Is e-publishing changing the length of a book?

Looking on my book shelves at some of the science fiction that first inspired me I see books that at most are 250 pages.  My copy of Asimov’s Foundation and Empire is less than 200 pages (172 to be precise).  Alright, it’s small type and there are more words per page than later books (was there some sort of paper shortage in the 1950s?), but even so by recent sci-fi standards they were short.   I’m not sure when it seemed to be the norm for sci-fi (and fantasy) novels to be great tomes, perhaps sometime in the 1970’s?  As if length somehow equates to quality, or value.  I know my own books are 110,000 / 120,000 words, not that long by sci-fi standards but certainly long compared to what is considered the norm for other novels, which if my research is right is about 70,000 – 90,000 words.

Now some ‘tomes’ I’ve still raced through and wished there was more, Raymond Feists ‘The Magician’  springs to mind and he duly obliged by writing many more in the series.  However, I certainly think some books I’ve read have been over long and drawn out and I’ve ‘trudged’ my way though them.  Now I’m all for a bit of scene setting and ‘asides’ in books, as witnessed by my last blog “‘If it doesn’t move the story along, take it out,’ good advice or not?”.  However, I do wonder if as writers and readers of the genre we went too far in what was seen as the normal length for a book.  And in many cases the story is padded and extended to make it more attractive on the commercial book shelf.

The good news from my point of view is that e-publishing and Kindles etc. seem to be changing this for the better.  With these we can’t compare books on weight of paper or how many millimetres they take up on the book shop shelf and then buy on the grounds that ‘its enormous, it must be good’.  We either buy because we like the author, someone recommends it, or we’re intrigued by the blurb etc. etc.  I recently read Neil Gaiman’s  ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’.  I don’t have a word count, or a number of pages (thanks to the kindle)  but it felt a relatively short book by modern standards.  Did I feel cheated somehow? that I hadn’t had value for money? no.   The story was the length it needed to be.  It was a good story and I enjoyed it.  I’ve also read other books that also that felt shorter than in the days when I was buying hard copies.

I like this trend.  A story should be length it needs to be, not made to conform to some idea of the ‘norm’ for the genre.  I get frustrated sometimes ploughing through pages and pages, on my Kindle, of slow paced action, to realise I’ve only moved forward by 2%.  It feels like its stopping me getting to the next book I want to read.  I’d much rather race through a shorter book, think wow!, that was good and move on to the next.

So, my plea to writers is: make your story the length it needs to be, not some artificial measure of the length you think it should be.  As for readers:  Judge the story on how good it is and not on how much damage it might do if you threw it at someone.

As always your thoughts are welcome.

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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11 thoughts on “Is e-publishing changing the length of a book?”

  1. Ian, I am in total agreement with your words – sounds like we have the same sort of reading background, and perhaps the same views as a result? Perhaps those who began on the larger tomes might have a different opinion, but I too have that reaction when I’m reading on my kindle and the percentage is going up too slowly for the speed/quality of the story.
    As a writer, I wonder if the ability to self-publish is now freeing us up to write to the appropriate length for the story, and not for the gatekeepers for the traditional market. It isn’t as if the Game of Thrones books are getting any smaller!
    I am currently working on the second part of a trilogy, which was intended for the traditional market (the first part is 128K words), and as it was originally plotted, Part 2 had an estimated word count nearer 150K. Having discovered and embraced self-publishing, I came to the startling and welcome realisation that I can now split this book into a novel and a novella, instead of one large book with one of the plot threads not essential to Part 2, but needing to be in place before Part 3 (or part 4 as it will now be!)
    Loving the flexibility of self-publishing!

    1. Deborah, thanks for the comment. I’m writing the second part of a trilogy as well. I’ll be intrugued to see how long it is, although part of me still thinks it needs to be 120k words or more – we’ll see.

      1. It will be as long as it needs to be 😉
        I think mine will come in at about 120K for the novel and probably 35K for the novella – something I wouldn’t be able to do for a trad deal but will allow me to write the story I want to tell.

    2. I really like your extraction of a sub plot (still necessary to the saga) being extracted as a novella. This is the kind of flexibility we have now that excited me to actually read more again.

      Ian, what great post (found through Joel’s Carnival). I was sad to see my own interest in many “must reads” wane as I have little tolerance for needless padding.

      A story can still be long and great (Rothfuss) without endless details that bore me to tears (R.R. Martin). Don’t get me wrong, love the Game of Thrones story, but it is so much better as TV without all the details of every single encampment ever made. 😉

      Question: Does anyone here know of any authors successfully reviving real serialization of fiction…like, 20-40k word installments every month or two instead of 100k novels every 6-12 months?

      I would love to see if this sort of model works for anyone…

      cheers from Vancouver, BC!

      1. El – glad you enjoyed the blog. I like the idea of serialisation rather then a single book, something to think about.

      2. Irritatingly I can’t recall any examples right now, but I know I’ve seen a few writers producing just that – small instalments on a regular basis. I wish I could remember names, but off the top of my head I can’t (sorry) , but they are out there, and will probably grow in number as it’s a great way of gaining a regular loyal readership and a regular income flow.

        1. Stephen King has dabbled in serialization a few times, but I don’t know of anyone else doing it.

          He’s not in the sci-fi genre (he writes spy novels), but Barry Eisler has done a good bit of what you’re talking about. He writes novels (300 printed ppg) and also publishes novellas of 120 ppg or so electronically with separate, standalone stories involving the same characters.

          1. Thanks – I know Stephen King of course, but not Barry Eisler. Sounds interesting, I’ll look him up.

  2. Great post. Look at the length of The Maltese Falcon, Dr. Jekel and Hyde, The Postman Always Rings Twice and many other great stories. They are about the length of the science fiction book you mentioned.

    1. Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the blog. I agree, a good story is a good story. As Neil Gaiman says the story is as long as it needs to be.

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