Janey Burton

PUBLISHING CONSULTANT

Editor & Contracts Negotiator

The question of how long a book should be is a common one. But it also seems to be an increasingly confused one, as self-published books don’t necessarily follow the same conventions as traditionally published titles, and challenges like NaNoWriMo suggest at least the first draft of a book should be around 50,000 words, which strikes many as being awfully short, while at the same time being longer than some writers think their particular book needs to be.

Books come in all different sizes, and different lengths are suitable for different categories, so what is the right length for your book?

Be careful about meeting or confounding the audience’s expectations

Especially now that books are often ordered online or as ebooks, readers don’t necessarily consider the number of pages when buying. Sometimes this means they’re caught by surprise: a recent example is Don DeLillo’s latest, The Silence, a critical triumph with many positive newspaper and magazine reviews, all of which refer to it as a ‘book’ or a ‘novel’. One or two reviewers mentioned in passing that the book was slim. This review both calls it a novel and points out it runs to less than 10,000 words — the length of a long short story, on the cusp of a novella.

Priced at the same level as a full-length book, and described as a book or novel, its potential readers could be forgiven for assuming they were buying a full-length book.

Now look at the reader reviews: in direct opposition to the critics, the readers are furious, because this book turns out to be 128 pages in print and 61 pages in ebook, with large, generously-spaced type. Readers are finishing it in about an hour. They feel lied to and ripped off and are castigating the story not merely for its deceptive length but also for pretentiousness. It isn’t hard to surmise that they’ve chosen pretentious as a descriptor based not only on their judgement of the content but because they feel it is masquerading as something more than it is.

It might have been wiser for that title to have been marketed as a long short story or short novella, because pretending it is something it isn’t has understandably irritated its audience.  

Now, there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a direct correlation between price and number of words, or price and hours taken to read a book, because this is clearly a nonsense: W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ is less than 200 words and yet it is not that much less meaningful or important to our culture than the half a million expended on the Twilight saga. Nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, readers have come to expect that short books, novellas, ‘singles’, or special edition short stories are priced lower than full-length books.  

This is because readers have expectations of books based partly on their experiences, and in the main those experiences still come from traditionally published books, in which there are clearer rules for the length a book should be than there are in the self-published space, where the author can go longer or shorter if they think their book really requires it.

Again, though, the self-published author should be wary of totally confounding their readers’ expectations, because when readers feel unsatisfied by a book, they often know instinctively when the problem is that the book is too short and needs expanding, or too long and should have been cut down, and the reviews will reflect that and so impact sales.  

So how many words should I write?

This will partly depend on whether you are seeking traditional publishing, because literary agents and many publishers only deal in full-length titles.

In fiction, short stories may be as short as 1000 words, and go all the way up to 10,000 words. From about 8000 words they start to be described as long short stories. As printed pages may be 250-300 words depending on type size, this means a short story may run from three or four pages, up to around forty pages.   

Novellas go from 10,000 up to 40,000 words, so up to 160 pages.

Technically, anything above 40,000 words would be a novel, but in practice novels are usually significantly longer than this, and especially so if they are traditionally published.

If you are self-publishing, your novel should probably be no shorter than 50,000 words, and this will feel like a quick read.

If you are seeking traditional publishing, 70-90,000 words is common and would result in a book of up to 360 pages.

Once a book gets past around 110,000 words it begins being described as epic, and so usually these long books are in the science fiction and fantasy categories, where readers are happy to spend a lot of time in a new world.

In non-fiction, the rules are looser, and the word count can vary hugely. General non-fiction can range from a single essay of around 10,000 words, to 100,000 words of closely written information, and this is dependent on many factors and not just the book’s category. Narrative non-fiction such as memoirs are frequently around the same range as commercial fiction, so 70-90,000 words.

Since non-fiction is so often sold on the basis of a proposal, which should include reference to comparable books, those comparable books can often provide a guide as to what the audience for that particular book is likely to expect in terms of length.