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.



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