Lately, I have found myself thinking about the length of books, and with NaNoWriMo coming up, it seemed like the perfect time to discuss what the ‘sweet spot’ was for the length of a novel – particularly debut novels.
I currently have on my TBR list three massive books, all topping between 600 and 800 pages. One, I know for certain, is 260,000 words. Between them they take up nearly half of a shelf on my bookcase, and honestly every time I am faced with the prospect of actually picking one up and reading it, I suddenly find several other things I immediately need to do. This isn’t because I’m not excited by the plots, or the settings, it’s the prospect of how much time I am going to be dedicating to this book.
Long books are a risky bet for publishers. They cost more to print, so they usually have to be priced slightly higher than shorter books, or publishers have to shave slightly more money off the already small profit they get off any published book. When the profits per book sold are already in the pennies, rather than pounds, this can have an massive impact. They have to be convinced that the book will sell to justify the risk they are taking. For a reader to take the risk on spending more on a book, or even just spending the time reading such a weighty tome, then the work needs to either be from a familiar author so the reader knows what they are getting, or the hook and premise needs to be so outstanding that they will be interested despite the length. (Interestingly, this is also true of shorter books – in the UK there isn’t really a market for novellas, so unless you are looking into literary fiction and have written a barnstormer, you’re unlikely to get a novella published unless you have an established audience.)
The Guardian did an article in 2011 about the cost of printing a book, but it focused more on ebook prices as payment for the ‘text’, rather than looking at the cost of what goes into making the book as a whole. Most calculators online only consider the price for self-publishing, so here’s an example of the cost breakdown if your book comes through a publisher.
|Book Sale Price||£8.99||£8.99|
|60% Bookseller Discount||£5.39||£3.60||This can vary based on publisher and bookseller, but taken from Andrew Franklin’s Bookseller article|
|10% Author Royalty||£0.90||£2.70||Based on Writers & Artists guide to publishing agreements, although royalties may be paid on the discounted sale rate to bookshops, not the price printed on the jacket|
|Print Cost per unit||£0.75||£1.95||Based on 3000 copies printed of 256 page paperback, as per Andrew Franklin’s Bookseller article – this increases to £1.60 per copy for a 320 page hardcover|
|Overheads 15%||£1.35||£0.60||This is an estimated figure, but realistically this could be a large chunk of the budget – aside from the usual business operating costs of the publisher like staff salaries, insurance, equipment, there’s also costs for design work for the book, warehousing and delivery to stores, plus the potential cost of any copies returned.|
|Total Costs: £8.39||Total Profit: £0.60|
These figures are rough estimates, as it can be difficult to find the exact costs or agreements between booksellers and publishers, nor does it take into account the massive discounts books are sold at. Previously the Net Book Agreement existed to set a minimum price a book could be sold at, but this was dissolved in the late 90s, meaning that book prices could be dictated by the seller, not the publisher, and then Amazon arrived and the reality of what this meant was demonstrated. It is also worth noting that bigger publishers can afford to give bigger discounts than independent publishers, and bigger book chains can demand bigger discounts due to their market share. This means that independent bookshops are often working on an uneven playing field because they don’t have the negotiating power of chain stores – and this is likely only to become more apparent with Waterstones’ recent purchase of Foyles, meaning two of largest book chains in the UK are now negotiating as a single entity.
But that’s a discussion for a different blog post.
Those costs above are based on the average price of a paperback in the UK as £8.99. If your book is 800 pages long – more than double the length of the one in the table above, it’s going to cost more to print, so the profit drops, or the price rises. Neither of which are appealing to publishers for debut authors with no track record of sales, or built in audience. Brandon Sanderson writes absolute bricks, but he has also been writing for years and built up a loyal following that are guaranteed sales.
That’s not to say extra-long debut books don’t happen – Christopher Ruocchio’s debut, Empire of Silence (one of the three on my TBR), was released earlier this year and totalled a whacking 624 pages. But these are rare occurrences, and when the market for books is already competitive, why give yourself an additional handicap to finding a publisher by making your book harder to sell? Publishers read a lot of books and don’t have a lot of time, so they are already going to be put off if they are presented a manuscript that clocks up to 250k+ words. Also realistically, it’s going to be difficult to maintain momentum for a story over such a long period of time – bits are going to feel dull, or slow. Publishers are going to be your most critical readers, and if something has too many slow bits, too much ploddy exposition or unnecessary world building, then they won’t be interested. Tolkein might have done it, but Tolkein probably wouldn’t have been published in today’s market.
Ed McDonald, author of Blackwing and Ravencry, has written and spoken a lot about how to write and get published, including being realistic about the length of your work. Admittedly, his perspective is for the fantasy market, but his advice easily works across all genres.
General consensus is that the ideal word count for a novel is 80-100k, although you could perhaps push this to 120k, it wouldn’t be wise to drop the lower end any further. This can vary depending on the genre or age range you are writing in, but generally for adult trade fiction you want 80k to be your lowest possible length. Interestingly, work has also been done which suggests the ideal chapter length is between 3000 and 5000 words.
Whilst word count shouldn’t really be used as the main focus for writing a book, I have found it a good guide to help structure my writing. If I set my minimum word count at 80k, and then my minimum per-chapter wordcount at 4k, it can help me to frame my story – it stops me from rushing through bits that I need to take longer on (a weakness I’m very aware of) and equally will prevent me from taking too long over bits that are unnecessary. It’s almost like pre-editing, stopping myself padding with unnecessary filler, or from accidentally writing a scene that is entirely dialogue.
I wouldn’t be worried if your first draft is over the target of 80-100k – after all, you’re likely to lose a lot of words in the edits.