Saturday, June 26, 2021

“What Makes the Measure of a Novel?” • by Bruce Bethke


Jason Wittman writes:

“Finished a rough draft of another novel last week (though it's barely long enough to qualify as a novel, clocking in at a little over 49,000 words, and it will probably be smaller after I've trimmed off the fat). It takes place during the golden age of Hollywood, and it involves vampires, the afterlife, and fictionalized versions of famous movie stars. I'm having problems getting my novels to 100k length—maybe my writing rough drafts in longhand has something to do with it. Oh well, nothing I can do but keep writing.”

He is asking an implicit question here: “What is the right length for a novel?”

My answer is: “That depends.”

From an artistic standpoint, I am a firm believer in not worrying about arbitrary word counts. Let the story be the length it needs to be to tell the tale; no more and no less.

From an awards standpoint, the rules typically are pretty clear. Most awards-governing bodies consider any single and complete narrative work over 40K words in length to be a novel. 

But from a marketing standpoint: ah, now that’s where things get interesting. The generally accepted vague and evasive answer is, “Whatever length the market wants novels to be this year.” Note the crucial qualifier: this year

¤     ¤     ¤

If you take a deep dive through the history of SF/F, you’ll find that many of the classic novels of the genre fall into the 45K- to 65K-word range. By the time I came on the scene, the common standard length had grown to around 100K-words. I used to wonder about that. Were the Golden Age authors better at cramming more content into fewer words? Did they possess a gift for succinct and incisive writing that has since been lost? Was it simply more work to bang out a novel on a manual typewriter, therefore they were motivated to economize? 

Then I began to look at copyright pages and front matter, and the answer became clear. All those Golden Age SF novels I grew up reading and grew to love: they were never intended to be standalone books. Most were written to be published as three- or four-part serials in pulp magazines, and in that context, 45K~65K words was just the right length to fit the format.

When the Great Mass-Market Paperback Boom came along after WWII, there was a huge demand for content to fill all those new pages but a limited supply of new content being created. The solution was obvious. The pulp magazine publishers—Street & Smith in particular—were sitting on enormous piles of fiction they’d bought from authors on “all rights forever” contracts. It was a simple matter to reissue that material in reprint or theme anthologies, or to re-license the material to other publishers. Pull together all the sections of a serial into a single volume, slap on a lurid cover, maybe give the thing a new title if you thought the original title wouldn’t sell— (“Dorsai! What the hell is that about? Let’s call it, oh…”)

Voila! A 160-page mass-market paperback you could still make a profit on, even if you were selling it off a newsstand or spinner rack for just 40¢ a copy!

: Not that many authors were happy to see their old works living on forever in unending streams of reprints, reissues, and repackagings, none of which they were being paid for. There is a direct linear connection between this publishing practice and the founding of SFWA, which essentially was created to force Street & Smith to change their contract language—and thus, by the actions of The Law of Unintended Consequences, to kill off the reprint anthology market.

Still, it’s worth considering: if Street & Smith had not bought all those Golden Age authors’ works on that “all rights forever” contract, and if they had not subsequently been so very successful at re-selling reprint rights to the newly emerging “paperback originals” publishers, would the SF/F genre as we know it today even exist?

This state of affairs lasted for more than twenty years. Science fiction specialty bookstores were very rare. Most “real” bookstores only dealt in “real” books, and as everyone knew, real books had hard covers. SF/F hardcover originals were extremely rare. (Remember, even H. G. Wells’ The War of The Worlds was first published as a magazine serial.) Mass-market paperbacks in general, and SF/F paperbacks in particular, were the domain of newspaper and magazine rack-jobbers, and were mostly found on newsstands and in spinner racks in dime stores, truck stops, and to some extent, college bookstores. Most paperback publishers also had a healthy mail-order catalog business, and in all of these contexts, the cheap, thin, and essentially disposable 160-page mass-market paperback novel had a distinct advantage. Less weight to schlep around. More product could be packed into a minimum of floor space. It was the front cover that caught the prospective customer’s eye and the back cover and flyleaf that made the sales pitch, so what was printed on the spine, and therefore how thick the book was, was relatively unimportant. The sweet spot for novel length remained around 60K words.

This began to change in the late 1960s, as Americans changed the way they shopped. Shopping malls began popping up all over the country, and with them came the big mall bookstore chains: Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Borders, Crown Books, etc., etc. Now, whatever their superficial differences, the big chain bookstores all shared one common trait: to improve floor traffic and pack maximum inventory in minimum floor space, they displayed most of their books spine out. Only new releases and special titles were displayed front cover out, only really special titles were displayed on the aisle end cap, and pretty soon the chains were demanding that publishers pay for any special high-visibility product placement in their stores.

Invoking The Law of Unintended Consequences again, the net result was that publishers started demanding longer books from authors, and the “standard” length for a novel eventually rose to around 100K words. The reasons for this are simple and stupid. At 100K words, a mass-market paperback comes in at about 360 pages in print, which gives it a spine roughly one-inch thick. Which increases its visibility on the shelf when it’s displayed spine out. Which also gives the customer the feeling they’re buying more, as due to all the distribution costs and mall overhead and such the retail price of that 40¢ paperback has now risen to $5.99.

But back to the thick spine: that’s the key. I wish I could remember which publishing industry bigwig it was who pulled me aside and told me that the secret of success for an SF/F writer was, “to get your six inches into B. Dalton,” because that’s such a wonderful, awful quote, but by the time I came along that was the accepted wisdom. To be successful in this industry you needed to write one 100K-word novel a year, so that you could occupy enough shelf space in the chain bookstores to catch the customer’s eye, even if all your books were displayed spine-out. 

¤     ¤     ¤

Accepted wisdom tends to drift over time, and this was no exception. For a time there was a sort of an arms race in the mass-market paperback business, as publishers tried to occupy more shelf space by putting out ever thicker books, and the “standard” length for a novel grew to 140K words, 160K, 200K… It topped out around 1990 in the heyday of what Joel Rosenberg used to call the “BFFB”—Big Fat Fantasy Brick—(and sometimes Joel added a third “F” in there)—but became a case of diminishing returns, as the numbers of customers willing to pay $15 or $20 for an 800-page paperback—at least, one that didn’t have “Stephen King,” “Anne Rice,” or “Jean M. Auel” on the cover—dwindled. Gradually, the accepted “standard” length for a novel subsided to around 100K words. 


In the meantime, what very few people besides my agent noticed, was that while all this other sturm und drang was going on in the publishing industry, Pocket Books and Harlequin were continuing to move absolutely ungodly numbers of mass-market paperback novels, all of which fell into the 50K- to 70K-word length. With complete seriousness, he advised me that if I really wanted to make money as a writer, what I needed to do was to adopt a female pseudonym, start bashing out a series of 50K-word formulaic romance novels with SF/F set dressings (preferably fantasy shading into horror), and get in on the leading edge of this “paranormal romance” tsunami that he saw coming. He was certain it was going to so overwhelm the market that it would leave only wreckage of any other genre that stood in its way.

Not the first time I’ve ignored good advice. 

¤     ¤     ¤

Now that that tsunami has swept over us and retreated—and the second tsunami, which was the advent of Amazon, and the third tsunami, which was the advent of the Kindle marketplace—we’re back to the original question: what is the “right” length for a novel?

I’ve already given my arts & crafts reply. Now, my totally mercenary market-driven reply.

Consider this: the physical artifact of the printed book is no longer important. Its height, width, most of all its thickness: none of that matters anymore. Most readers never see the back cover, much less the spine. How the book displays on a bookstore shelf is not important because there are so few bookstores left. What matters most is the front cover—and even then, most of your prospective customers are only going to see it as a thumbnail image about the size of a postage stamp, unless you can get them to click through for a closer look.

Essentially, we’re back to the spinner rack marketing model.

Consider this: the Pocket Books and Harlequin strategies were a complete success. Readers now expect a book to be part of a series, episodic in nature and coming in regular installments. A 100K novel a year is too big and too slow. George R. R. Martin and The Game of Thrones have become objects of derision. Most readers expect a new book to be just the start of a series, and they want to be able to read the series the way they binge-watch a TV series on Netflix.

Consider this: it is now well-proven that the Internet has changed the fundamental ways in which people read. “tl;dr” is now accepted as a legitimate critique. While there are still people who read slowly and savor longer works, there are fewer of them every day. Most readers have shorter attention spans and want faster gratification. 

Conclusion: If you’re writing a novel and you’ve hit 70K words, it’s already too damned long! Split it in half! Better yet, find a way to split it into thirds and extend it to make it a 120K- to 150K-word trilogy. Write the entire thing, at least through the rough draft stage, but plan to release it in monthly installments. And whatever you do, do not absolutely, completely, end the thing. Always leave enough threads hanging that you can continue the series, if the customer demand is there.

Submitted for your consideration,


In a world...

Where the Soviet Union won WWII, England is now a Soviet satellite, some magic actually works (sometimes), and Premier Kruschev is going eyeball-to-eyeball with President Patton—

The last surviving member of His Majesty’s Dragonslayer Corps is called out of retirement, because it seems dragons aren’t extinct after all and one has taken up residence in a prominent Politburo member’s country estate. Read the rest in THE SHE-DRAGON OF BLY, by Jason D. Wittman, just one of the terrific tales in STUPEFYING STORIES 22!

Available now in paperback, on Kindle, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.



Arisia said...

Hmm. I think my novel(s) just went through the second big change this week.

Graham said...

Very interesting read. Thanks, Bruce.

GuyStewart said...

Whoa...once again, food for thought! Hmmm...