Friday, March 16, 2012

Authoring Paradox: How long should a book be?

The following blog post link is from a site called Book Riot. Here's the link to the post author's bio if you are inclined to learn more about her background and why she is saying what she is saying about book length. Her recommendations are nothing new, but she tells them cleverly. Though she offers the advice she uses in the title, at the same time she admits the length of her blog post at 676 words exceeded her original goal of 500 words. She concedes novels sometimes do the same.

Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter

More interesting, or at least as interesting as the post, are the 30+ comments and the widely varying viewpoints about book length. We frequently talk about this in our group because some of our writers are writing shorter pieces (short stories, novellas, novelettes) and others are writing lengthier ones of 100-140K words. Many are writing pieces with averages of 55K, 75K, or even 90K words per novel (I'm in this group). Book length is handled humorously because we try not to judge each other's goals.

When you start asking "What is a correct length for a book?" then it gets to be a debate, evidenced by the 30+ comments to the Book Riot blog post. Frankly, I'm not sure there is a such a measurement as a correct or even "ideal" length in the real world. I read articles like the one above hoping that I can gain some illumination on standard thinking and practices. Yet many successful authors in our group routinely produce work in a range of 10k to 100k. Even within our small writer's group, there are successful marketing strategies for all lengths.

In the traditional world, the limits still seem to be based on the cost of printing books of a certain length, hence the restrictions set by agents and publishing houses. Limits seem to flex more in the Indie world which is why I think this topic comes up in blog posts so often. Independent authors often break rules, but first they want to know what the rules are.

Most of us have learned that the key to the best marketing you can do as an author is to keep your reading audience happy with what they are buying from you. For an Indie, it is up to the author to make that happen. Guerrilla marketing tactics that favor sacrificing future sales to make a lot of quick current ones do not seem to be a good thing for any author or publishing house to be doing these days, especially in the age of "free" and "99 cent" books being readily available on the same retail sites. While there are exceptions to every rule, this is just mostly common sense about staying competitive.

Indie authors rely heavily on reader word-of-mouth recommendations and repeat business. You want the reader to love your writing enough to follow you and buy all your future books. Any author's goal should be to build trust relationships with his or her readers.  Good marketing as an Indie author means keeping your attention focused on future sales so that today's success rolls into tomorrow's.

Like many authors, I was trained at the knee of traditional publishing whose lines often rigidly limited romance novel submissions to 55k or 75k.  So it was surprising to me that the lessons I took away from studying book length ended up having almost nothing to do with actual math. Instead, they were just validations of good practices I had heard many times from many writing teachers, and lately from all the really successful Indie authors.

  1. Write a piece so engaging that readers never notice length.  It's a lofty goal, but a worthy one.
  2. Advertise fairly and in a way that reader knows what they are buying. Some in our group publish what is tagged as "a short" or "a bit". Some describe their book as a "novella" if it is under a certain length (varies with understanding). Many sales channels automatically offer word or page count to purchasers, so it is public knowledge before purchasing at those sites. Be cognizant of how your work is being presented to the consumer.
  3. Listen with an open mind if readers take the time to comment about book length. Maybe as authors we think about this issue more than our readers might. And maybe our tendency to do so goes back to the 15 years of collective writing experience within our group and how we crafted our first pieces of serious writing way back when to fit traditional publishing lines with fixed ideas about book length.

Here are some additional sites that offer discussions and advice concerning word counts:

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