Monday, November 23, 2009

Does Size Matter?

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.

Keep Reading...

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.


lainey bancroft said...

I agree, if I'm going to purchase a book I prefer a nice juicy read that will entertain me the better part of a cold weekend. Although, I do enjoy novellas I can read in under and hour as a tea break distraction.

FWIW, cover stock also determines a publishers required word count. Standard cover stock wraps a certain number of pages. If an author writes a 500 page tomb, it requires custom cover stock and increases printing costs.

I also think certain publishers keep word count limited so a book can be gobbled up in one sitting. Avid Stands to reason if they finish a book, they're going to race out and purchase another. ;-)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Hi Terry! You bring up an interesting point about the ebook revolution and how that will end up eventually affecting word count. When the publishers don't have to worry about the cost of paper, things will definitely change.

As far as genre mysteries go, there is a strictly enforced word count. Otherwise, the book will end up unreadable (your small print/no margin book.) But those of us who've chosen the genre are happy to go along with the rules. Is it hard to adapt? Maybe originally, but then the story comes to you more abridged, with practice.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Terry Odell said...

Lainey, thanks for the info about cover stock. Hasn't been an issue with my publishers, so I wasn't aware of it. Love learning new stuff.

I'm an avid reader, but I still like to have the characters hang around longer than an afternoon! I miss them when I get to 'the end'.

Elizabeth - I never did like 'rules'! Heck, I didn't know there were rules before I started writing. But yes, one does learn to adapt.

Wynter Daniels said...

I usually have the opposite problem when it comes to word count - I'm working to get it high enough! But one of my books came in over the count and I had to cut it, only by 3 pages, though.

Terry Odell said...

Wynter, I've managed to get my manuscript to 89K, down from 96. But the thought of 75 for that particular book -- not sure I could do it without losing critical threads and making it too simple. Have to learn to control the word count as I write. Or maybe learn to plot? Nah -- can't see that happening!

Watery Tart said...

Terry-you're speaking directly to me today, from your Innuendo worthy title, right throught the detail of hating rules.

I am also a frugal, warehouse girl who likes a juicy read that I can get intimate with for AT LEAST a week, preferably a month (I am closer to a 50 page a day reader and LOVE those 1000 pagers--provided they don't feel under-edited). If it is too fast a read I just don't get very invested or attached (single exception of 'The Alchemist' noted--but that is philosophy as much as story).

I think though, your note on frugality as a reason (cost per page) is exactly why the industry prefers to keep it short--make us go buy more.

My first draft of CONFLUENCE was 200K and I LOVED it that way--I feel like to get it to a publishable length I am having to cut into content... next book though... same length, I am breaking nicely into 3 and calling it a trilogy. (that way maybe publishers and I can both be happy)

Terry Odell said...

WT - I think you've got the right idea with a trilogy. Of course, you have to make each stand alone, which probably requires some rewriting, but there are plenty of 'continuing saga' type books out there. Finding a way to get what you want while staying within the 'rules' is a good thing.

GunDiva said...

I never paid much attention to word count until I began NaNo. I'm 50k in and just getting rolling; I'm anticipating 150k for the completed novel. I'm getting the feeling that may be a bit too long. What is the average word count for a romance?

I know I'll have to do some cutting, but not until I've submitted my word count for NaNo.

Terry Odell said...

GunDiva-romance word count will vary. The category lines at Harlequin all have their own requirements, and they're all quite "short" by my standards, some around 50K, I believe.

Single title romances can be longer, but last I heard, publishers are looking for 70-90K for most debut authors.

Best to check specific guidelines so you're in the right ballpark when you submit.

Ray said...

I was born well before the short attention span generation. I find that 300 pages is too short. Just when I get to really like the characters the story ends. I like a book to be at least 400 pages and 500 is better. Unless I like the author personally I won't touch a book under 200 pages no matter how nice the cover and I probably will buy it and read it only when I run out of other books.


Marie Tuhart said...

Interesting subject, Terry. I write on the small end - my e-books are between 100 to 180 pages. I also write series contemporary books which are generally about 200-220. But I have noticed even with series books, that if a writer has gone over word count the print becomes smaller - not good for eyes.

I'm probably the odd one out, I like shorter reads, but that's because I commute 2 hours a day - I have 40 minutes on the train to read, so I can generally get one of the series books done in 3 rides.

Not that I don't read longer books, I do but I have to watch when I read them.

Mona Risk said...

Terry, I used to be like you and loved long books. Not anymore. My busy scehedule doesn't allow me to indulge into hours of reading.

Also since I started writind and attended so many workshops on the craft of writing I have become a difficult reader who analyze every line I read. I have no patience to read pages or paragraphs that don't advance the plot or keep my interest on edge. Unfortunately even GH and NY bestsellers often fall into the pitfall of redundant ideas or useless events just to fill the pages. I found myself marking on the pages: cut, tighten, move...while I skip.

My first book was 120,000 words originally. After taking so many workshops on pace, plot, emotion and sexual tension I cut it down to 76,000 without pity to what I used to consider nice descriptions, cute events,...

Ray said...

Having said what I did about liking long print books, I do read shorter stories online. It has something to do with once on my computer there are too many temptations to surf instead of read.


Mona Risk said...

Oops two typos from my fat fingers:Also since I started writinG and attended so many workshops on the craft of writing I have become a difficult reader who analyzeS every line I read.

Mary Ricksen said...

I agree also, you follow their rules or you don't.
But I imagine what Lainey says makes a big difference.
And Mona is so right. Trimming down to 70,000 and the reader will not be as bored.

kat1reader said...

I really enjoy the shorter stories - more likely to try new authors/they are less expensive/I can read it in a short period. It allows me to read even more books. So many times, I can see large sections that don't add to the romance relationship arc. I do enjoy longer stories - but keep in mind - some of my favorite series, the books are getting longer and longer - and if the author cut maybe 1/4 out of the story - for every 4 books, we could now have 5!

kat1reader said...

BTW - great blog subject!

Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting point about digital books all being the same size. I find my first drafts are always too short and I start expanding on my first edit - then contracting again afterwards.

Terry Odell said...

Ray - sounds like we have similar reading styles, although I'd rather not spend a month with a book. I might forget what happened in the first half!

Marie - I definitely think there are different kinds of reads - I did a post on that subject on Nov 5th - "Veggies or Dessert". If one has short bits of reading time, then one's choice of book might be different from the book one chooses for a long, leisurely weekend.

Mona - I don't have that much more time to read, but I don't feel obligated to finish the book immediately -- at least not since my school days when the number of books one read earned points in class. I do know about the internal editor butting in ... BUT I'm trying to compare books of the same quality. Padding for word count doesn't justify the length.

Mary- same goes as my comment to Mona - a reader shouldn't be bored with quality writing. Ever.

kat1 - you do bring up the $$ issue, which is definitely a consideration. The short book may be cheaper, but if you have to buy another one the next day, it ends up costing either the same or more.

Sheila - yeah, making sure every word is pulling its weight is important. AND doing it within the confines of whatever the genre requires adds to the challenge.

Ray said...

Mary I only get bored if I can't figure out what is going on. It took me three weeks to read War and Peace. I read Clancy's 1800 page Executive Orders in three days. I couldn't put it down. Every one of the thirteen ships we refueled on the second day of reading appeared in the novel as were four ships in the squadron I sailed in a couple of times in previous years.

Trying to know the who's who and the style of writing in War and Peace slowed me down.


Harl Delos said...

You might also be merciful to those of us who read while lying on our backs.

It's hell, having to choose between the juicy novel I've been dying to dig into, and a shorter novel that won't break my nose if I fall asleep while I'm reading.

Terry Odell said...

Harl, you definitely sound like the perfect candidate for an e-reader. Mine's backlit, and I can curl up and fall asleep reading. It will shut itself off after a few minutes of inactivity, too. If I'm reading in bed, it's propped up with several pillows so the book can rest in my lap.

kat1reader said...

About the $$ issue - I didn't really explain that well. I like having more stories. I enjoy getting 5 stories for the price of 2 long stories - that way, I get to read 5 romances, rather than 2. Not saying I don't like the long stories - and there are certain stories where I go, I wish it hadn't ended at 400 pages.

Joanna Aislinn said...

Given the choice, I'll take length--but only if well-paced and the story well-developed. Never like it when a story feels 'cut short' or when the end comes in at a rush as opposed to flowing as nicely as the rest of the book.

Thanks, Terry!

Joanna Aislinn
The Wild Rose Press Jan 15, 2010

Monya Clayton said...

We all have different tastes in reading. I believe that every story has a natural length. As a reader I love the "2 a.m. in the morning" books I haven't been able to put down. As a writer I want to produce such books - and have been assured my two are in that class. A historical at 130,000 words and a contemporary at 62,000.

I'm in the midst of trying to edit a 156,000 historical down to what a publisher will look at. The e-book pub who accepted the 130,000 historical without a qualm now refuse to contract anything over 100,000. The great majority of mainline pubs want one to stick strictly to their word-count guidelines, which are also 75 to 90 or at most 100K. To fit into that I have to make major changes, to cut. Therefore I bleed.

Oh for the days when the story simply needed to be good to sell!

Terry Odell said...

Mona C, I agree that it's a shame the story length is determined by the publisher when it's merely a $$ issue and doesn't have anything to do with making the book good. I understand, but it's still a shame.

Terry Odell said...

Joanna, I agree, it's a shame when a book seems to be written for word count, not quality.

Monya - sorry about misspelling your name! I should know better, because I get irked when people change the spelling of mine.

Harl Delos said...

Five short versus two long? Once I'm invested in a novel, I want it to continue.

That doesn't mean that it has to remain within the covers of one book, though. How long was Louis L'Amour's Sackett saga? Twenty or thirty books?

A writer makes love to his reader. There comes a point when it stops being agonizingly wonderful, and just is agonizing. It starts to chafe. You need to stop, share a meal, and then pick up a little later.

I can't think of any romance stories that are done in multiple books; if book one ends in happily ever after, where do you go with book two? Other genres seem better suited to the series. But maybe you could have a series in which the continuing characters are not the main characters of the story, perhaps on the order of "Fantasy Island"? You could have a Archie Goodwin or Dr. Watson as a continuing character, playing a subordinate role and telling the stories.

Or would that work for the romance genre?

kat1reader said...

Harl - Lynn Kurland has the Nine Kingdoms trilogies - Fantasy Romance. The first trilogy was one couple, the second trilogy has just started with another couple. These are examples of longer stories - but I do have to allocate a large time period so I can read them. And the 1 year b/w books is VERRRY long...

Terry Odell said...

Harl, it's clear you haven't read MY romance with its sequel: Finding Sarah & Hidden Fire. I didn't know you weren't allowed to bring back the same h/h, and although they were together at the end of the book, their relationship still had plenty of places to go.

Most romance 'series' are 'connected books', not true series. But it can be nice to hang with a family and meet secondary characters who come into their own. Suzanne Brockmann does this.

Mystery is well-suited to series, and JD Robb has done at least 20 books with her "In Death" series that straddles mystery, romance & futuristic.