therefore the word count doesn’t matter to them.

Also, trad-pub fiction books always come alongside a hardcover print edition and can give you a true page count, not an estimated one. In hardcover, page counts tend to be better metrics of length because the fonts and paper tend toward a certain size. That’s partly true of trade paperbacks (the big 6″×9″ ones, though I doubt you’ll ever see dimensions to confirm it), and maybe a little less true for mass market paperbacks where font size is sometimes reduced for bigger books.

Page count is not a good metric for length in general, though, and for an e-book all Amazon can do is estimate it. Nobody outside of Amazon really knows what their algorithm is for estimating the number of pages, but based on my experience they’re probably doing some kind of rough formatting with their Kindle previewer, and basing the count on their lowest-end device or even their classic Kindle. But page counts can be deceptive when they don’t correlate directly to word count—such as a simple division by a standard number of words per page, which Amazon is most definitely not doing. Some books use more clipped dialogue and shorter paragraphs, or even short chapters with more page breaks. Books with radically different word counts can therefore have similar page counts.

My advice: Always, even when you’re in the butter zone for the genre, include the approximate word count. Always. No really, always. Readers are getting more and more savvy to word count, and they’re making up their minds about what’s right for them in terms of length. If I see a book that’s only 60K but it looks like a fun light read, I might well still pick it up; but I’ll be glad to have been informed.

And that’s the thing: It’s just simple courtesy to give the reader as much information as you can. There are some readers who will forget about content warnings in a blurb, or length info, and leave bad feedback over something they should have known; that happens because they’ll often buy the book but then set it aside for a while, especially during free promos. (A typical writer response, for those who are concerned about this, is to include the blurb in the front matter of the book so the reader has a reminder when they start it.) That problem is magnified when you don’t tell them at all. It’s dumb to complain about something that was on the label you never read, but it’s not your fault to be surprised by something you were never told. Readers like to be informed, and I think it earns a little bit of goodwill to do so.

So at the end of the day, that’s all writers need to remember. Everyone should write what they want, because the market is almost certainly out there for it. But so too should they be up front and clear about things like length, where lack of true standardization has always been a problem and is getting worse now that we have the freedom to stray. Readers who like long fiction don’t want to read what they consider half or two thirds of a book—not unless they make an informed decision to do so. On the flip side, readers who like shorter fiction will be thrilled to find books right in the range they prefer, and knowing the book is just their speed may be the difference between making a sale or not.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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