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Word Counts. Who Needs Them?

By Tom Ashford

It’s a situation a lot of authors are all too familiar with – getting halfway through what is supposed to be a great, epic tome and realising that, actually, it’s more of a novella. If you haven’t found yourself in that position, count yourself lucky. It can be quite distressing to think that all the work you’ve already completed – and might be extremely proud of – isn’t going to amount to anything sizeable enough to put on the market.

But do word counts actually matter?

The short answer is no.

The old idiom of “quality over quantity” should be evidence enough. After all, what would you rather read: a thousand pages of fluff, or a hundred pages of absolute genius? If that’s tricky to imagine, think of it as a film. Bao, the short movie before Pixar’s Incredibles 2, is only eight minutes long, and yet it’s a funny, emotional and downright phenomenal bit of animation. Gravity was extremely well received, yet had a runtime of only ninety-one minutes. It would be hard to argue that Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice was better than either of these films on the grounds that it was longer.

Nobody says that the Mona Lisa is rubbish because Leonardo da Vinci didn’t paint it on the side of a house.

Of course, one could argue that Leo wasn’t painting to market. He didn’t have to worry about people feeling like they weren’t getting their money’s worth – except for one aristocrat’s wife, that is. But shouldn’t a story be as long as it needs to be, no more and no less? If you’re writing solely as a business, then perhaps a word count is something that must be hit. But writing for the love of it, to create art – that’s not something that should be constrained by something as trivial as people’s expectations. If anything, isn’t it supposed to shatter them?

Let’s look back at some famous examples of word counts.

The Big and the Small

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace comes in at approximately 1,440 pages (that’s about 580,000 words). Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is about 645,000 words in length. Neither are books one would take on a beach holiday for a bit of light reading. Then again, Stephen King’s books often approach a similar size and he’s immensely popular (and though IT has a total word count of 445,000, I can confirm it’s all killer and no filler).

On the other hand, another popular book, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, has a word count of almost 293,000. Plenty of readers love it, but I personally found it far too bloated with extraneous description. The same went for its even longer sequel – more extraneous description, and now with unnecessary flashback exposition (about the first book, no less!) to go with it.

So how about shorter works of fiction?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is only 47,000 words long. Lord of the Flies by William Golding? Just shy of 60,000. Even some modern novels, such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, have word counts as low as 67,000. They are short; there’s no denying that a reader will notice. But nobody’s saying they’re not as good as a Stephen King or George R. R. Martin book because of that.

Having said all that, the average page count in 1999 was supposedly 320. Now, it’s 400. We’ve learned that people have the appetite for longer books, if nothing else.

What ‘is’ a novel?

There isn’t really an absolute strong-as-iron definition of what a novel is, or at least what its word count should be. For every writer that adamantly claims that a novel is “between 100,000 and 175,000 words” (Jane Smiley) there’s another that says practically the opposite (the NaNoWriMo writing challenge sets a lower limit on 50,000).

Wikipedia probably has the best definition: “a novel is a long, fictional narrative which describes intimate human experiences.”

How long is “long”, though? Hmm.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has developed what might be the most widely-accepted word count ‘definitions’ for its Nebula awards. They are as follows:

Novel: 40,000 words or more
Novella: 17,500 to 39,999 words
Novelette: 7,500 to 17,499 words
Short Story: under 7,500 words

Of course, half of us are probably still looking at that and thinking “what a load of rubbish”. I personally don’t see the need to separate the space between a short story and a novel into both ‘novella’ and ‘novelette’, and I’d feel awkward describing any of my work as the latter. But then again, I’ve written novels that are on the shorter side and some people might think of them as just an extra-long novella. The fact that none of us can decide is surely more evidence that word counts don’t really matter… not in regards to the story, at least.

And then there’s the problem of genre. A fantasy epic is most likely going to be longer than a thriller, which in turn is likely to be longer than a mystery, which may well be longer than some classic literary sci-fi (think Brave New World). Maybe we could argue that the minimum requirements for a fantasy epic to be classed as a ‘novel’ should be higher than those for a cosy mystery book?

Why it doesn’t matter (and yet, why it does)

It doesn’t matter, because your writing is whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t matter, because there’s no set definition of what a novel, or a novella, actually is.

But it doesn’t matter for a host of other reasons, too.

People have shorter attention spans than they used to. Yes, the average page count of a novel has risen in the past twenty years, but we now live in a world where people won’t even watch a YouTube video if the first eight seconds don’t sufficiently grab their attention (or if it’s more than a few minutes in length, for that matter). James Patterson has launched a whole load of novellas called ‘BookShots’, and Kindle implemented a new category of books called Kindle Singles (only available up to 30,000 words – apparently they don’t care for traditional word count definitions either).

Then there’s what I believe to be one of the most important pieces of advice for all narrative art: be concise. Only keep in what you need; if it doesn’t serve a purpose, take it out. If that leaves your book on the shorter side, so be it. It’ll be a better book for it. That’s not an excuse to underwrite your story, though. Your book should still be as long as it needs to be.

And finally, there’s the fact that most indie authors write with e-Readers in mind. Why would a word count matter so much, when the reader has no physical book in hand? Having a physical book to hand is one of the reasons why print novels have grown so much in the first place – visible value for money – but that seems less of a concern when every novel is nothing but a bunch of code. A customer will only feel short-changed if they don’t feel satisfied upon reaching the end of the book – write a good enough story, and it shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t… But if only it were that simple.

As previously mentioned, those who wish to write to market will need to research what sort of word count (or more importantly, page count) their target audience expects. A fan of thrillers will hesitate to download a 45,000 word thriller if they’re used to getting 100,000 words for the same money, even if your thriller is three times as good as any other. And readers do look at page counts before they buy. That won’t necessarily be a problem if you’re selling your book as a novella (so long as it’s clear that’s what they’re getting), but it will need to be priced accordingly.

Unless you’re James Patterson or Stephen King, of course.

For the rest of us, we need to keep our target audience in mind if we want to make money from what we do. People like familiarity; if they’re taking a chance with a new author, we should at least make them feel like they’re likely to get value for money. It can be hard to measure quality before buying a book sometimes, but it’s a lot easier to measure quantity. Even if the pages are digital rather than physical.

But let’s take our marketing hats off for a second.

At the end of the day, you’re the writer. The writing landscape has changed. You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck, telling you they won’t print anything under 80,000 words. You don’t need to pad out pages so that your spine looks appetising upon the shelves. You can sell short stories in a way that simply wasn’t economically feasible before the advent of the Kindle. Put simply: you don’t have to do anything.

So, do you need to factor in your word count when writing and marketing a book you hope will make you money? Of course. But does it matter in regards to writing the best story possible?

Absolutely not.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.