Word Count is often among the first things a writer thinks about before they begin putting pen to paper, or more likely, fingertips to keyboard. Choosing the right format for you can be difficult, but if you understand your market and your readers you can find what will work best to enhance your end result. For the purposes of this blog, I’m using the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America‘s Word Counts that they use for the Nebula Award. This is a common standard that has been adopted by most other sources I’ve found in my research.
Short Story: <7,500 Words
Novelette: 7,500 – 17,500 Words
Novella: 17,500 – 40,000 Words
Novel: >40,000 Words
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the implications of word count for the publishing industry. If you are trying to approach a literary agent or publisher, your word count will matter a lot more than if you Self-Publish. If you Self-Publish, you can pretty much write what you want. However, often traditional publishers want the novels they publish to be between 60,000 and 80,000 words for many genres. I can tell you from experience working at a major book retailer in the U.S. that the reason for this is to have a larger spine on the book, allowing for more substantial font sizes for the title and author. In what I imagine took a lot of expensive research to confirm, the vast majority of books in a bookstore are not faced out, meaning most people never see the pretty cover someone worked so hard on, rather, they only see the spine. So, by filtering the field to consistently expand the length of books on the shelf, they found that longer works sold more (this can also be done with the height and length of the book, creating squatter books that are thicker). Think mass market paperbacks vs. trade paperbacks. If your books are only sold online, it really doesn’t matter how long your novel is, because everyone actually sees the cover! There will be more on this later, but let’s move on.
Despite what your English teacher might have told you in school, the short story is far from dead. However, as they probably told you, you probably won’t make much money from them directly. That much may be true. What I mean by this is that short stories can be a great promotional tool to get people to sign up for your mailing list or to introduce new readers to your writing style with a short, cheap (maybe even free), first foray into your mind. However, by themselves they hardly ever make any real money for the author. An exception would be a short story like We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick which was made into Total Recall (In two versions)! If your short story becomes a movie, yes, you will make real money from it. This is not, however, the norm.
Short stories by themselves should be very concise and convey more feelings and scenarios than fully fleshed out plot lines. As an example, Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite short stories and it consists entirely of a couple having a conversation at a cafe, trying to avoid the elephant in the room. The reader might not get to know every detail about the characters, but the situation itself can teach us a lot about the time period or scenario the characters are placed in. Part of what made the story so enjoyable was the believable dialogue-driven plot. Often minimalist, short stories are great for conveying a fleeting feeling.
Longer than a short story, Novelettes are rare in today’s market, but that’s something I hope ebooks will eventually change. Already, I’ve seen the shift allowing for this format to flourish. Authors like Hugh Howey with his Wool series have started a trend, the origins of which began in the Victorian era. There is a famous anecdote involving Charles Dickens writing in his study wearing pajamas and rushing to get his next installment to his publisher, running through the streets of London with the pages to be ready for the next day’s printing. Dickens was a pioneer in the sense that he really owned a format that wasn’t particularly popular much before or after his heyday. What he would do is write short monthly installments of a much larger work, which was then eventually compiled into a very big novel. One such example is Bleak House, which came out in twenty short bundles of 32 pages each and sold for a shilling. He ended up making far more money and was able to flourish as a writer in part because of this serialized strategy.
The novelette can be fun to write since you get far more in depth than a short story, but you don’t have to have the standard story structure of a novel, with rising and falling action, a climax, and any number of other nuances expected of a longer work. The themes portrayed in novelettes can vary, often depending on whether it is part of a serial or stands on its own. If it stands on its own I suggest focusing on one or two characters and having the bulk of the action take place with them, adding in a small cast of supporting characters but really limiting the scope. You will not be able to portray your grandiose fantasy in 30-40 pages. The way I’ve used this format is to tell a dystopian tale in which the stakes are perhaps even higher than they would have been in a novel. With few exceptions, when you’re reading a novel you expect it to follow a certain formula. Maybe midway through the book there will be a turning point and about 9/10 of the way through there will be some kind of climax. All bets are off for the novelette. Have fun with it. Trick your reader. Tell the anti-Hollywood story. Experiment with your word counts! As there aren’t a heaping ton of examples of this format in the market right now, check out my latest novelette, The Chosen.
Novellas are between a novelette and a novel in the word count scale, and are often more complex than a short story and simpler than a novel, having fewer plot lines
to get tangled. Novellas are great if you have an idea for a novel and either want to keep it simple, eliminating subplots, or the story can simply be told more quickly than a standard novel. Plenty of famous works follow the novella format, including The Old Man and the Sea, Heart of Darkness, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm. The novella format dates back to the Renaissance, Italian by design but popularized by the Germans. In more recent times, it seems that novellas were more common around the mid-20th century than they are today, but with Kindles on seemingly every reader’s bookshelf the format is coming back. One of the great things about novellas is the pricing structure. It would be plausible to sell a novella anywhere from $0.99 to $2.99 depending on how popular the author is. Some big publishing houses charge $9.99! Readers want to feel they are getting something substantial for their money, so you can often leverage more sales if you keep the price low. Novellas are really great for the concise writer who wants to produce more material and get more ideas out of their head, but doesn’t want to draw out their work into a novel-length arbitrarily.
Novels really need no introduction in today’s age, but let’s see how well you do on your history. Miguel de Cervantes is often named the first modern European novelist with his work Don Quixote in the 18th Century. Since then, the format has risen to prominence and has dominated the market since at least the 19th Century. Novels are typically longer narratives which many espouse should cover the life of the main character, or at least the important bits. I personally think that’s too narrow-minded. I believe the traditional novel should be an intimate experience between the author and the reader, however than can be accomplished. However, I think there’s a big difference between a literary novel and a genre or popular fiction novel. With our highly visual society, I tend to think of genre and popular novels more as movies than anything else. If I’ve done my job, my popular fiction novel should translate perfectly to the big or small screen. Sometimes with literary fiction, the work is so intimate that it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be put on screen. Nevertheless, audiences crave what they crave, and if a literary work gains prominence and studios think they can make money off of it, they will certainly adapt it, whether or not the finished product does justice to the book or the author’s intent. But I digress…
Word Count And You:
Your decision of which format and what word count works best for you is probably a deeply personal one. Novels are the most commercially viable of all the formats at this time, but that doesn’t mean it will always be the case. I suggest you experiment with multiple styles in anticipation of the cultural shift currently underway. Amazon in particular is pushing the market to more varied lengths to give readers more choice. Sometimes when you’re traveling you don’t want a giant novel, you want something shorter that you can finish in a single, relatively short flight. The author that has multiple options for their readers will not only expand their writing prowess across formats, but will provide their readers with the much-desired bevy of options.
What’s your favorite word count range? How much do you think about word count before you start writing? As a reader, are you becoming interested in works of varied lengths? Sound off in the comments below!