The New World of Publishing: Book Length

I’ve got lots of questions over the last few months from writers asking my opinion of book lengths in the future of publishing. So, let me haul out my old crystal ball, polish it up, and pretend like I honestly can see into the future.

I honestly can’t, but I can give you opinions based on history and some facts. So let me try that and then we can discuss in the comments how right or wrong my swirling crystal ball is compared to yours.

Some History of Book Lengths

For the longest time, meaning almost one hundred years, there were generally two types of novels being published in Western Literature. The larger ones were always hardback, usually dense, and designed only for the elite. The harder-to-read the better the book.  The rest, the vast majority of novels, were published in the magazines, pulps, self-published, and hardback second-run presses like Grosset up until the Second World War. These books were designed for the masses and were called “entertainment.”

Then the military paperback novel reprints taken to the war by the GIs caught on when they came home and mass market paperback books grew in popularity because they were cheap, usually just a quarter.

Most stories called novels from 1900 until the early 1970s were in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 words.  Sure, there were some longer, but not a large number except in the literature genre. Even early fantasy novels in the pulps were in that range.

Then one major factor started to hit home in publishing. The returns system and costs of overhead forced publishers to start charging more for their books to cover the costs. So publishers slowly, from the mid-1960s onward, asked authors for longer and longer books to give the readers the feeling they were getting more story for their money as the book prices went up and up and up. The cost of paper was a minor increase in cost, very minor.

Paperback book prices went from  25 to 35 cents in the early 1960s to the $8.99 range today. If publishing had just adjusted prices for inflation, a paperback book priced at 35 cents in 1960 would sell for $2.60 today. That’s how far traditional publishers pushed priced to pay for their expensive overhead and the returns system.

This upward trend in both book prices and book size continued for about 30 years. In the last ten years publishers found a point in book size that hit diminishing returns. Larger books were more expensive to distribute and ship and fewer books could be placed in a pocket or on a store shelf.  That meant less market penetration and less sales, and the mass market $8.99 paperback sales dropped dramatically as customers just started to say no to more price increases.

So book lengths for most genres suddenly had hit a ceiling of 90,000 to 100,000 words. Fantasy and some thrillers were still minor exceptions, allowing authors to go even higher.

When this sudden diminishing returns problem was figured out, publishers tried another “enlarging” trick with the “Quality Paperback” and that pretty much failed, even though publishers committed to it years ago are still putting them out. Buyers are just not that stupid.

(A Quality Paperback is just like a regular paperback, only taller and more expensive. A “trade paperback” is a paperback bound book (perfect binding) that is the same size as a hardback, only not cased in.)

Trade paperbacks actually give readers more value and thus even though prices of trade paperbacks tend to be around $15.00, readers went for them as a cheaper deal than hardbacks that have reached prices of $27.00 – $29.00.

So, in short, it was the publishers who forced writers into longer and longer books to justify the publisher’s increase in pricing.

This left the 30,000 to 50,000 word novels in most genres way, way out of the picture. In fact, in the 1980s I think it was Stephen King that called the length between 15,000 words and 60,000 words “no-man’s land.” For thirty years he was right.

(Yes, I know that young adult, some category romance, and series westerns stayed around the 50,000-60,000 word length, but those were the exceptions.)

And when you ask how publishers could force writers to write longer books, realize it both took time and was very easy. They just put out the word they wanted longer books and rejected anything out of the new length range they were looking for. No one noticed the slow increase in size over the thirty years except for old pulp writers and those of us who like the history of publishing and collect the old paperbacks.

Like anything in this business, once new writers think that’s the only way things are done, they defend the practice like it’s a golden rule.  And since traditional publishing was the only game in town for the last forty years, writers really had no choice but to write longer and longer, even though in many cases, it wasn’t a natural length for the story being told.

Reader Expectations

A quick point about reader expectations right here and I will come back to this later. Readers (by this upward pressure by publishers on book length to justify their pricing) have also been trained to sometimes like longer books. Of course, they have had little if any choice to read a shorter novel, but the reader expectations are clear at the moment. That will also change with time.

Electronic Publishing Length Prediction

Now we have come to the new golden age of fiction that is dawning. Traditional publishers, moving quickly to electronic publishing, are going to start relaxing their length requirements, maybe even welcoming shorter novels due to less costs in production values. They haven’t yet reached that point, for the most part, but my bet is that they will. (Crystal ball polished.)

The reason novels got longer over the last thirty years was publishing overhead costs and shipping costs. In a world of diminishing shelf and rack space for books, it only makes sense to stuff more books into the same amount of space to make more sales. Thus thinner books and slightly lower cover prices, supported mostly by electronic publishing sales, could slowly become a norm again.

A publisher can ship almost twice as many 60,000 word novels in the same carton for the same price as they can a 120,000 word novel. Not exactly, but close. All for the same shelf space.

Putting an electronic sales cash flow base under a publishing house can also help publishers find more flexible size requirements for all their books. Again, that will take time as well and has not really started yet in most cases. Right now most publishers are still shocked at the speed this is all moving.

Downward Pricing Pressure Will Lead to Shorter Books

Yup, here I go again on the pricing topic. Can’t help it because book length and pricing are connected very tightly.

Electronic publishing was, in part, a reader rebellion against the high prices of traditional published books.

I’m not talking about the silliness of pricing a novel at 99 cents. There are lots of books out there in front of used bookstores in bins for 99 cents. Discount Dollar Store types of discounting of books has always been around. For example, in our discount mall here, we have a discount new bookstore. I can go in there and find a book that didn’t sell well two years ago, brand new, being cleared from a publisher’s warehouse, for 99 cents or $1.99. (Author makes little or no money on sales from that store, so I don’t go in there very often.)

In electronic publishing an author makes almost no money off a 99 cent book price. (35 cents for the most part.) If they had sold the book to a traditional publisher, they would have made 8% of $7.99 or 64 cents per sale. So 99 cent novel pricing of electronic books, as I have said over and over in many ways, makes no sense at all. Period. You are better off stuffing the book into the traditional publishing produce factory. You would make twice the money per copy sold.

However, talking about story length, a short story priced at 99 cents makes great sense. And readers are coming to expect short stories to be 99 cents. And shorter lengths are wonderful to read on phones or Kindles or other devices when waiting in line or at a doctor’s office. So the short story is coming back strong these days, both as a 99 cent stand-alone offering or in collections.

Novel pricing seems to be all over the map and chances are will not settle anytime in the near future. Traditional publishers, for the most part, are holding pricing of the longer novels in the range from $6.99 to $14.99.

(An electronic book at $14.99 is just as stupid as one at 99 cents in my opinion, but alas, that’s just my opinion. But do the math. $14.99 x 35% is $5.25 profit. A book priced at $9.99 x 70% is $6.99 profit. Charge five bucks more and make $1.74 less. Yeah, that’s smart. NOT!)

Indie publishers are taking their books for the most part around the $5.00 number, usually under, and traditional publishers are coming down to that impulse buy point as well in some cases. All of my traditionally published books now have electronic prices in the range of $6.99 to $9.99.

So now we are moving from a world where length of a book determined the price (or the need to increase the price determined the length of the book) to a world where you might as well toss a dart at a price-board to set your book price. But the dartboard approach will slowly move back to length pricing.

So let me give a suggestion of how I think this length/price might level out for both traditional publishers and indie publishers in Electronic Publishing. (Crystal ball polished and ready to roll.)

Traditional Publishers:

—Premium Books (Meaning new bestsellers). Length will remain for the near future at 80,000 to 120,000 words. Pricing at first will stay high, above $14.00 to not hurt the premium of the hardback release. This will change as electronic book sales go past 50% of the market share in the next three or four years.

—Standard paperback or trade paperback books. A length pressure to reduce size will start taking hold to allow publishers to get more books into the same shrinking bookstore shelf space. Electronic pricing will hover around the $7.00 number. Length size will start dropping toward the 60,000 length again in most genre fiction. (This will take years as it took years to build.)

Indie and Small Publishers

—Short fiction. Anything under 15,000 words.  99 cents price.

—Short novels and short collections. Anything from 15,000 words to 30,000 words. $2.99 price (gets 70% pricing structure.)

—Novels and long collections. Anything from 30,000 words and up. $3.99 to $5.99, with the higher price going to the longer books.

(Note: For POD pricing, length is everything. The shorter, the cheaper the cover price. So length for novels or collections for indie POD publishers really pushes books to be shorter as well.)

Length Restrictions

So it comes down to some basic questions.

Do authors have length restrictions now on what they write?

Simple answer: Yes and No. If the author wants to go traditional publishing, the answer is yes. If the author is small or indie publishing, no restrictions at all.

What length should a novel be?

Answer: That depends. Depends on where the author hopes to sell it, and more importantly what the story itself demands.

Can novels be longer now?

Answer: Yes. Not in traditional publishing, but in indie publishing a novel can be as long as you want to make it. I can’t see any reason why an author can’t publish a 300,000 word epic and then publish a 45,000 word novel. No rules, no cost restrictions dictating length as it has done for the past 50 years.

Should authors price their books with a consideration toward length?

Answer: Yes, to a degree. If you have a 300,000 word epic selling for $5.99, you might want to price your 45,000 word novel at $2.99 or $3.99 just to make sure reader expectations are met to a degree. Again, readers have been trained that longer novels are more expensive, shorter novels less so. That’s fifty years of training. Don’t fight it in the short term. And also realize readers have been trained in the same fifty years to think a book priced too low is also not of value. So caution on that side as well. All readers love discounts, just make sure there’s a solid reason besides fear that drives the discount. Readers, for the most part, can see right through anything else.

Summary

Length requirements are still in place for traditional publishing, but not for indie publishing. Writers are now free to write to the natural length of a story.

I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of freedom that gives me. I trained myself as a media writer that when I was hired to write a novel 90,000 words long, I turned in a novel within a few hundred words of 90,000 words. That always caused either slight expansion of a story-line or leaving a story-line out that belonged in the book. It felt like writing with one hand while wrapped in Glad Wrap.

Now, since I don’t write media and am doing a lot of indie publishing, the freedom feels wonderful. And that freedom has been part of what has brought the joy back to writing for me again.

There are no restrictions, no right lengths for novels anymore. Just write what the story demands to be written and then decide what to do with it.

Have I said lately how much I love this new world of publishing?

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Copyright 2011 Dean Wesley Smith

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Okay, I admit it, I had issues at first with putting in a tip jar in the Magic Bakery. It was one of the “I have it made, why do I need to support my writing with tips.” A minor myth, sure, but still one that took me a few days and some talk with Kris to get past. And also, why put a tip jar in when I’m just trying to help people. But I figured I needed to get past that as well, so here it is.

And I also needed to start treating these chapters as part of my writing business instead of just a hobby.

And  speaking of the Magic Bakery, this chapter is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

Thanks, Dean


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