The Business of Word Count

How many words do you need to tell a story well? Conventional wisdom (as stated by Chuck Sambuchino in Writer’s Digest) says a novel should be under 100,000, and one seasoned author in my circle claims that any book longer than 100K either has bloated prose or should be split into two novels.

The 100K edict serves two purposes. First, it discourages inexperienced writers from padding their narratives the way high school students pad term papers to make the assigned 10-page minimum. Second, it holds down production costs. Whether the publisher is one of the Big Five, a small independent press, or an indie author, spending more money to produce a longer book is a poor business decision, unless you can be reasonably sure people will buy it. For instance, Tolkien considered Lord of the Rings a single novel, yet it was published in three volumes because his publisher worried it might not sell, and they didn’t want to pony up the printing costs for a flop. Dividing up the text also helped them overcome the engineering challenge of printing and binding a 1200 page book—for a reasonable price—that wouldn’t fall apart as soon as someone opened it.

In fact, cost drives trends in the length of books. Publishers (both traditional and indie) operate with very thin margins and their only hope for profit, short of run-away best sellers, is to keep production costs low. Smaller word counts mean less time spent by copyeditors and proofreaders who are paid by the hour (or the word), as well as less paper and ink. Artificially breaking longer works into volumes also allows publishers (including indie authors) to sell one book for the price of two, or three, or six. (Note, data from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, suggest this isn’t the best strategy, because Smashwords readers, at least, tend to prefer books longer than 100K.)

litlenellA century ago, the market forces driving word count worked in the opposite direction. During the Victorian era, publishers sold novels in serial form and paid authors by the word. Naturally, authors like Charles Dickens responded by writing a lot of words in a lot of chapters. The hungry reading public paid for the books in installments, twenty or thirty or forty times, so they could find out what happened to Little Nell.

Several months ago I wrote a humorous post in which I gave Herman Melville beta reader’s notes about Moby Dick. I cited the 200K+ word count as something that would limit the success of the book. Indeed, Moby Dick flopped when it came out, and poor Herman died a pauper. Yet today people gather in Greenwich Village cafés to hold marathon readings of Moby Dick. They don’t gather to read Typee (Melville’s first novel, which was a best seller); they come to read a masterpiece packed with brilliant reflections on the morality of man’s desire to dominate nature, which also happens to be an incredible seafaring adventure. So, it turns out, the value of a novel doesn’t depend solely on its word count, but on how the words count. The difference between the novice who boasts about her 400K behemoth and Dickens, Tolkien, Melville, Elliot, and a host of authors who write long books is that the masters don’t waste words. Descriptions may be detailed but serve to frame and enhance the plot and provide subtext. Sentences may be long, complex tapestries woven from dependent clauses, but the resulting texture and poetry demonstrate mastery of the language. In short, the sentences are long but still vigorous. The reader does not slog through them, she glides.

BladeofAmber_final_sized for SWBlade of Amber and A Wizard’s Lot both exceed 150K. They’re not masterpieces (my magnum opus sits on a shelf in my workshop), but each offers a complete story (no cliffhanger endings) and a reflection on how we are molded by our memories—on the shadow the past casts on our present. The two novels together also present a mashup retelling of  Rapunzel, emphasizing the second half of that tale, when Rapunzel and the prince suffer separate travails. And let’s not forget they’re a pair of edge-of-seat adventure stories, with plenty of battles, hand-to-hand combat, magic, and giant intelligent insects. There are places roughly half way through each book where I could end with a cliffhanger and get four books out of two, but I prefer each Woern Chronicles volume to tell a complete story. There’s nothing wrong with authors choosing another strategy—many of my favorite series are one long story told over three or four or fourteen novels—but the single-volume complete story is the choice I made for my own work.

This choice may not be the wisest business decision. A word count over 100K closes many doors. Many agents and publishers won’t consider longer books; competitions may not accept them; book bloggers and media critics may not review them. I pay my editor more for each novel, and because I have to pay for more paper, I’m forced to charge a higher price than I’d like for a paperback copy. However, the beauty of the eBook age is that I can keep the price of my electronic copies at market rate (no paper costs!). For less than the price of a latte, readers can buy a ticket to Knownearth. And once there, they’ll get to stay awhile, reading words that, I hope, count.

Photo on 7-25-12 at 12.24 PM #3_2A.M. Justice writes fiction about distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. You can find more of her fiction and musings on the Knownearth Works website and her blog A.M. Justice Journeys Through Time.

11 comments on “The Business of Word Count

  1. Heh. When I wrote the first draft of volume 1 for the ravenwyng chronicles, word count topped out at 260k words. I split that into two volumes, each now around 120k after line by line editing. I doubt I’ll get either one down to below 100k, but I’m self publishing so it doesn’t matter to me 🙂 I have a story to tell and that’s how I write.

  2. As far as traditional publishing goes 100K is a good benchmark because while some publishers set that as the top end of their preferred length (Edge, for example) others start at 100k (Baen would be an example here). I aim for about 100K and my novels run from about 80 to 110, post edits. I have had writer friends who have had publishers request them to divide longer works into two novels, although the results of splitting anything shorter than 150K into two would result in novels considered quite small for a genre adult fiction novel (acceptabel for YA though). When I started work on one storyline in my fantasy series, I knew it would run long, close to 200K, so I divided it up into two books, parts one and two, right from the very beginning. As a plotter, I can do that easily – it might not work so well for a pantser. They’d probably have to split it after the fact.

    • I’m a total pantser! It’s one reason why I’m such a slow writer. Eventually I did have to outline Wizard’s Lot because the plot has three parallel story lines that all converge on a specific timepoint, and it was kinda hellish to pull that together until I plotted it.

  3. I have the opposite problem – I outline the plot and subplots, and my books end up being on the short side for their genres. An editor I paid to polish my query for my mystery novel said the short-ish word count (60K) would be enough for agents to reject without even reading the blurb. So I’m working to add characterization and backstory while hopefully avoiding fluff that will be cut later anyway.

    • The characterization and backstory won’t be fluff if they are central to your plot. Avoid unnecessary details (e.g., the color of your MC’s car doesn’t matter, unless the specific color plays a role in the plot), but make sure the whys are answered. What motivated the characters to take the actions they took? What made that coincidence plausible? Those details do matter, and they’ll help flesh out your story in a good way. 😀

  4. Pingback: Leaf by Justice | Guild Of Dreams

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