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Does Size Matter?

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 Today I'm asking that much debated question – Does size matter?

I'm talking about books, of course.

When choosing a book to read, how much of a role does size play? Some readers believe that longer books, by default, have richer, fuller content. Some prefer shorter books because they are quicker reads, therefore requiring less commitment.

For me, as a reader, the length of a book in and of itself is irrelevant. I love books of all shapes and sizes. I've never passed on a book based on size alone. I've read short novels that have moved me to tears and long ones that have held me glued to each page.

As a writer, I don't set out with a specific word count in mind. I sit down with a character that has a story to tell. I provide the details necessary for that story to make sense and to keep a reader interested without growing bored. I start writing where the story begins and continue until the story finds closure. Then I stop.


I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~ Elmore Leonard


This is one of the freedoms I love about being an indie author. With mainstream fiction, most agents and publishers set a specific requirement for word count. I know of authors who have had to pad their books with extra (and unnecessary) details in order to reach that minimum word requirement. Other authors are asked to cut out a quarter of their book so that they can fit beneath the maximum words allowed. Altering word count in order to make the story better is a good thing. Altering it only to fit into the mainstream mold is not.

The magic number for most agents and publishers, particularly with first-time authors, is 80,000 words. (Few authors have the type of notoriety necessary to get away with publishing a 1092-page novel, as Stephen King did with Under The Dome.) Depending on print size, 80,000 words turns into about 300-325 pages in a mass market paperback. Anything below that needs padding. Anything over 100,000 will be dissected.

As with everything else, there are exceptions to these rules. Certain expectations come with genre. Mystery and suspense is typically quick-moving and shorter, while science fiction and fantasy might be longer and more detailed.

The issue of word count – book size – is a modern phenomenon. The classics were not judged by length. (They were also not judged by the author's ability to self-edit, which is a discussion for another time.) How much different would our classics be if our current publishing rules applied? Let's take a look at some of them:

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens weighs in at 135,420 words. To fit into today's standards, Dickens would have had to cut a minimum of 35,420 words. Which ones? Would the book have been better? Worse?

The popular Lord of the Flies by William Golding has only 59,900 words. If Golding was to submit that same manuscript to an agent today, he'd be expected to pad it with an additional 11,100 words.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck holds readers attention through all 169,481 words. How good would that same book be minus 69,481 words?

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, with only 63,604 words, would require 16,396 more somewhere within the story.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger comes close to today's standard with 73,404 words. Should he have added 6,596 more?

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, with 46,118 words, doesn't even have enough words to qualify as a novel. The minimum mainstream standard for a novel is 50,000 words. By definition, his book is a novella. To be published as a novel today, he'd need an additional 33,882 words.

And what about the classic big enough to use as a doorstop? Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a hefty 587,287 words. What would Tolstoy have done if his agent had told him to cut 507,287 words from his book? Or, as sometimes happens with longer works, should this book have been cut up and made into a series? Maybe a six-volume set?

As we've seen, size does matter. To an agent and/or publisher, size matters in an entirely different way than it does to an author. With agents and publishers, the primary goal is marketability. The bottom line: How many books are they likely to sell and how much money can they make? With authors, the primary goal is the story. Most of us, at least, have only that in mind when we sit down to write. The rest – the marketing and promoting – becomes a factor only after we've put the words to paper in the best way we're able.

Where does the reader come in on the size issue? I’d venture to say that readers, as with writers, have a variety of opinions. For every length work an author writes, there are readers willing to take the journey through those pages.

Being an indie author allows me to connect with my readers directly. The restraints are lifted. I'm not pigeonholed into a neat little box with 80,000 to 90,000 words written in bold block letters. Readers trust that when they step on the tour bus with me, I'll begin where the story begins, point out the important sights along the way, and stop the bus when the story is over. Each reader's opinion is the only measuring stick I need.