Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Books, and Book Length

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 16, 2015

I’m still a newbie to the author world. It’s been exciting to learn new stuff, and of course to have my stories published and actually make money at it. Not a lot of money, especially for the time put in, but I feel like I’m still in training. I probably always will be, if my experience making games is any indicator.

But right now – both at the stage I am with writing, and the stage I’m at with Frayed Knights 2 development, I’m having a whole lot of fun.

So far, I’ve still been focused on short stories. Recently, I had some questions about how big novels should be – and learned that like many things in life, there may be a formal answer, but wildly varying informal answers. Part of the source of confusion for me was that when I was  a kid, often reading older / used novels, they weren’t very big. But through the 1980s and 1990s, they seemed to balloon in size. It wasn’t a strictly linear progression, but it did seem like a trend.

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), for the purpose of its awards, refers to a short story as being less than 7500 words (in which case, I’ve never published a short story), and a novel as being over 40,000 words. If it’s bigger than a short story but less than 17500 words, it’s a novella. Bigger than a novella and smaller than a novel, then it is a novelette. Sound clear?

But what constitutes a word? Yeah, there are different rules, but for the most part, it’s handled pretty loosely.

Is 40,001 words acceptable for a novel? Well, your publisher may not think so. Or they might. It may depend on genre and audience. 50,000 words would probably be considered too slender for even a “young adult” novel, but about right for middle-grade audience; whereas for an adult audience 70k is more of your minimum size. But again, these are loose.

As for the ballooning size through the 80s and 90s – I’ve heard it explained from multiple folks who seem to be in the know, but I haven’t independently verified it. But based on the explanations:

As big publishers continued to scale their operations through the 20th century, they streamlined and optimized the print and distribution process quite a bit – including buying up printing houses and so forth. They got to the point where – on the scale they printed – the difference in cost for doubling the page count was negligible. So a novel of 180k words cost only a few pennies more to print than a novel of 90k words… yet the publisher could tack a couple of extra bucks on to the cover price.

Of course, the bigger word-count also means more time spent writing, more time editing, more time proofreading, typesetting, etc. So those fixed costs went up. But if sales were equal (and high), bulking up the books meant more revenue. Thus there was some subtle upward pressure on the word count.

With the indie revolution and the emphasis on e-books, that’s reversed itself fairly sharply. At least that was my perception. And again, the same explanation applies. With e-books, page count doesn’t matter… and e-books are really where the indies are making the money. And there’s not a whole lot of audience incentive to pay more for a bigger book. So it makes more sense to publish two 80k-word books than one 160k-word book. Thus there has been some downward pressure on word-counts for the indies… and not a subtle one, either.

This also explains another phenomenon: Why some books (mainly indies) are so much cheaper in their e-book format than in paper format. I was confused by this when I first started dipping my toe into reading digital format books. I’m still pretty old-school: I consider the paper version to be superior to digital versions. Although lately, more of my reading has been done using my Kindle reader. But I still have that perception, mainly because the paper version doesn’t require any support (like a device or a service) to be able to own and read. Also because I like getting author signatures. So if the inferior and superior versions are the same price, why would I not buy the paper version?

Some of this was probably due to publisher resistance to the digital format. But perhaps a greater reason was that they’d streamlined and optimized this whole paper-publishing / distribution system so much that the cost per unit (to them) was super-cheap. Not as cheap as almost-free distribution of digital copies, but still cheap. The main costs were fixed – editing, proofing, marketing, etc. And those costs, for a big publisher, can be significant and require a lot of books sold at full price to cover.

Indies, on the other hand, tend to have smaller costs to recoup. And they don’t have the massive optimization and economies of scale on the print run, so costs for hard copies can be significant. Therefore, big “discounts” on the digital version of the books. For a self-plugging example, the digital version of Mechanized Masterpieces 2: An American Anthology is 65% less than the paperback.  It’s a big, fat book of stories (all of which would probably count as novellas by the SFWA).

Anyway – this may be useless trivia for most, but it helped me understand a bit more about what’s been going on in the world of fiction.

Filed Under: Books - Comments: 5 Comments to Read

  • Maklak said,

    Thanks for the infodump, but my guess is that it’s best to “just” write a story, then edit it to one’s satisfaction and not worry about the word count untill you talk to the publisher about it.

    When I write a long forum post or something, I tend to measure it in kilobytes, or rather then number of characters including whitespaces (and ignoring 2 or more chars per some letters in UTF8). Word counts confuse me, but I suppose a rough estimate for me would be 1 word ~= 5 bytes.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – well, when I’m working with word-count limits for submissions, I have to pay attention.

    But really, it’s not about the actual count (unless you clearly blow your limit), but more about the size and shape of the story you want to tell. Same as games. You have to scope it right.

    A 7500-word (or less) story really can’t have an ensemble cast and epic twists and reversals. But yeah, those are kinda more like “rules of thumb.” There are plenty of people out there who can tell a much bigger, deeper, powerful story than me in 5000 words than I can in 10,000.

    A lot of it just comes down to being able to compare apples to apples… sort of a “weight category” for fiction. But my big points of curiosity were why novels seemed to “bulk up” for about a 20 / 30 year period, and then have now gone on a little more of a diet. I think I prefer how things are now, with the indie / digital side of things: Just like you said, with a skilled writer, they are just the right size… the author doesn’t have to worry about page counts.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m actually glad to see the trend of bigger books reversing again. I love myself some old-school fantasy but I just don’t have time for a 700+ page epics. (I say as I’m reading an 800 page ancient chinese epic)

    With the shrinking page counts and ebook distribution I’m actually reading close to what I did when I was younger. By taking a day off I can read a 150 page book without any stress or commitment.

    I like big books, but I’m glad I have options again.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I mean, okay…. some books just feel padded no matter how short they are. And others are gripping page-turners that hold me until the very end, no matter what. And the size of the physical book is still an issue, even for indies (My publisher just changed the short story size restrictions for open-submission anthologies, partly because Mechanized Masterpieces 2 turned into such a large – and, consequently, expensive – book).

    So it’s not like a major trend or anything, just my perception of things that SEEMS to be backed up with reasons.

  • Maklak said,

    I watched some MLP cartoons and they all have to be about 22 minutes long, give or take a few seconds. So some stories were padded, while others were crammed. The authors did a good job of it, but I can still see through it.

    About books getting shorter, well, I’m for it as well. A few years back I registered at a British Council library. They had dozens of classical English literature books (Frankenstein, Things fall apart, etc.) translated into simplified English and shortened to less than 100 pages. I liked that. It was much faster and easier than reading the original, while retaining most of it’s quality.

    It also reminds me of a sentence from “The science of Discworld”, that the mages don’t like reading long treaties. They prefer short, simple books with lots of illustrations where they can get something at a glance.

    I dislike it that any book that sells in the west becomes a part of at least a ten book series that the author is milking for cash as much as he can. Books, even novels and even the ones that create worlds, have an idea, some information and a story to tell. Once you’re done, you’re done, or you should be.