by Doug Lewars
How long should your novel be? The simple answer is that it needs to be just long enough to tell your story. Animal Farm is only 29,966 words and it’s a pretty good tale. At the other end of the spectrum is War and Peace at 544,406. That’s quite a difference.
Now ask yourself this. Have you read Animal Farm? There’s a good chance that you have – particularly since it was on the high-school English curriculum for some years. So have you read War and Peace? Some have – but then some people like to climb mountains, cross deserts and dive deep into the ocean. The point here is that if you have to make a mistake, you should probably err on the low side.
This seems counter-intuitive. One would imagine that readers would prefer to get more for their money – and if a book seems just too small that can be the case; but, once a book reaches the 250 page mark – generally 69,999 words, it looks pretty good on the shelf. As the word count climbs; and, by extension the page count increases, it appears intimidating.
I can attest to that from my own experience. If I go into a library I frequently ask myself if I want to invest the time and energy to read a particularly large volume. Frequently the answer is ‘yes’ but there have been times when I’ve put back a book because I had doubts I could get through it in the allotted time based on my schedule. Attacking a book that’s over 400 pages may seem like a formidable challenge.
So what are the stats? They differ by genre but overall, the published median is around 64,000. So, 50% are longer then 64K and 50% are shorter.
The stats from Smashwords.com indicate they have published 16,567,937,313 words over 466,440 books for an average of 35,520 words per volume. To be fair, a lot of authors market by publishing what amounts to a short story for free to gain interest – so the average is likely skewed to the low side – but it still suggests that what many internet articles suggest as an ideal range – 70,000 to 110,000 – might be a little high.
A sample of 145 works of fiction taken from Smashwords.com with the free books excluded raises the average to 49,498 with a median of 35,270. That still seems low. Here is a table showing the distribution.
WORDS COUNT OF BEST SELLER FICTION BOOKS
<20K ———————————– 20
20 – 40K ——————————- 11
40 – 60K ——————————- 38
60 – 80K ——————————- 66
80 – 100K ——————————- 68
>100K —– 74
Note that 60 – 80K seems to be a sweet spot but that there are a surprisingly large number of books that exceed 100K.
A second sample was taken using the filter ‘best sellers’ and ‘fiction’. The sample size was 543 but 35 were discarded because they were boxed sets leaving 505. (I became a little suspicious when I saw one ‘volume’ that exceeded a million words so I examined it more carefully and discovered that, in fact, it was a 12 book set). This distribution is probably a little more useful.
WORDS COUNT OF BEST SELLER FICTION BOOKS
<20K ——————————————- 31
20 – 40K ————————————— 42
40 – 60K ————————————— 75
60 – 80K ————————————— 125
80 – 100K ————————————– 114
100 – 120K ———————————— 48
>120K —————————————— 73
Here it can be clearly seen that 60 – 80K words is optimal although 80 – 100K isn’t bad. I suspected that 70 – 90K might be best but as can be seen there are 125 books in the 60 – 80K range and when I counted there were only 120 in the 70 – 90K interval so I think the data above is probably representative.
A closer examination of the under 20K set revealed that some, if not many, were children’s books, graphic novels or poetry so it may be surmised that there are quite a few pictures and illustrations in that category. Note that among the best sellers, the under 20K group is quite a bit smaller. Possibly some authors are selling short-stories disguised as books. If that is the case they don’t seem to be successful in terms of sales but it does suggest a marketing opportunity. It might be possible to target transit riders along the lines of – pay a small amount for a story that can be downloaded and read during the commute to work.
Therefore, from a practical perspective, try not to exceed 100K but aim for at least 60K. This still provides a high degree of latitude. Of course if you’re a pessimist (and frankly I tend to lean a little in that direction myself) and figure that no-one is going to read your book anyway, then it hardly matters how long you make it.
Previously titled Length of Novel.
Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published eight books on Smashwords.com.