If you search the internet for “novel length,” you’ll mostly receive the standard advice that a novel should fall somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
Now, that’s good advice. But I don’t like to do things half-heartedly, so here is the bigger picture of length in fiction…
A novel is anything over 50,000 words. The sky’s the limit for the maximum length, though anything over 250,000 is getting into War and Peace territory.
A novella is between 20,000 and 50,000 words.
A short story has a word count of under 20,000 words (though anything over 10,000 puts it into that no man’s land – along with novellas – where it’s a long slog for a “short” story but too short for anything resembling a novel).
80,000 words is a good length to have in mind for your novel, give or take 20K either way. If you’re drawn to writing much shorter tales, the ideal is to make them part of a series (or to link them in some other way) so that you can publish several of them in something vaguely novel-sized.
Why does the length of a typical novel fall in the 80-100,000 range?
It basically boils down to business. Think of it from a fiction publisher’s point of view…
- Thin novels might be cheaper to produce, but book buyers won’t feel that they’re getting their money’s worth – because a 150-page book doesn’t sell for half the price of a 300-page book.
- Thick novels are more expensive to print. And because a 600-page novel is not twice the price of a 300-page novel, more units will have to be sold to reach the same amount of profit.
Okay, it’s obviously more complicated than that, but you get the idea. 80-100,000 words is the “sweet spot” from an economic point of view, and it’s the novel length that readers expect – so if your book is significantly longer or shorter, you may put off your reader from buying it…
- If the novel is too short, they may not feel that they’re getting good value for money.
- If it’s too long, they may not have the stamina to read it.
So my best advice is to stick to the “sweet spot” (80-100K) unless you have a good reason not to. Put simply, anything less than 70,000 words or over 110,000 might make publishers think twice before accepting it.
Although the length of fiction is genre-dependent to an extent (fantasy novels, for example, tend to be on the thicker side), sticking to the ideal novel length is still the best advice.
Writing a first novel that doesn’t represent too much of an economic gamble for a publisher makes it so much easier for the publisher to say “yes.” Later, when you’ll hopefully have a proven track record (in terms of book sales), you can write your novels to whatever length you want.
What About Independent Publishing – Does Length Matter?
On the one hand, you’re free to do anything you want as an indie author. So if you want to write a 30,000- or a 300,000-word novel, there’s no one to stop you! Bear in mind, though, that you’ll still face the same economic forces that drive a traditional publisher’s decisions. In other words…
- The 30,000-word novel is going to feel mighty thin when the customer takes it out of the Amazon box. So they may feel a tad cheated and knock a star or two off your review as a result.
- The 300,000-word novel will be so expensive to print that you may not be able to turn a profit without charging a sales-destroying price.
So my advice stands: aim for 80,000 words (give or take).
What About the Length of Ebooks?
Ebooks cost nothing to produce, so you don’t need to worry about killing your profit margins. Also, a very short ebook isn’t as obviously thin as a very short paper edition. That said…
The customer will still figure out eventually that your novel was unusually short (and possibly feel cheated as a result).
And don’t forget that, as an independent publisher, you’ll likely publish your novel in both formats – digital and physical. So my advice stands: aim for 80K.
One Last Thing on Novel Length…
Don’t become number-bound. If all the books in your favorite genre are 150,000 words, and you feel that 80,000 is just too short, fine – follow your gut instinct. (I’m just giving general advice here. There will always be exceptions.)
Similarly, follow your gut when it comes to your personal preferences. I don’t know the story you want to tell and the way in which you want to tell it. So if 80,000 words feels way too long or way too short for you, fine – let your story be the length that it wants to be.
Finally, it’s a smart idea to err on the shorter side of 80K if you plan on becoming a prolific author – one who churns out three or four novels a year, for example. In that situation, keeping your novels to, say, 60,000 words makes sound financial sense (because you’ll be able to write more of them per year).
But if you’re writing your one and only novel, keeping the length to 60,000 words for the sake of saving time is pointless.