I had better state up front that I’m not going to attempt to actually provide a definitive answer to the question I have posed. I’m entering into what might be regarded as a philosophical discussion on the subject and any views I express are merely opinions. But it is quite an important question because the answer, right or wrong, may strongly influence whether or not a reader actually purchases a book.
If you use Google to try to find the answer you’ll get various opinions. But the consensus appears to be that these days a novel is expected to be between 80,000 and 120,000 words in length. This is based on hard copy books, of course. Less than 80,000 words and it’s going to look pretty malnourished sitting on the bookshelf in W H Smiths alongside its fatter neighbours. Size gives an impression of value for money, even if it is no guarantee of the quality of writing.
Once you get over 120,000 words, however, the publisher has a different problem. Paper and printing cost money and profits will be reduced if publishers have to spend more money on printing costs but still have to charge the same price for the book in order to remain competitive. Most books sell at the same retail price regardless of size; about £17.99 for a hardback book and £7.99 for a paperback.
While it would be nice to think that readers buy books solely based on the quality of the writing there has to be other factors involved. It can be the only explanation for some of the dross that makes it into best seller lists alongside much better written books and why some very good books never make it.
For example, let’s say that a new author publishes their very first book. None of the reading public will ever have seen the author’s name before and can’t have read any of the author’s work, so how will they decide whether or not to buy the book?
Based on the marketing blurb readers may take a chance and shell out some of their hard earned, but in effect they are buying the publisher, not the book. And it works; Katie Price has sold a lot of very poor quality books. Well, her ghost writers have, anyway. But that doesn’t account for why some books released by smaller publishing houses, or even self-published books, also make it into best seller lists despite the minuscule amount of money spent on marketing them.
The readers’ decision won’t be based on the quality of the author’s writing because, with a first book, they can’t have read any previous work on which to base that decision. It is also unlikely to be based on the few pages that Amazon allows the potential buyer to read using their “look inside” feature. As both a reader and an editor I know that a promising first few pages doesn’t necessarily lead to 300 good quality pages. Many authors, even quite well established ones, are unable to maintain their writing quality for that long and the worst start to stumble after just 20 or 30 pages. By 50 pages I’ve already binned the book and gone looking for something better written.
So, if the decision isn’t going to be based on the quality of the writing, what is it going to be based on?
Well, let me put it this way. In my experience, after 6 months I find it easier to recall a good book (or even a bad book) than I do to recall the qualities of a specific pint of beer or a specific glass of wine. There is another factor involved here as well. If I really enjoy a book I may go back a few months or years later and read the same book a second time. I’ve read Lord Of The Rings far more times than is healthy for a grown man. But I can’t go back and enjoy the same pint of beer or glass of wine again, not for free anyway – I have to buy another one and thanks to inflation it will cost more.
So, if people won’t shell out the paltry sum of 99p to read an author’s first book what other factors are there?
Let’s look at a more modestly sized classic, also by Tolstoy: Anna Karenina. Not many sales for that these days though it is perhaps one of the greatest romantic stories ever told. Length? 350,000 words. Hardly lightweight.
Remember, I am talking about e-books here, where you can’t “see” the thickness of the book. But you can. Because Amazon helpfully tells you, as part of their product description, how many pages long the book is. As a guide, 80,000 words gives you a paperback book of about 290 pages, so 120,000 words would be about 435, big enough to qualify as a “blockbuster” in the Arthur Hailey mould. The sort of book that will not only last you for a whole holiday, but also for the cancellation of your flight due to a volcanic eruption and a 24 hour rail strike when you get back to the UK. The Kindle version of Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel” is actually 485 pages long. Perhaps that’s why he rarely features in the best seller lists any more. That and the fact that he died in 2004.
There is also good old fashioned return on investment to consider as well. Let's say the author is able to write 3,000 word per day (generous), that means a 90,000 word book takes 30 days to write. If she sells the e-book at £3 a copy and manages sales of 1,000 copies (which would make it a best seller in self-publishing terms), that's £3,000 gross, of which Amazon will take 30%, so her net income will be £2,100. That works out at an income of £70 per writing day. However, if the book is 180,000 words long and still sells for £3 (it's a competitive market so it's unlikely to sell if the author charges more) then that income is halved, so she has to sell twice as many books to make the same amount of money per writing day.
There can be no doubt that the margins for success for the new author are very narrow and seemingly quite arbitrary. It therefore makes sense, to me at least, not to do anything that might put the potential reader off buying a book and that includes thinking about exactly how long the book should be. Let’s face it, the synopsis of the average story is usually written on a single page of A4, yet we expect a bit more than that from a book. So the book should be neither too short (poor value for money) nor too long (too “weighty”). For me that means between 80 and 90,000 words. It’s entirely up to other authors where they draw the lines.
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