Size Does Matter


A Look at Novel Word Counts

Size does matter. But, put away the rulers class. That's not the kind of size we're discussing today. No, what I want to look at today is the size of the modern American detective novels. When I say size here, I'm talking word count, not the physical dimensions of a printed book.

Generally, to qualify as a novel, a book must meet the 50,000-word minimum word count threshold. Less than that and most literary people would consider the book a novella rather than a novel.

During The Golden Age of detective fiction (1920s-40s), detective novels typically had word counts of 60–69,000 words. Today detective novels weigh in at between 90–100,000 words. Why? Have detective novel readers over the years lobbied for longer novels? No, the increase in word counts is simple economics from the perspective of the large traditional printing houses.

Publishers want novels 90–100,000 words because that produces a book between 272 and 320 pages in length. Why is that the page count range publishers look for?  Because publishers believe that is a sufficient length for a book to be considered by the reading public as a full-sized novel hence it is quite acceptable for the publisher to charge the full normal price.

Publishers don't want less than 90,000 words because a shorter work might not sell well at the full normal price publishers wish to charge. Publishers don't want authors to exceed 100,000 words because the costs of publishing start to rise quickly once a book goes much beyond 100,000 words. Feeling they can't simply increase the price of novels over 100,000 words, publishers expect to lose money publishing them. Most literary agents won't even consider a novel longer than 100,000 words for that reason. Such a novel would be a hard sell to potential publishers.

What about indie authors who self-publish? Must indies conform to the word counts dictated by the large traditional publishing houses to compete in the marketplace? I say no. Not only are indie authors under no obligation to follow traditional publishing word count guidelines, I think there are compelling reasons why we shouldn't. Again it all comes down to economics.

Today most readers demand the same quality standards from independently published books as they expect from traditionally published books. This applies to professional book covers, formatting, spelling, and correct grammar. I have seen readers post reviews on Amazon where they completely destroyed self-published books and left one or two-star reviews because of something as minor as misplaced commas in the text. But, the inconvenient truth for self-published and small press authors is while most readers demand the same quality standards from indie authors, they refuse to pay traditionally published book prices for self-published books even when those novels meet the standards the readers demand.

Except for a mere handful of extremely popular self-published authors, the sweet spot for independently published eBook cover prices is in the $2.99 - $4.99 range. Few readers will pay more for a self-published book, mostly because Amazon has expended a lot of effort to condition them not to. Traditionally published eBooks on the other hand typically sell for $9.99 - $14.99. Here is the problem with that.

To meet the same standards as a traditionally published author, an indie author today must pay a professional cover designer, an editor, and in some cases one or more proofreaders. That's on top of the advertising expenses indie authors have always had to pay to gain a measure of visibility for their books. Thankfully, there are tools available to handle the formatting so most indies can at least save some money there. Gone forever are the days when most anyone could write a book, upload a self-edited Word document to Smashwords, throw an amateurish cover together, and start making money. Given self-published authors lack the pricing power of traditional publishers it takes much longer for them to recoup the upfront costs associated with writing and publishing a novel and start showing a profit than it does the big publishing houses. So what's an indie author to do? Cutting the word count is the best place to start.

Most every cost associated with publishing a book is driven by word count; editing, proofreading, printing, binding, etc. So when an indie author slashes words counts from the traditionally published standard of 90–100,000 words to the 60– 69,000 word count range that was perfectly acceptable during The Golden Age of Detective Novels, that cuts upfront costs dramatically.

The first three novels in the Malone series are all in the 90–100,000 word range. As a result, I can't compete with the cover prices of traditionally published print books in my genre. Even if I'm willing to accept something as low as 30-40 cents in royalties on a print book, with the discounts demanded by bookstores, I have to price print books higher than the cover prices of many traditionally published novels written by authors who are household names in my genre. As you might imagine, that doesn't work very well. But, by reducing the word counts to the 60–69,000 range, I can compete.

When I decided to write the T. J. O'Sullivan series, I made a conscious decision to keep those books as close as possible to 50,000 words. I didn't just arbitrarily pull that number out of the air. There is a lot of research that shows most young adults prefer books of that length. With all the other entertainment options available to Millennials, they want books that can be easily read start to finish in a single day or over a weekend. In addition to his other novels, James Patterson publishes a family of novels called BookShots specifically aimed at that market. All Bookshots novels are 50,000 words or less, and 150 pages or less. You might say I stole borrowed that idea from J.P. for the T. J. O'Sullivan series. Limiting the word count to 50,000 words allows me significant savings on editing, proofreading, and printing costs.

Starting with Foregone Conclusion, the fourth book in the Malone Novels series, going forward I will aim at a 60–65,000 word count. This allows me to do more than save on upfront publishing costs. It also allows me to write shorter, crisper chapters which will I believe significantly increase the tempo of the stories and make them more entertaining for readers. Also, it allows me to reduce a lot of the detailed descriptions that I've learned some readers simply don't want.

I had a reader crucify one of my books in a review because I wrote a short paragraph in a scene telling two of the characters stopped at a restaurant and had a burger for lunch together. He didn't like that even though the rest of the scene was almost all dialogue that explained to the reader how the characters were solving the case they working on. The reviewer branded the lunch paragraph as "filler" and used that one paragraph to claim the book was "bloated with filler." Without being too mean about it, the guy was probably one of those trolls who take perverse pleasure in posting hideous book reviews because he can, and maybe because he has found life far more disappointing that he had hoped. But, I tried to find something positive in his review.

What I think I learned was some readers don't want authors to show characters doing everyday, ordinary things like eating a hamburger together for lunch. They only want an uninterrupted stream of one fight scene, car chase, and shootout after another. Of course, no one writes books like that. Jason Bourne movies aren't even like that. If novels were like that they would simply be parodies with no basis in reality. No serious reader would enjoy them. But, by reducing word counts, I can easily cut back on things like characters sharing meals, excusing themselves to go to the restroom, and any number of other normal things all us real people do every day that can help make a character appear a little more like a real person than a cardboard cutout action figure.

There you have my take on why size does matter when it comes to novel word counts. It will take a little while to see how reducing word counts affects book sales. But, I suspect the average detective novel reader won't really care much that my novels are below the 90–100,000 word threshold as long as I give them an entertaining story to read.

The release of Foregone Conclusion, the fourth Malone novel is only a week away. The regular cover price will be $3.99. But, I'm offering a $2.00 savings to Malone fans who pre-order the book in advance of the release on September 11. The offer ends at 11:59 p.m. on September 11. The regular cover price will become effective September 12. If you've thought about pre-ordering, don't delay. I wouldn't want anyone to miss this savings opportunity. Foregone Conclusion is available at the special pre-order price on Kobe, Barnes & Noble, Apple iTunes, and Amazon.

Posted in self publishing, self-publishing advice and tagged , , , .


    • Thanks for the comment, and for the offer on corrections. I do appreciate it, but I won’t ask you to send them. While I did my best with it, the first two books in the Malone series were self-edited. Actually, I was quite thrilled you found only 18 minor errors out of more than 100,000 words. I would have liked for the book to be perfect, but editing and proofreading aren’t my strengths. When I read my own copy, my brain often helpfully causes me to see what it knows I meant to write instead of what I actually wrote. At the moment Come What May is perma-free. I feel that the errors you found won’t distract most readers from the story if they enjoy the story. Also, I now have an editor and plan to have Come What May professionally edited early next year. It will be released as a second edition with a new cover and will no longer be free. Until then, I’d rather spend time writing new Malone adventures rather than revisiting the first book.

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