What is the best length for a book?

Like ‘How long is a piece of string?’ this is a question without a definitive answer.

Long books, with word counts around 200,000 or even more, seem to be in fashion lately. The last two winners of the Man Booker prize for fiction – Bring up the Bodies and The Luminaries – are both heavyweight tomes, as are many recent autobiographies.

For ebooks, too, it seems that bigger is better in the popularity stakes. In the latest analysis published through Smashwords.com, the best-selling length was calculated as 115,000 words.

I am personally out of synch with this trend because, both as a reader and a writer, I prefer something shorter. Although I truly admire authors who can write long books of good quality, I must admit that I often find it a challenge to finish them – I don’t have enough time or patience. And, to my mind, a great many long books are not of good quality because they contain far too much irrelevant detail and repetition, and would benefit from radical editing.

The average novel today apparently has between 80,000 and 100,000 words, whereas I remember from years ago that the average was around 70,000 which still seems to me a good length. The books by Agatha Christie, who ranks second only to William Shakespeare as the best-selling author of all time, were mostly between 50,000 and 70,000 words. However there has always been huge variation and many classics, such as War and Peace and Gone with the Wind, are long.

My own books seem to have grown shorter as I have grown older and Carmen’s Roses, at just over 30,000 words, is technically a ‘novella’ rather than a ‘novel’. A couple of readers have said they would have liked it to be longer, which I take as a compliment – I would rather have people wanting more than getting bored before the end, and one kind reviewer wrote ‘A short book but you don’t feel cheated’. My next fiction book, provisionally titled Blue Moon for Bombers, is also going to turn out around 30,000 words, so it would seem that the format which best suits my own current style is the novella.

Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, a novella is between about 20,000 and 40,000 words. Many well-known titles such as Death in Venice, Heart of Darkness and The Turn of the Screw are written in this concise and elegant format, which has been described by Ian McEwen as ‘the perfect form of prose fiction’.

So, even though the writers and readers of today seem to favour long books over short ones, there is a place for both. Unless you are writing for a publisher which sets specific requirements, I would suggest that instead of aiming for a predetermined word count it is best to make your novel whatever length is needed to tell the story.

Finally, a note for readers in New Zealand and Australia: the closing date for the Goodreads Giveaway of Carmen’s Roses is 29th June (U.S. time). To enter the draw for a free print copy click here.



Writing a book is like having a baby

Although I am childless myself, I do realise that having a baby is a vastly more significant experience than writing a book. But it seems to me there are many parallels between the two processes, so I hope nobody will be offended by this light-hearted comparison between them.

The time it takes to write a book can vary from weeks to years, but I have heard that the average is about nine months – the same as a full-term pregnancy – though it is usually impossible to tell exactly when it began.

Just as many pregnancies never reach full term, many manuscripts are abandoned for various reasons before they are finished. Some come to a premature end, their writers so impatient to see them in print that they submit them for publication before they are fully formed, and usually have them rejected. Others become overdue because they are continually being revised in the quest for perfection.

Publication day, though hopefully less painful than labour, is  almost as exciting as giving birth!

Good care for mothers and babies both before and after the birth is important, and the same is true for writers and their books. Writers need to avoid the physical and mental health hazards associated with their occupation. And even if they do not enjoy marketing, they need to look after their published book if they want it to flourish.

Post-natal depression, linked to both hormonal and social changes, is fairly common among mothers who have recently given birth. And some writers feel low after finishing a book, though for different reasons. There is a sense of anticlimax and, in my own experience, the best treatment is starting to write another one.

However, inspiration does not come to order, and the equivalent of infertility is writer’s block.

Some people can cope perfectly well with having large families, but others produce more children than they can look after properly. Similarly, while some authors have enough talent and energy to be able to write a whole series of good quality books, others keep churning out new ones even though they have run out of original plots, settings and characters and become careless about composing their prose.

Lastly, just as the child eventually develops its own personality, becomes independent and in the natural course of events will survive longer than its parents, there comes a point when a book takes on a life of its own. You cannot predict or control the outcome but, just as your children will perpetuate some of your genes, your books will form part of your legacy.




My experience with a Goodreads Giveaway

I’ve just completed my first ‘Goodreads Giveaway’. My experience may be of interest to new indie authors who are looking for ways of marketing their books.

Goodreads.com is an Amazon-related site for both readers and writers. Giveaways, which are only for printed books and not for ebooks, work like a lottery. The author undertakes to send out a certain number of copies, interested readers apply to receive one, and the winners are selected by Goodreads. It is up to the author to choose how many copies to offer, how long to run the promotion, and which countries of the world to include.

I did a week-long promotion, offering five copies of my novella Carmen’s Roses to readers in the US or UK. I was pleased to find that about 500 people entered the draw, and about 250 added my book to their ‘want to read’ shelf. My book is a print on demand title, published through CreateSpace. I sent out the books to the winners as ‘gifts’ from the Amazon website, because this was a faster and cheaper option than having them shipped to my home in New Zealand and then shipping them back to America. One of the winners has already posted a 5-star review, and seven paid copies of the book were ordered during the promotion period – hopefully there are more reviews and sales to come.

This venture has not made any financial profit so far, and I have realised in retrospect that I would probably have got just as many entries if I had offered just one copy instead of five. However, although I tend to be phobic about marketing, I found it quite interesting and enjoyable. It has provided some free advertising and, because I am able to view the profiles of the people who requested my book, given me access to demographic information which may be useful for targeting any future marketing campaigns.

I know that other authors have reported different outcomes from their free promotions – some much better than mine and others much worse. My own results have confirmed what is probably obvious, that the easiest way to reach a large readership is to offer free books, but that free promotions do not necessarily lead on to more paid sales. This is also what I have found when running free promotions of ebooks on Smashwords and on Amazon kdp. Although for reasons discussed in a previous post I am still reluctant to make all my work free, I have just started another Goodreads Giveaway of my novella, which is set in New Zealand, for local readers. This will obviously attract less interest, because New Zealand has only a small population and Goodreads is not so well known here, so anyone who enters should have a high chance of winning! For details, click here.