How long is too short?

There’e2’80’99s an interesting discussion over at a blog called Crime Fiction Dossier that is somewhat related to the last post here, and in fact, I was a little surprised that no one brought its topic up in a comment. Maybe my readers all think I’e2’80’99m so perfect that they don’e2’80’99t even think of me in terms of writing to command? Yeah, right.

Anyway, the question I had rather expected to see was, Who says the book needs to be longer?

And it’e2’80’99s true, most contracts now specify the word count, and the trend is for super-sized books. I had to laugh at the last Parker novel, which is, if you look at it closely, maybe 45,000 words, but it’e2’80’99s got large type, huge margins, and it’e2’80’99s printed on really, really thick paper. It looks like a grown-up book, but if Parker didn’e2’80’99t have a name already, he’e2’80’99d be lucky to find someone willing to print it as a novella. Maigret-sized books just don’t cut it in today’s market.

And it’e2’80’99s also true that many of the big books are just bloated with filler, and when you get to the end you really wish some editor had been allowed her scalpel, or machete.

In this discussion of size-versus-quality, there is an inevitable comparison between today’e2’80’99s behemoths and the slim classics of the Golden Age. Even Sayers’e2’80’99 later novels are short by today’e2’80’99s standards. However, if you look at those classics, many of them are not exactly complex. Thrillers aside, the traditional mystery almost never expanded to include personal considerations; now, the characters’e2’80’99 lives outside the mystery are generally used to enrich the story, interweaving with the investigation and being affected by it in turn.

I have never been told that I have to meet my word count. I suppose that if my publishers were looking for a reason to get rid of me, they could zero in on that and use the fine print to give me the boot, but practically speaking, word count is used to indicate the size of the story, not the size of the book. A 100,000 word novel is apt to have a wider scope, a complexity that a 60,000 word book does not; the bigger number allows the writer to take the time to explore’e2’80’94the characters, the case, the world in which the book is set. A bigger book has the potential to be substantial in a way a slim book does not.

Which is not, repeat NOT, to say that a big book is automatically more substantial, or even better. The difference in Stephen King’e2’80’99s THE STAND between its originally published form (the size of two books) and in its truly huge 450-pages-restored form (the size of three) is not one of complexity, just of size. And to compare that book with, say, any of Josephine Tey’e2’80’99s little masterpieces is to put one of those bizarre, hand-sized giant-oyster pearls next to a cut and polished diamond.

Maybe Sandra’e2’80’99s current book needs to be a tight, slim, ripped little volume, or maybe it needs to relax and spread just a little: I don’e2’80’99t know. My own writing tends to be too tight for comfort on the first go-round, my first drafts being a sort of guide rather than an actual book. If I followed the traditional Hemingwayesque dictum of cutting one word in three (instead of adding one in three, which my rewrites generally do) I’e2’80’99d have a nice, clean, unreadable synopsis. My own current project needs additions, needs the sort of enrichment that comes with pages.

Not a lot of pages, and I like to believe that if I had a book whose nature resisted expansion, Bantam would publish it regardless of size. It is enormously reassuring to know without a doubt that, at the very least, my editor would fight for the book’e2’80’99s right to be small.

But she might lose. It’e2’80’99s a commercial business with a not very large profit margin, and (as the Parker books show) what it boils down to is that people hesitate at shelling out $25 for a novella. And since a book costs about the same to put on the shelf no matter the number of pages, cutting it to $18 can mean losing money.

None of us much want to be the cause of our publishers losing money.

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  1. beadtific on May 17, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    I have to admit that because I read pretty fast, I’ve picked books on the basis of girth. This has sometimes been wonderful, and sometimes given me great opportunities to donate to the local library.

    I’ve found myself, while reading a double-wide book, skipping ahead of extended character blah blah to get to the plot or vice versa – it depends on the writer’s gifts.

    It’s a rare one that blends both seamlessly enough that I read every bit the first time through – usually staying up well into the night.

  2. David J. Montgomery on May 17, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    I love shorter books — but I don’t have to pay for them. If I were shelling out my own dough, I suppose the length my be a consideration.

  3. Rebecca on May 17, 2005 at 7:51 pm

    This is an interesting topic to me… I think my problem is having an idea before I start of how many thousand words a story will take to tell, something that will hopefully come with time. Have you heard of National Novel Writing Month? The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel (novella?) in a month. I attempted it last year, and gave up after about a week when I realized the story I had planned wasn’t going to be anywhere near 50,000 words long. Blah. Anyway, good luck with the book.

  4. brackman1066 on May 17, 2005 at 9:08 pm

    I was just pondering this yesterday, as I was making my way through a book by a well-known and *very* popular British mystery author (one of several who has been hailed as “the next Christie,” which is rather like a color being called “the new black.” But I’m rambling). I have a head cold, which probably means I wasn’t as charitable as I might have been. But her book seemed much longer than it needed to be. I see the appeal in tying in the lives of the major and minor characters to the plot(s). But the endless stream of characterizing vignettes didn’t tie to the plot, particularly. It just went into detail about how miserable everone was. I had assumed this was so everyone would know that it was A Significant Book to be Taken Seriously, and Not Just A Mystery Novel But Literature, etc. because if you spend several chapters stalling the plot and showing that people are often very unhappy you must be writing something important. I’m afraid I still think that sort of self-importance was part of her motive, but I have to say publisher’s word count demands didn’t occur to me. Anyway, I picked the book because it was long (nearly 500 pages in mass market ppbk) and I didn’t want to finish it too fast, but in this case the length added nothing to the book, just detracted from it. The main character sketches did the same–one of the detective’s sidekick came across as loathesome, but not bad enough to be particularly interesting. The other sidekick was fun, so of course horrible things happened to that one.

    Nevada Barr’s books always strike me as both a good length and well-paced–as do the Beekeeper mysteries!

    I’m not identifying the author I didn’t like, by the way, because I don’t want Laurie to have any difficulties in mystery author gatherings–you know “Your fans were slagging on so-and-so on your blog and how dare they.” Given the nature of rumor mills, the story would probably evolve to the point where Laurie herself would be the wrongdoer. Lest my hesitation to name names be taken for cowardice!

  5. WDI on May 18, 2005 at 12:09 am

    I am, I admit, one of those who hesitates at shelling out close to $10 for short (paperback) books (yes, I blush to admit that I buy my Ellis Peters second-hand whenever possible for that very reason, even though they’re fabulous books!). But I also like the hefty books for the sheer joy of diving deep into someone else’s world and staying submerged for as long as possible. The pleasure is magnified because I tend to gulp rather than sip, which means I often get to re-read at least twice . . .

    Of course, that does require that the length be justified by content. Few things aggravate me more than what seems to be a current trend in sci-fi/fantasy writing — namely, the umpteen-book series, each volume of which tops 500 pages, half of which could easily be cut. I understand that writers and their publishers are trying to make money, but sacrificing craft seems a poor way to go about it.

    The nice thing about having favorite authors is that I know I’m getting quality — so I always rejoice when they produce big, fat books. But I buy their short ones anyway, trusting that they know what they’re doing 🙂

  6. Kaylene on May 18, 2005 at 4:58 am

    That’s an interesting arguement…….. I suppose I’ve thought about it before, though it was probably more subconscious. I tend to buy books whatever the cost if I really like the author, or the series, or have heard nothing but praise about a book, no matter the size. I do lean toward longer books for some reason, or series, because they do give the characters more development. Self-standing stories are always nice, once in a while, though. And, of course, the classics are a must. But past that, the majority of the paperbacks on my shelves currently are averaging somewhere closer to 800 pages than the 500 that other people seem to be commenting on.
    Reading is good, clean fun, and I do read anything and everything I can. Even cereal boxes.

  7. Erin on May 18, 2005 at 5:20 am

    While reading this post the last Harry Potter book sprang to mind. It was hideously long. And what made it that way was not the actual length of the book, but rather the logical inconsistancies and unnecessary details. The book was alright, but you could definitely feel that Rowling was under some pressure to make it as long as the last book (which was something like 750 pages, but necessarily so).

    The whole length issue reminds me of the papers I have to write for classes. They always give you page limits that everyone is frantically trying to meet because you can’t get an A if your paper is too short. The problem with that, however, is that if you can be concise and give a good arguement or explanation before reaching the page limit you are inclined to add fluff to the paper in which there are sections that make no sense, which generally results in a less than A grade. Something of a catch-22.

    Its the same thing for books I think. You can write what needs to be written and make it good or you can add fluff to make it longer and lose the coherence of the story. Personally, I’m way more accepting of a short book that is very well written than a long book that is fluffy, especially if they are the same price. Basically, when it comes down to it, if I’m going to be giving up lunch for a week to purchase a book, I want that book to be good. If it is a short book, so be it.

  8. Chris on May 18, 2005 at 9:34 am

    If I know an author’s work really well, I will, as others have posted, buy a new book regardless of length or price…But I buy in such voulme, and in hardback, that I have to resort to Amazon UK rather than my local store for many purchases. Here in the UK, it so clearly depends on the publisher to offer sales incentives to stores. I still fail to understand why the same publisher can sell two diiferent authors’ books at such vastly different cover prices. Surely the idea should be to encourage new readers to the lesser-known author by the occasinal price promotion? It is certainly how I have ‘discovered’ new writers, and if I like them enough, will accept the price-hike on subsequent books…Likewise, the size of a book, the print, the length – if I know an author, then I believe I know what qualities to expect irrespective of whether I am buying 250 pages or 400 pages. Anyway, I’m ranting, so will shut up! Laurie, if you read this comment, this reader (like so many others) love your work and the stories you produce. Show this to your publisher if they ever want fewer words! All the best.

    Edinburgh, UK

  9. Anonymous on May 18, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    I really though that you sort had everything under control, Wasn’e2’80’99t suppose to be something like having an inspiration, you start writing till you finish, and then we have a wonderful book for us? i wonder if we should panic or something!
    So the question is, who says the book should be longer? Ok, but then what I don’e2’80’99t understand is for whom the book is suppose to be longer, English is tricky for me, so was it for the publisher or for the readers?
    I love big books, there are suppose to last longer, but I don’e2’80’99t choose my books by the quantity of pages but for the author, that’e2’80’99s why we are all here no? I have never count the number of words you write here, but what will that be 500 hundred words or was it 20, the point is you wrote it, and that’e2’80’99s what we are expecting from your books, your words.
    I will read Josephine Tey’c2’b4s cooking recipes, never mind if nobody gets killed!
    Maybe you just need to swim some more, or come to the Caribbean to fish some swordfish!

  10. 2maple on May 18, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    I had always assumed that since your books were always about the same length that was part of the deal, as you now say it is. Beekeeper always struck me as a series of short stories that were eventually woven into a book’e2’80’a6and I always wondered whether the basis for O Jerusalem was originally in it and then taken out, leaving just a place holder to return to later, as it came together.

    I also wonder when writing a series how many good ideas get sidelined or discarded because they don’e2’80’99t pan out in length or complexity’e2’80’a6or if a style change up in a series to several novellas (as opposed to a stand alone) or a series of short stories would throw publishers today for a loop. The characters have already been laid out and so the space doesn’e2’80’99t necessarily have to be devoted that way or can be focused on a particular facet or fill in a particular blank’e2’80’a6I suppose like Conan Doyle did with Holmes.

    My book keeping (as opposed to buying) habits are based on content not length. Good get valued places on the shelves to be reread’e2’80’a6and the rest are relegated to the attic or my book store’e2’80’99s ‘e2’80’9cused’e2’80’9d shelves. In looking at what has been kept or discarded, Colleen McCullough, who typically writes long and involved novels, managed to pull it off in ‘e2’80’9cThe Ladies of Missalonghi’e2’80’9d. Like Erin, my reaction after reading the last Harry Potter book was ‘e2’80’9cwhat was her editor thinking?!’e2’80’a6I get the angry teenager idea already!’e2’80’9d’e2’80’a6to my mind, it would have been infinitely better if it had been pared down a bit. Yet, Laurens Van Der Post’e2’80’99s ‘e2’80’9cA Story Like the Wind’e2’80’9d and ‘e2’80’9cA Far Off Place’e2’80’9d is one wonderful story so long that it was broken into to two books.

    – Nan

  11. Mary on May 18, 2005 at 8:09 pm

    I like the story Elmore Leonard’s been telling about one of his books. He likes his books to come out just above 300 pages. Well this one ended up at 280. Instead of padding the book with twenty pages of filler, he simply had them make each page two lines shorter. Viola, a 300 page book. Cheating perhaps, but I like that he didn’t opt for filler.

  12. wolfa on May 19, 2005 at 1:49 am

    I admit that I also tend to buy books only if they’re not too short, especially as we’re getting to the trend of having everything come out in trade paperback. I will buy some short books, especially if they’re likely to be rereadable/by a favourite author/something I really liked when I took it out of the library.

    And then some of the best novels that have been coming out recently have been 600-pagers (though not all) — so you get quality AND quantity for the same price.

    I admit I don’t know much about publishing, so I do not understand why books are all 20 dollars now, but I do know it’s significantly curbed my purchasing. Which is unfortunate, because I feel it’s good to support authors, but perhaps there’s a reason that the standard format for paperback (usually around 9/book, and far more conveniently sized to fit in a purse) is a money loser? I bought well more than 3x the books I buy now when I could get paperbacks.

  13. Anonymous on May 22, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    a few IMO, My $.02 comments on book length and book prices…

    In the wake of huge books, publishers are playing their usual “if one successful book does something, the public must want many more just like it” game (kinda like Hollywood). So we are seeing a bunch of “the new Harry Potters” and “the new Da Vinci Codes” etc. What I don’t understand is how publishers forget that the reason HP and DVC etc. succeeded was in part because they weren’t just like the previous “hot” concept.

    And book prices in the last 15 years have been driven in large part by the
    chain store
    big box retailers
    discount warehouse
    on-line book retail outlet
    theory of competing by discounting

    IIRC, around the time of THE FIRM, publishers basically said, “consumers will pay $18 for a hardcover book.” Therefore, assuming the book will be discounted to $18 by Crown / etc. we can put a $23 price tag on it.

    All IMO.

  14. Jaimee Drew on May 24, 2005 at 5:53 am

    I tend to read anything at hand, but my purchases are becoming more and more rare. Not because I can’t afford a book (maybe that is slightly the case, as I could probably read us out of house and home), rather that my husband and I already have an entire room devoted to books, and I have to evaluate whether the shelves will withstand the extra weight. (No fear, all of your books have a place on my shelves, Laurie). I have actually purchased three copies of “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”, as I am an inveterate book lender and my first two copies meandered off to lead separate lives. I was very (pleasantly) suprised to find the excerpt of “Locked Rooms” tucked away at the end. I think I am going to have to have a quick reread of the previous books to keep me occupied until it comes out.

    Silly side note: Wasn’t Russell’s psychiatrist named Leah Ginzburg, not Sylvia Ginzburg? I ‘m sure this has already been addressed, but then I just noticed because I had just reread “Beekeepers”.

  15. Anonymous on June 9, 2005 at 9:12 pm

    I enjoy Robert Parker’s Spenser tales, but gave up buying them years ago — why pay good money for a lot of blank space. I still read them (and his imitation Spensers — the Sunny Randalls and what’s his name in that other town) but I get them from the library.

    I faithfully buy Laurie King’s books.

  16. missnell on June 12, 2005 at 6:31 am

    Bless his heart, Parker says he writes five pages a day, no matter how long it takes.

    And yeah, I’ve been a fan of his for nearly twenty-five years. But I don’t buy the books anymore either, even in paperback.

  17. ManUtdGal04 on June 17, 2005 at 5:27 am

    I dont think the length of the book matters. like life – Quality over quantity. Although I do tend to go for the longer books or series. I like to know what happens the characters I’m getting attached to. Great example are the Mary Russell series. It would be cruel not to continue. You draw us in and we feel for the people in your story. That’s just good writing.
    Like another who posted (erin I think), when reading this Harry potter came to mind. Although my opinion of the last book was far different than hers. The next one that comes out in July (Forgive me O Wonderful Ms. Laurie king, for I have been reading another!) will be a few pages shorter than the 5th book. The books are getting longer, because she has more info to cram into the last few books. She only plans on writing 7.

    Yes, as i have said, i tend to buy the longer books, but that’s only cause I devour them. It took me an hour to read The Game and 5 to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (the 5th HP book). But if it’s by an author I like or I’ve been told it’s a really good read. I get it. Either from the library or I’ll buy it.

    There is also no shame in getting “used” books. I find some really good books second hand. ok… I’ve given my two cents worth. i’m out. Toodles!

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