Does Novel Length Still Matter in a Digital World?

~or~

No One Looks at Kindles Sideways

I recently read an interesting post by Joe Wikert where he talked about book length and sales in a digital world. As an author, it got me thinking about the nature of novel writing and how we deliver content to our readers.

One of Joe’s points was that every written work does not need to be a couple hundred pages long. On the surface, and perhaps in general, this makes sense. The physical bookshelf, while quaint, is becoming less of a commercial factor every day as more and more content is purchased online and/or consumed digitally. But “books” means a lot of things. Certainly, nonfiction books of every sort should not be a page longer than they need to be. Bloating a book so it takes up more shelf space has to be a thing of the past. And, in my opinion, the price should be adjusted accordingly.

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Novels, on the other hand, need to be a certain length to be considered novels. While there may be no official word count for full-length, it is hard to consider anything below 50,000 words more than a novella. I would not want to see consumers charged full novel price for a novella. Disappointment in such a purchase can undermine the whole business model. However, with so many self published books out there of various lengths, some offered for $.99 or even free, it is not possible to strictly associate price and length.

People have no length expectations for a self-help guide beyond a length long enough to give them the help they desire. However novels are an experience. While movies have averaged shorter over the decades, they are still a certain length to satisfy the purchase price. There would be no commercial success for a theater release movie of thirty minutes, likely even if price reduced. A patron making an effort to go to a theater and buy a ticket wants to enjoy the fullness of their fantasy respite. As entertaining as thirty minutes can be made to be, it probably wouldn’t justify an evening out at the movies. (That’s what TV is for.)

Joe and I agree that selling books by the chapter is a dubious option. It may work for songs, which historically have been written and enjoyed individually. Albums are a relatively recent invention after all (outside of opera), and the success of iTunes shows that their basis was not necessary.

The fundamentals of storytelling, exposition, climax and denouement have centuries of tradition.

The fundamentals of storytelling; exposition, climax and denouement have centuries of tradition.

But Joe had high hopes for tailoring works to shorter length. An okay concept for information, but storytelling follows a less flexible path. If a person is into short stories, and that number may be increasing, short is fine. But the experience of getting to know a novel’s universe, and following along on an adventure of some length is as old as Shakespeare, and may be as old as some of the earliest hero’s journey epics. Every reader has an invisible ratio graph in their head of time invested versus literary payback. It has been culturally set by hundreds of years of tradition, and it’s not going to be upended because E-readers have become popular in the last five.

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Tethered Worlds: Unwelcome Star is a full length adventure, one that will give you hours of fantastical enjoyment and respite beyond the distant colony world of Adams Rush. Go with Jordahk and experiences his challenges, victories, and penchant for getting into jams that may just save his planet.

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2 responses to “Does Novel Length Still Matter in a Digital World?

  1. There’s a lot to be said about the fast-evolving reading experience. For how many hundreds of years has it been written down on some kind of paper? And before that stone, other materials, or no material at all — just a story told out loud to each generation. Hmm, so maybe this new e-Reader era isn’t too much different than the hard copy books after all. But like you said, there are benefits to the readers (less physical space to take up) and challengers for the authors.

    Even though the reading medium is changing (currently I have the Kindle and I like it’s versatility to hold so many books at once), I can see the authors are being challenged in how they write novels today. Length has not been an issue with me much, except when an author bores me unfortunately. If the novel is exciting and has the fun hero journey you described (from setting to climax to resolution), I barely even notice the length. However, if it’s just wordy to be wordy, then I hardly want to read it further. But still, too short would not give me that length I’d like for a true epic. So for me, if it’s a fun epic, I’d rather it be too long rather than too short. If I’m having fun and enjoying the story, I will probably want it to keep going.

    In the end, I don’t want the author to be bogged down by rules. When I read a book, I want to know that what I am reading is what the author always intended, the truest form of their book. Of course, I as the reader can like it or leave it, but I feel better knowing that the author wrote it in the format and design that he or she created it to be. If that means changing up the length or structure of the story, that is good by me. The last thing I want is for an author be strained creatively when he is trying to piece together a grand story.

    • I like your positive spin. While there is more room for length abuse now, it also means many stories that may have been constrained are now free. I like erring on the side of freedom.

      There are definitely some established authors who let their works grow fat. I may post about “successful author syndrome.” But there are many good stories whittled down to shadows of themselves because they did not match ideal commercial weight. That latter factor I believe is flexible.

      The market stretches to accommodate quality. Consider the long Lord of the Rings movies for example. How much easier is it in the literary world now with much of the content delivered electronically?


      That’s a really loooong book.

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