Space Limitations

Although the tremendous surge of ebook sales has flattened over the last year, one of its effects continues to be profound. In the old world of bookstores, the minimum length of a book was an important consideration. That’s because on the bookshelf most books are viewed solely by their spines. If the spine is too narrow, it’s hard to read the type. As a former manager of a bookstore, I know very well how impatient browsers can be. If you can’t read the title or author in a glance, the book won’t be plucked from the case for a trial read.

An ebook does not have that problem. Such a book doesn’t have a length, really—how many pages it contains changes as you adjust the reading window. That has led to a revolution in formats. Now a novella can be a book, or even a short story. Amazon introduced an entirely new line called Kindle Shorts to take advantage of this significant change in book marketing. The tech giant, based on the web, also knew a secondary reason books can be shorter. Readers, used to the short text lengths of websites, have become more impatient.

As a consequence, many full-length books are becoming shorter. I caution authors that any debut novel over 100,000 words has a tougher chance of publishing consideration from the get-go—the mention of length in the first thing an agent or editor reads, the query letter. And that’s for books expected to be longer, such as thrillers and historical novels. The length for a mystery is more like 80,000, and I am no longer surprised when I edit 65,000-word manuscripts commissioned by a publishing house.

Nevertheless, my own advice to authors is to shoot for a minimum of 70,000. That way the question of printed vs. ebook does not become a factor. On the other end, if you can shade that 100,000 down to the lower 90,000s, you may receive a more favorable look. I should note, for all of you who are regarding your best-selling extravaganzas in puzzlement, that length doesn’t matter as much once you’re published, and certainly not when you become a best-seller. Until that day, though, you might be better off paying attention to the governing trend.

Exercise: Even if you want to go the indie publishing route, consider the effect of page count on the casual online browser. If I don’t know an author, I’m more inclined to try out a 300-page book rather than a 500-pager. Those extra pages represent a commitment of my time. If I don’t know you, am I going to be disappointed when I find I don’t want to stick it out until the boffo finish?

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.