…or, another ranty essay about word counts.
Rant Part One: A couple of weeks ago, a 54K novel of mine went out on submission. It got some kind notice from some important people, all of whom said the same thing: ‘It’s good, but too short for print. Can it be 85K?’
Oh, but I hear the chorus calling, ‘What about all the new e-pub fantasy imprints? What about established romance publishers? All of those will take shorter books!’
For this novel (and possible series), I want to aim for mainstream SFF print publication from the start. In fantasy, that’s still where the strongest buying market and best publisher support intersect. The good news is that I can probably do 30K on this novel easily, since I trimmed a lot from the original short story so many years ago. The bits that still actually do work in the story (advance plot, refine character development, or set backstory without infodumping) are going back in.
Oh, yay, that only means that I have a target of around 90K to write on three separate manuscripts in about three months. I naturally write enormous books, so I’m used to gutting my word counts and constantly revising chapters and scenes as I go. This will be an experiment in ‘write first, revise later’.
Rant Part Two: Dear self-published authors, I suspect many of you need a primer or refresher course on word counts in genre fiction.
In order to classify SFF works’ eligibility for the Nebula Awards, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have this handy word count chart:
Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words
Novel: 40,000 words or more.
Whether you are writing mainstream fantasy, adventure thrillers, YA romance, or XXX dinosaur porn for Amazon Kindle, these wordcounts and classifications are going to hold generally true across the whole publishing industry. Some publishers will call them slightly different things. And yes, e-book authors on Amazon, I’m talking to you specifically, since you seem to be the worst offenders.
What does this mean for e-book authors?
If you have written and self-published a work of fiction up to 7,500 words, that is not a novel. It’s a short story. Be proud that you’ve written and published one, or a hundred of them – but please don’t call them ‘novels’. They would barely be novels if they were written for the Middle Grade kids’ market, and heavily padded with illustrations.
Calling these works ‘novels’ indicates AuthorFail on a couple of levels.
One, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and are showing your breathtaking ignorance about publishing terminology. For in-the-know readers, that may indicate you’ll be failing at editing and writing, too. It may also indicate, in a reader, someone whose opinion I might take less seriously. (A reviewer of one anthology called the short stories ‘novelettes’. When I know damn well that the editor worked with most of the authors to trim stories to well under 7K. Ergo, this was a reader who was spouting off, and using terms they didn’t really understand.)
Two, if you charge more than jack for a short story when the readers are expecting a longer novel, they will get angry with you. That will lead to more negative reviews from readers who think they’ve been somehow cheated. They’re right. The most notorious author mills and vanity publishers routinely ‘pad’ works with larger print and format tricks to make a shorter book seem longer. Readers eventually figure it out.
Three, if you stick exclusively to short-format works, you may be depriving yourself and your readers of a richer writing/reading experience. Novels are bigger than short stories because more stuff happens in them.
Rather than hide your actual word count behind claims of novelhood, take a lesson from erotic romance publishers, who describe their shorter offerings in terms like ‘Lust Bites’ or ‘Quickies’. Celebrate the fast read and the short story! Done well, they are just as tricky to write as a 100K epic. Readers reared on PowerPoint and text messages may not have time for long chapters in a giant book, but they’ll make time for short stories from a writer they trust.