The Zen answer to the eternal question “How long should me book be?” is “As long as it needs to be.” But that’s not particularly helpful, is it?
I was browsing Smashwords the other day, and I saw a huge variety of lengths. Some of the published documents were only 1200 words, while others were 170000. Neither of those manuscript lengths would be marketable to traditional print publishers. The 1200 word story is longer than flash fiction and a little too short to be a short story, while only a handful of bestselling authors could convince a publisher to take on the 170K behemoth.
Traditional wisdom (i.e. advice I found on the internet) says that a first-time novelist should aim for a book between 70-100k. Publishers are unlikely to buy anything over or under that rather narrow window although there are exceptions. Self-published ebooks don’t need to worry about shelf space or the cost of paper.
Here’s where my innate bias against indie authors (even though I am an indie author) raises its head. What can I say? I’m a product of traditional creative writing programs, and until about four months ago, I was still dead-set on shopping my book to agent in the hopes of getting a book deal with one of the Big Six. Anyway, these ebooks with word counts that fall so far short or long of the traditional window make me think that the short works aren’t fully fleshed-out, while the crazy long ones are in need of pruning. 30k does not a novel make. It’s barely a novella. If printed, it would be about 120 pages long. These distinctions are largely meaningless in the digital age, but I’ve still got that knee-jerk reaction: the person who wrote this didn’t do it correctly.
Of course, that 70-100k window that I’m so weirdly insistent upon is determined by publishing houses based on a ratio of cost to publish vs. expected returns. The “right” length for a novel has varied over time. War and Peace would never be published today, or if it was, it would be broken into three parts and marketed as a trilogy. I think there are quite a few series out there that are really just a serialized epic work. I’ve read quite a few YA books whose first and especially second installments function as part of a larger narrative without a solid beginning, middle, and end of their own. This irks me. It’s the reason why I didn’t love Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, even though I wanted to–the pacing of the book and the overall story arc only make sense as the first act in a longer work.
Some of the greatest works of the 19th and early 20th centuries were originally published as serials. The episodic nature of publication informed the structure of the books, so that often each segment read like a short story. By the same logic, one could argue that the insistence on a narrow window of word count has determined the kind of stories that writers are able to tell. Without the mostly arbitrary limitations of traditional publishing, indie authors can write stories that are exactly as long as they need to be.