Novel Length and the Modern Market
A recent post on my Amazon Author Page prompted to write about something that's interested me for a while now, namely novel length in today's market.
When I first wrote The Chosen of the Light, the novel was 400,000+ words at completion. At the time I was ready to begin submissions, I had no concept of the book market, but I kept telling myself I'd written an epic fantasy in line with Terry Goodkind or J.R.Tolkien in terms of length. I perfected my query and went to work with submissions, only to be let down time and time again. I tried agents and publishers alike, but after two years of submissions and nothing to show for it, I stopped and tried to figure out where I was going wrong.
I knew my book might not be the perfect model, but I believed in my story and in my writing. I wasn't about to revise yet again and put off submissions for another five years. I began popping into writing forums and connecting with bloggers, trying to find an answer why my book wasn't getting any attention. Ultimately, the overwhelming response I received was word-length. Even for an author with previously published works, 400k words was a huge investment from a publishing company. Take the fact that I had no previously published works and (I didn't know it at the time) an evident show VS tell problem in my storytelling, I had virtually no hope of being published by traditional means.
I didn't get discouraged, though knowing I'd written an unsellable book didn't feel the greatest. I had some options though:
I could self-publish, but I'd have to hire an editor and sell market the book myself.
I could try to get some of my short stories published and build a name for myself.
I could chop The Chosen of the Light up into a smaller chunks, making it more desirable in the market.
I agonized for a long time, but I decided to chop up the book. I did another quick revision, wrapped up my first "book" and hit the submission train again. Within about six months, I received my first bite with Wild Child Publishing, and the rest is history. Today, Spirit Summoner: The Chosen of the Light Book One is out in eBook and in paperback.
But why did this happen? What made the market this way? The first fantasy book I ever read was The Sword of Shannara, and it topped off at around 227k words. Chosen was considerably longer, but in today's market, it doesn't seem that Sword would've been picked up either. According to Chuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest, most novels today should fall between 70k and 109k words, and the Epic Fantasy genre only extends this count to around 115k-124k words. So what happened between 1983 when Sword was published and today?
After doing some research I stumbled across some interesting information from Charles Stross, an author and blogger. Stross explains from the 60's to the late 80's (well before the advent of the internet) buyers relied on novel length as one indicator of a good book. The greatest change in word counts for novels came in the early 1990's when the wholesalers supplying books to retail stores suddenly consolidated. The mass market books sold in retail stores took a huge hit as a result, but the chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble gave rise to mass hardcover book sales.
But hardcovers are MUCH more expensive to print and bind. Hardcover books fall into a tidy $24 for a manufacturer's suggested retail, and increasing the price even $1 can affect sales by nearly a quarter. Keeping a novel's word count within that $24 suggested retail became a requirement for almost all publishers. That being said, if hardcover books are driving the big box stores, then paperbacks must follow even if they are cheaper because that's what the market expects.
Without doing further research, I'd be interested to know how the rise of the eBook has affected this trend. My publisher is largely an eBook publisher, and perhaps, this is how I got my foot in the door. I'd personally love to see a comeback of the larger length novels, and eBooks might just bring that about.
3/23/2014 04:34:34 pm
Interesting thoughts, Matt. It will be interesting to see what others say. Looking back on my younger days when I read War and Peace and Anna Karenina (sp), I don't think they would be published today. Too long and I had to read a 100 pages before I was hooked into the story. I'm glad I made the effort then but I'm not sure I'd do that today which is kind of sad for all the great classics.
3/25/2014 08:05:38 pm
Wow! That's unfortunate,.as i love a good read, book length be damned... if it's good, i get to read it longer and have that much more time in the world the book brought me to... this is sad to me because it also tells of a world that wants instant gratification, not willing to work to get the good results
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