Faithful readers might recall that a couple of weeks ago my blog post revolved around how books were once sold on display racks or shelves in drugstores, bookstores, and department stores. As a young reader back in the 1960s, the length of a novel wasn’t high on my somewhat limited radar.
I still have paperbacks purchased off those racks with the price tag of 35 cents stamped in the upper right-hand corner. Prices changed though the years. They rose to 75 cents, 95 cents, and ultimately cracked the one-dollar ceiling. At the same time, the length and page count of those pocketbooks didn’t seem to budge.
For full disclosure here, ninety-nine percent of my reading material came from libraries and was in a variety of genres from science fiction, history, anything else that caught my eye. Most of those novels I spent money on and collected back then were westerns by Louis L’Amour and a stable of similar artists.
Cranked out in a matter of weeks, or months, the vast majority of these books ranged from 28,750 words for Shalako, to 60,000 for one of his most popular releases, Hondo. Despite their length, both books, and many more by this prolific author became successful movies. In his later year, L’Amour’s novels became heavier and some even broke that 124,000 mark.
Short novels back then weren’t limited to paperbacks, or westerns. Like most boys, I finally got my hands on those wonderful hardboiled books by Micky Spillane and absolutely absorbed them. One I, the Jury comes in at slightly more than 53,000 words, and the hard-hitting sequel, My Gun is Quick is slightly longer.
My point here is that the length of a novel doesn’t determine the quality or success of the work. Take a look at the length of these million-selling books from years past that were eventually filmed.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 208 pages, 47,094
Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie: 336 pages, 58,514 words
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain: 115 pages, 30,072 words
Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin: 245 pages, 56,044
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain: 116 pages, 35,000 words
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler: 234 pages, 56,955 words
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle: 128 pages, 57,689 words
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger: 234 pages, 73,404
A Farewell to Arms, Earnest Hemingway: 332 pages, 74,240
Carrie, Stephen King: 320 pages, 61,343
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling: 309 pages, 77,325
Things, they are a-changin’. My first manuscript weighed in at 140,000 words before my editor at Poisoned Pen Press, Annette Rogers, suggested (no, ordered) that I cut 50,000 of those little gems. I did, crying great crocodile tears, until The Rock Hole was 90,000 words, the length of the average novel. When I was finished, I didn’t miss a thing and the work read much better.
My contracts today specify the work’s length from 90,000 to 100,000 words for all mysteries, westerns, and contemporary thrillers. Some authors struggle to reach the lower end, while others routinely crack the 110-120,000 ceiling or more without breaking a sweat.
One of my publishers recently told me that he prefers a novel to register at 90,000 words, because it’s only fair to the reader, since the price for paperbacks have increased and they want to give readers their money’s worth.
That also works great for those who embrace technology, because there’s no printing cost in this new media and readers don’t have to lug around doorstops that can be ten times the length of a Stephen King novel. In a similar vein, I’ve talked to consumers who say that because hardcovers are more expensive, readers tend to gravitate toward meatier publications. More bang for their buck(s), I guess.
But is it length that makes a successful novel? Those listed above, and millions more, fall well below the average length and to me, that’s just fine. I recently finished writing a novel that originally topped out at 80,000 words. At that count, the fast-paced story was told, complete with plenty of tension, red herrings, and a satisfying plot that surprised even me.
But my contract required that holy grail of 90,000 words, so I went back and lo, the count rose and the novel came in at the appointed amount. Did those extra words make it better? Were they a determent to the finished product? That’ll be up to my readers to determine.
Maybe those additional pages filled out some descriptions, or detailed the five senses we should all include. I wonder.
On the other hand, I recently sold a short story that was too long, more of a novella, and the publisher is going to serialize it, because the new up and coming magazine is looking for something completely different in westerns and that story filled the bill. Here’s an interesting point, the story is the first act of a short novel I wrote decades ago that finished up at 50,000 words.
As I dug around the internet to find titles and their length for this piece, I came across the website, Book Riot, that asks this question that I couldn’t phrase any better. “Have consumer tastes and habits changed that much in 100 years? Have authors themselves changed in the last 100 years? Why has the big book come to outweigh the short book in the hearts and minds of readers? Is the short book dead? Or just on a reprieve?”
So I wonder about this magic 90,000-word target. What do you think?