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Friday, July 7, 2017

The Sweet Spot for Book Length, by Susan Oleksiw

The annual survey by Smashwords turned up some interesting information. After I got past the news that Romance was the best-selling genre and mystery/crime fiction didn’t even make it to the top ten, I got hit with the most popular word length. Best-selling Romances are 90,000 to 110,000 words. These books are much longer than the average crime novel, and certainly longer than my first.

The preferred length of fiction in the mystery and crime fiction category has been creeping upward since the 1970s, if not earlier. When Walker Publishing published its mystery line, the standard length was 72,500. An editor I spoke with at a conference was adamant that manuscripts were expected to come in at that length, not over and not under. That’s less than 250 pages in a five-by-eight inch hardcover book. At the moment I have two recent mysteries sitting on my desk. The first is 497 pages and the second is 573 pages. Each page is still the standard thirty to thirty-five lines, with up to eight to eleven words per line. Is this necessary?

When I pick up one of the new mysteries that makes me feel I should head to the gym for some muscle building, I wonder if it will be good enough to justify all that paper (yes, I read on paper). Most of the classics I’ve read aren’t nearly as long as today’s typical mystery novel.

Many of what we consider classic works are satisfyingly short. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) tells a graceful and riveting story in 180 pages. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), about a woman coming to know herself, is even shorter, more novella than novel. George Orwell only needs 96 pages in Animal Farm (1945) to condemn the corruption of society and politicians. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) needs only 176 pages. Shirley Jackson needed 214 pages in We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Marilynne Robinson topped her at 219 pages in Housekeeping (1981).

These are novels we don’t forget, but they are also typical of some of the best writing in English. They are pared down and to the point. A sprawling novel like Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853) has many more story lines (and needs 1,036 pages), and was written under different circumstances (serialization). But A Christmas Carol (1843) does the job in 80 pages.

The sweet spot for hard-cover crime fiction, I am told, is about 85,000 words. Cozy paperbacks tend to be shorter, coming in at 75,000 words. When I consider what I read and how I choose books, I find I sometimes select a title that is shorter than the long nonfiction or fiction work I just finished. I don’t want a steady diet of 300 or 450 page books.

I like variety in what I read as well as in what I write. The first Mellingham mystery, Murder in Mellingham (1993), came in at 88,000 words, and the most recent one, Come About for Murder (2016), came in at 72,000.

 To find more of my books in their various lengths, go to:

https://www.amazon.com/Susan-Oleksiw/e/B001JS3P7C

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SusanOleksiw

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/susan+oleksiw?_requestid=1017995

To learn more about what I'm writing, go to www.susanoleksiw.com

13 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

As a reader, I found War and Peace intimidating by length. As an English major, I had to read some of Dickens longer works. I thought some judicious editing might have been of benefit. However, Dickens was paid by the word. Some of the current romances and mysteries seem redundant and would also benefit from pruning. Still, readers do like to get their money's worth. My next published work will be a novella, not a novel. I think it's a special work--although literary, not a mystery. Hopefully, there is room for many different lengths and readers will look for quality not merely quantity.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I was surprised by the gradual lengthening of the mystery novel, and I hope editors will consider shorter works (and also that writers will writer them). I too find myself reading a mystery and feel it's just too long. Perhaps this is the result of publishers thinking readers by books by the pound. Good luck with your next project, the novella.

Maris said...

Thanks for the information on word length. I think anything over 70,000 needs a strong subplot, otherwise it seems like the author is simply padding. I know I've read several longer-length novels where I felt there was too much repetition and/or unnecessary material.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I agree, Maris. And after I researched the length of some of the classics I felt even more strongly about keeping the length of the story appropriate to the topic. Thanks for commenting.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Interesting to know!
Thanks for sharing
Good luck and God's blessings
PamT

Earl Staggs said...


Susan, I suspect many writers will see these new preferred lengths and add padding to meet them. That's a shame. I still believe in an old thing I learned many years ago: How long should a story be? As long as it takes to tell it well.

jrlindermuth said...

I've read some lengthy novels that were worth the time--and many more that weren't. I've also read some short novels that didn't make the cut either. I'm in agreement with Earl--length depends on how many words are needed to tell the story well.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Earl and John, I wish more editors (and writers) had your attitude. If they did, we'd have a lot more variety in story length, and probably more interesting stories because they wouldn't be weighed down with padding. Thanks for adding that comment.

Twisted Evilettes Evilettes said...

One of my favorite authors is Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame. I've been reading her work since she started 20 + years ago. Her books are mammoth size, 800, 900 pages, which, considering what she writes is not surprising. However, lately, I can't finish her work. I don't have the patience anymore. I really don't.
The cozier I've been reading, like the Candy Holiday mysteries, are about 300 pages & perfect for me.
As we get older, perhaps we decide that shorter is better.

JudyinBoston said...

Arrrgh! I can't seem to write a book in less than 99,000 words and that's with lots of paring and editing and more editing. I do have plenty of sub-plots and my one novel without subplots came in at 86,000. (World of Mirrors). I don't mind a longer book (350-400 pages) if it is compelling. Anything more than 500 pages and that's too much. That's why I haven't read the latest Donna Tartt book, The Nightingale. Everyone said it was too long. War and Peace was compelling, although I only finished it on my 3rd or 4th attempt. Same for Moby Dick. Everyone said The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was too long, but I liked the parts about Swedish culture and current life and politics in Sweden. You will note my comment is longer, too. Damn!

Susan Oleksiw said...

TEE, I'm pretty sure I couldn't write 800 or 900 pages on anything, let alone a novel. But if her stories are compelling, more power to her. She's right up there with Dickens and Stephen King. I'm not sure I'd be able to keep all the characters straight. I'm not surprised you're turning to shorter cozies. Thanks for adding to the discussion and mentioning her.

Judy, I liked Anna Karenina and didn't mind the length. I don't mind the length of Stephen King, but I don't think every book has to be 80K words or more. I like variety. Thanks for commenting.

Carole Shmurak said...

When I started reading mystery novels, they were Golden Age books that seldom went longer than 200-250 pages. To me, mysteries much longer than that just feel too long. It's instructive to look at my bookshelves and see a long-lasting series like Grafton's sitting there in order A to X: the books at the beginning of the alphabet are so slim, and they grow thicker and thicker as the years go on, but don't necessarily get better. I love the books of Robert Barnard and still admire how much story he got into 200 pages.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Carole, I too began with Golden Age books, and I still think of them as the "gold" standard. Barnard is a favorite also, and he stuck with the shorter length through a long and varied career. I hadn't thought about Sue Grafton's series as an example of how the mystery books have expanded, but that's a great visual, seeing them all lined up and growing thicker. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.