Sunday, December 3, 2017

How Long is a Good Book?


Are our reading habits changing? And, because of that, should our writing habits be changing too? Or is it vice versa? I’ve spent much of the last month planning my next two writing projects, and because of this, I’ve discovered that, actually, size probably IS quite important after all …


Increasingly, I find that many books I download in digital format feel shorter than the paperbacks on my shelves. Perhaps this is just my perception rather than reality because having to check the progress bar and finding it at 58% is somehow less informative than sticking your finger between the pages and guess-timating that you’re more or less halfway through. Also, a fatter spine stands out more on a shelf. I’ve even come across people who admit to being only occasional readers, who will make a final decision between two titles by the width of them.

Are today’s authors simply more aware of pace, so more of the type of novels I tend to choose are better at keeping me turning the pages? Or is the average length of a book really coming down?

To find out more, I started hunting around for details on word lengths, and found this amazing bit of research by BetterNovelProject blogger, Christine Frazier. I can recommend downloading the study if you’re at all interested in the length of books.


It’s a look at the average word counts of a few of the bestsellers in various different genres, from children’s picture books at a few hundred words in some cases, to fantasy epics at over 300k. It includes some well-known titles from the Mystery and Thriller world, which, according to Ms Frazier’s findings, averages out at around 128k words. It held a few surprises, for me. I would never have guessed that Gillian Flynn’s recent GONE GIRL would be a weightier tome than JURASSIC PARK or THE DA VINCI CODE, for instance.

For my own part, I wondered about the length of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, and was amazed to learn that his debut novel, KILLING FLOOR, was a massive 178k words, compared to the latest, THE MIDNIGHT LINE, at less than 120k words.

To date, the instalments in my Charlie Fox series have usually come in at around 100,000 words, with the longest of them close to 130,000 and I’ve always felt that was about par for the course. But do people want to read books in this genre of this length anymore? When I wrote ABSENCE OF LIGHT at a little under 60,000 words, I initially labelled it as a novella because it seemed so much shorter than the others. Now, however, I realise that it’s far longer than many examples in the genre.

So, what classifies as a novel-length work, and what is a novella?

Generally speaking, it seems that these days a crime/mystery/thriller novel can be anywhere from 75,000 words up to 130,000, although I’ve spoken to many authors who tell me their crime series have never exceeded 65,000 words per book. There will always be exceptions to any rule, as with Lee’s early books, all of which topped 175k words. Long novels have to justify their bulk, just as very short novels have to make every word work that little bit harder.

Every year at CrimeFest in Bristol, I judge the FlashBang Flash Fiction competition, which is described as ‘an original crime story in 150 words’ and if it comes to a real tie-breaker, then one at dead-on (pun intended) the word-count nips in ahead of another that falls a word or two short.

Mind, you flash fiction is often described as up to 500 or even up to 1500 words, so very short stories then become micro fiction. Ernest Hemingway is often credited with the famous story told in just six words, although, there’s evidence this appeared in print in classified adverts going back to 1906.


Stories to be told in 50 or 100 words, or within the 140-character confines of a twitter post, also fall into the micro fiction category.

Short stories can be 1000 to 8000 words, with all the usual exceptions. If for a contest, they often set fairly tight criteria for submissions, particularly if they’re planning to gather the winning entries into a printed anthology. I’ve recently been asked for anything up to 10,000 words, but generally they’re designed to be read easily at a sitting. I suppose word-length then really depends on how fast you read.

Above short stories, but before the novella comes a strange category called the novelette, which I’ve seen described as low as 7,500 words, up to about 17,500. I would usually have called this a long short story, if that’s not a slight contradiction in terms …

After that come novellas, which I’ve seen described as anywhere between 17,500 and 50,000 words, although the cut-off point is often put at 40k. Until the rise of e-publishing, novellas were often a difficult thing to get published, as the cost of printing them sometimes outweighed the price that could be charged, but they were designed to contain more nuance and character description than a short story, but fewer complexities of plot than would be found in a novel proper.

As for novels themselves, it would seem that anywhere from 40,000 words to the sky’s the limit is the case. Ray Bradbury’s classic FAHRENHEIT 451 is a smidge over 46k, while Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE and Vikram Seth’s A SUITABLE BOY slug it out around the 600,000-word mark.


How long are the books you like to read? Or write, for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know!

This week’s Word of the Week is ubique, from the Latin meaning everywhere. It is the motto and later battle honour of the Royal Artillery and Engineers, given to them by King William IV in 1832. It was also the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling about the Boer War. 

21 comments:

  1. I'm a mere reader, not a writer, but I like books that are between 300 to 350 pages.
    If I spend time reading a 500-page book, it has to be worth my time. And getting older with aging eyes means more reading time per book. It a long book is boring, I consider it a waste of my reading time. So I avoid that author.
    I don't like the trend towards very long books. A mystery can be set up, developed and solved in 300 pages or so.
    I'm a fan of Donna Leon's books and hers are not long, and neither are Andrea Camilleri's wonderful Sicilian mysteries.

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    1. Hi Kathy. I too like books that don't feel like too much of a slog to get through, but very short books can be unsatisfying. I looked up word counts for both the authors you mention. Andrea Camilleri's THE TERRA-COTTA DOG is 109,120 words, but his latest, A NEST OF VIPERS, is 84,320.

      Donna Leon's debut, DEATH AT LA FENICE is 83,700 words, and this year's EARTHLY REMAINS is 94,240, so one has gone up a little and the other has gone down. Make of that what you will!

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  2. I've been lamenting for years that books are getting shorter. I've particularly noticed it in long running series, where the later books are noticeably shorter than the earlier ones. I don't mind too much if I enjoy the book but I notice the prices aren't any lower. It's a bit vexing sometimes to have paid anything from £6-£12 for a book which you finish in hours rather than days.

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    1. Hi Lesley. I know what you mean, and I always thought of the 11th installment in the Charlie Fox series as a novella because it was around 60,000 words rather than the 100,000+ of the other books in the series. I've always tried to write the shortest book I could, as I don't like padding, either to write or to read. It's always a balance between value for money and boredom!

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  3. As I seem to remember someone saying, a story should be as long as it needs to be and no longer.

    For me, the length of the story has no bearing, it's the quality of the story that counts. That said, as the quality goes up, I always find myself wishing the story were longer, as I'm rarely ready to leave when the story ends, and as the quality goes down, I find myself wishing the thing would end already.

    But no surprises there. :-) Myself, I find 60,000 words pretty short, preferring 90,000-150,000 for a novel. Above that, it had better be a VERY good story, VERY well told, and have a VERY good reason for being that long. :-) Too many large books today are large just because lots of words are easier to write on a computer than on a manual typewriter, and editing, in many places, seems to have met with the same downsizing as many other jobs.

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    1. Hi EvKa. I've always tried to write to the end of the story and work the rest of it out afterwards, but I need an idea of the shape of the story arc when I begin, and that depends on the complexity of my outline.

      I love the Robert B Parker novels. The prose is very spare, but he says as much if not more in very few words. Hence his first Spenser novel, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT, is a lean 64,480 words, and Ace Atkins' latest continuation of the series, SLOW BURN, is 114,080. I confess I haven't read SLOW BURN, but it's interesting that the books have almost doubled in size.

      Interesting point you make about editors. I usually try to make a pass through my typescripts to cut out every extraneous word, but I don't think I've ever had an editor try to do the same.

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  4. A proper story will be told in its own time and in its own way. When a writer bows to market forces and tells their story to meet some arbitrary, and changing, standard of length they sacrifice the purity and truth of the story. The story will tell you what it should be. Don't let strangers tell you. They don't know the story. Only you know the story.

    Honest writing is about telling a story. When writing becomes about money, we have lost the truth of the story.

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    1. Hi Veronica. I agree that the story dictates its own length, and in these days of ebook publishing rather than print-only, the number of pages in a novel is less important than it used to be, but I often find that constraints encourage extra creativity. Some of the most creative writing I’ve read have been entries to the Flashbang Flash Fiction competition run as part of CrimeFest every year, which has a strict limit of 150 words.

      For my own work, I have to be realistic and admit that I am a writer of commercial fiction, not high literature. I do my damnedest to make sure that what I turn out is the best I can make it, but I see myself as a craftsman rather than an artist. Therefore, if I want to be competitive in a genre with certain accepted parameters, I will do my best to stick to those guidelines. There will always be outliers, but you can’t rely on being the exception to the rule.

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  5. Zoe, my first fiction publisher demanded ever lower word counts, and I think it had nothing to do with the quality of the storytelling. They publish hardcover only, and each year charge an additional dollar. City of Silver--my first--in 2009, was 109K. When submitted Invisible Country at 103K, the demanded that I cut it to 80K. I got it down to 92K and insisted that I needed it at that length, but in that two-book deal they said okay, but then Blood Tango had to be 70K. At 73K it felt sketchy to me. I think the motivation of the publisher was to cut production, warehousing, and shipping costs. I want my publisher to be profitable. I know how difficult that can be in today's publishing world. But I am grateful that my current publisher asked me to expand Idol of Mombasa, which I had first written with that diminish-it demand in mind. It is a better book given the opportunity to enrich the story.

    I also think about how the Harry Potter series bucked the trend, getting longer as it went along. And how the great JK got nine-year-old boys to read seven hundred-page books. I say that was her greatest magic trick!

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    1. Hi Annamaria. I, too, was asked to write shorter, but it was always a suggestion rather than a demand. So hard to cut the guts out of a story. But I confess that I did enjoy the tighter confines of writing ABSENCE OF LIGHT at around 58,000 words. When I first started, there was much less information freely available about proposed novel length. I can’t remember where I got the figure of 100,000 +/- 10 per cent, but I’ve stuck with it for most of the Charlie Fox novels since, although I confess they’ve always been over rather than under 100k.

      I looked up the Harry Potter books, and while PHILOSOPHER’S STONE was a little over 77,000 words, the weightiest instalment, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, was over 257,000! I wondered why I thought that book went on and on …

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  6. I've always been an admirer of the Hemingway, Steinbeck, McCarthy shorter word count novels. Same for Dick Francis. I don't know why that is, though as a lawyer I always said, "If I had more time I'd write less, " but perhaps it's just because they're easier to carry around in a back pocket. Whatever the reason I have to thank the fates for hooking me up with a publisher (Poisoned Pen Press), that wants (perhaps prefers is a better word) its books coming in at between 60,000-90,000 words.

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    1. Hi Jeff. I love a well-told story in a sparse prose style. I thoroughly enjoyed the Dick Francis novels, too. You didn’t feel you were embarking on an epic, but they were always filled with interesting facts and a rollicking good read.

      I know what you mean about carrying the books around in a back pocket. On a trip a few years ago I took the George RR Martin canon with me to read – all in ebook format. Good job too, as they five-book GAME OF THRONES series comes in at 5216 pages, and a whopping 1,616,960 words. The weight of the paperbacks alone would have exceeded my luggage limit.

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  7. Our first two, A Carrion Death and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu came in just over 130,000. Nobody raised an eyebrow. Now we've settled in the 80K to 90K range. However, I do agree that the length is what it takes to tell the story well.

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    1. Hi Stan. And did any of your readers comment about the reduction in length of your Detective Kubu novels? If not, then I would take that as a compliment on your storytelling abilities. You say more with less :)

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  8. How many pages are books with 60,000-90,000 words of 130,000 words?

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    1. That’s hard to say, Kathy. It depends so much on the design of the interior of the book. How large is the type, how much space at the top of the beginning of the chapter. Things like that to make a big difference. I would guess that 90,000 words is about three hundred pages. But maybe one of my writer friends here will have another guess.

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    2. I've searched around on this subject, and it would seem you can work on 275 words per page as being a good estimate. So, a 300-page novel would be approx 82,500, 350 pages equals 96,250 words, and 500 pages comes in at 137,500. Ish, of course.

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    3. I find it difficult to estimate things with manuscript pages, as I use 1.5 line-spacing rather than double, and 12pt font – usually Times New Roman. However, because I'm in the UK my standard page size is A4, which is 210 by 297 mm (8.27 in × 11.7 in). I can’t remember the standard size of US paper, but I think it tends to be shorter and wider.

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  9. Thanks. That is a ballpark figure, but it's helpful.

    As someone who has written non-fiction which at the most hits 1,520 words, I don't have an estimate in book pages.

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    1. I used to write nonfiction also, Kathy. When I first began, I’d be writing articles at anything up to 5000 words. Towards the end, it could be as low as 500 words. Quite a challenge!

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  10. I am amazed at writing that many words. At tops, I have written 1500 or so words. But I write peculiarly. I am very thorough, so I write long articles, then tweak and trim them until they're a reasonable length.

    I guess most authors write a certain number of pages or words a day and then take a break.

    Do you know Mark Twain's famous adage about when he wrote a long letter to a friend? He said sorry, I didn't have time to write a short letter.

    So, he wasn't into tweaking.

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