I'm a warehouse shopper. A bargain hunter. Warehouse club over boutique store. Large economy size. I read the shelf tags that break cost down to amount per ounce. So when I'm shopping for a book, I'll tend to steer away from the shorter ones. I'm not looking for a 'read in one sitting' book for my money. My typical leisure reading rate is about 100 pages a day. I normally look for a book at least 300 pages long. I feel 'cheated' with shorter ones, like I'm paying too much per page, or too much per hour of pleasure reading. (Although I confess, I get most of my books from the library these days.)
Having been dealing with "appropriate" word count, I've been thinking about book length in general. I saw a post on another blog about someone having to wrap up her book within 75,000 words, and after I dealt with the terror that tidbit invoked, I started thinking about it. Short stories aside, I've never been able to bring a first draft in under 100,000 words. At the 75K mark, I'm just starting to roll.
Given the reality, what does the author have to consider? Publishers have word count guidelines. While they're not etched in stone, if you're submitting a 100,000 word manuscript to a publisher looking for a maximum 75,000 word limit, you're wasting everyone's time. If it's your agent submitting, some intervention might be possible. If you've already sold books to that publisher, you might get a pass, because you have a track record. But knowing your target market is a critical part of being a professional, and if that means conforming to guidelines you're not crazy about, so be it. The choice is yours.
Why is word count so important? Bottom line: money. And I'm talking print books now. And well-written, well edited books. I'm not talking about books that feel padded or sparse, just to meet a specific word count.
Paper costs money. If you're unknown, how much money is the publisher willing to risk?
Then there's the simple size factor. Mass market paperbacks that sell in grocery stores and other 'non-bookstore' outlets have to fit on specific shelves, frequently in compartments. Those tower displays in the bookstores also hold a specific number of books per slot. It becomes a matter of physical thickness. If the compartment holds 5 inches of books, better to have 5 one-inch books than waste space.
I picked up a mass market paperback recently. It was 388 pages, which isn't out of line. But the font was reduced well beyond that of any other book I've read recently, requiring I dig out my readers. Also, the margins were smaller, and that meant the print was perilously close to the inside gutter, requiring a definite physical effort to hold the book open enough to read.
Then there's the hard cover I'm reading now, which Is 820 pages and weighs in at nearly 3 pounds. When I'm not reading it, I can use it for an upper body workout. But the font is manageable and I don't have to use my readers if I don't want to.
Although both books are historicals, which normally has a longer accepted wordcount, both the above authors have proven to their publishers that they are worthy of more words, although the publisher for book #1 had to push the envelope in order to conform to finished size. Book #2 didn't have the same constraints, although I'll be curious to see how the product looks when it comes out in paperback. And I will admit that given the rigorous editing mode I'm in at the moment, I find a lot of scenes in this book that, although interesting enough, seem to be more of the "I researched all this cool stuff and I'm going to work it into the book" rather than "this is a critical scene to advance the plot." However, since I'm barely halfway through, it's too early to know whether these tidbits will show up again. And the author's audience has proven that it enjoys these digressions.
In reality, I'd have preferred both the above books in digital versions, where size really doesn't matter. My eBookwise is always the same size, and weighs the same no matter how many books I load into it.