Word Count in an epub world

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 23 2011

My question is perhaps a bit premature, but do you think the proliferation of e-books and e-readers will affect the idea of what constitutes standard word counts for mainstream fiction? In other words, will word count be rendered less relevant (or even irrelevant) once the cost of paper gets tossed aside by the new technology?

I don’t think your question is premature at all, but very relevant. I think that in some respects word count won’t matter anymore, but I think in others it will and should. In other words, if we reach the point where paper books no longer exist, then I think to a huge extent word count will be almost irrelevant. Let’s face it, you won’t be facing paper costs, which is one of the biggest reasons many claim word counts are what they are.

And while certainly the production costs play a role in word count, there’s another hidden truth about why word counts are what they are. Because that’s about what it takes to write that type of book. In other words, while 150,000 words might work for an epic fantasy with dozens of characters and complicated plot lines, in a cozy mystery it usually just means the author has overwritten the book. Sometimes word count guidelines are more about keeping a book tight and strong than they are about how much it costs to produce.

Now, before you start jumping up and down and pointing out examples of books that broke the mold, that’s true, books will always be able to break the mold. That’s why we have guidelines and not rules, but I think word count ranges (because they are ranges) are probably here to stay. Humans by nature want guidelines, we want something to give us direction, and word count does that. It helps you to have a sense of when you should stop and when you might have overdone it. I also think readers have expectations for books, and while they are willing to go that extra mile for a book with rave reviews or by an author they love, typically they like books that fit into an expected time frame. In other words, I know I can read a certain type of book in one night and would be disappointed if suddenly it took three.


14 responses to “Word Count in an epub world”

  1. Avatar Rebecca Kiel says:

    Such an interesting topic. For now, I'll stick to my guidelines and word count, write the best book I can, and send fantastic queries.

  2. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Very interesting topic–an example: in the very early days of ebooks when people were beginning to read them on their PDAs and computers, (pre-2000)we kept the stories short. The determining factor then wasn't so much the amount of paper, but where readers were reading–on the train on the way to work, waiting outside schools for the kids, that sort of thing. The concern was as much about the audience we were hoping to appeal to as to the book itself–readers with a limited amount of time wanting something short and entertaining.

    Now, with Kindles and Nooks and all other types of readers for ebooks available, I don't see that criteria as important as it used to be. The reason, obviously, because ebooks are, for many, the preferred format.

    We really are in the midst of a revolution, for both publishers and authors. (not to mention, agents!) Technology is changing so quickly that it's a constant scramble to keep up, but when it comes down to it, I think word count will depend on what it takes to tell the story in the best possible way.

  3. Avatar Cara M. says:

    From what I've seen in the fanfic and internet fiction world, it seems to me that the Dickensian serial novel is a format that may make a comeback. But since these types of novels are rarely editable for plot and tightness, an expansion in length, though not necessarily a positive outcome, may occur.

    I know I recently read a piece, really nothing more complex than a romance novel, coming in at over 300,000 words. It could have used an editor, but the story was rich and brilliant, and even cut down, would have still been over the 200,000 mark.

    Books have gotten both shorter and longer since the 19th century, and it seems a lot of that is due to the means of production. Perhaps the internet age will encourage both massive serials, and the resurgence of novellas, (as well as the non-literary short story.)

    The only thing that doesn't change is the fact that things always change.

  4. And why films tend to be certain lengths.

  5. Avatar Siri Paulson says:

    Cara, that's my feeling too — that writers will start to experiment with different lengths, such as serials and novellas. (You mention fanfiction; readers of manga are also used to the serial format.) How much will these catch on, given readers' existing expectations around length? I guess we'll find out…

  6. Great question and awesome replies. Cara and Siri, you got me dead to rights.
    After having published the "standard" length thriller novel, I am one of those who is experimenting with a 6 book novella series. Using the U.K. television format of 6 episodes in a dramatic series as my inspiration as to why 6 books. We'll see how the experiment turns out, but I don't think I could ever give up working on full-length novels, whatever length they end up being.

  7. Avatar laurathewise says:

    Huh, and all this time I thought word count limits were only about what people would be willing to read and keeping the story tight. I never even considered that production costs might play a part of it…enlightening. It's also comforting to hear that it's normal for some genres like epic fantasy to have much higher word counts. I wish someone would do a post about expected/average word count per genre…*hint* 😉

  8. Avatar laurathewise says:

    Ah, ignore my previous comment. I see that you already have a "must-read" post about word count for different genres. Thanks for keeping up this incredibly helpful blog. 🙂

  9. Avatar Derrick says:

    I've often wondered about this. Word counts feed into reader expectations while in a bookstore, where the reader can see/feel how big/heavy a book is. Some readers have a preference lighter/heavier. But ebooks change all of that.With Ebooks, I think some of the simple sensations are gone, and the "feel" of the word count is gone as well.I've often wondered if shorter fiction will become more popular in the ebook era.

  10. Avatar Stephsco says:

    I hope the guidelines stick around, since being an avid reader, I like to read LOTS of books. I don't pick a book based on length, but I have been swayed if I'm on the fence and it's over 450 pages. Like, Jeffrey Eugenidies can write 900 pages and I'll read it. But a paranormal romance… sorry, I will not read that if it seems too long, unless it's widely recommended and is bringing something new to the table.

  11. I hadn't even considered this, even though I knew word count ranges were often tied to production costs and wanting to keep the physical books a certain size. It just seems so odd to me that reader expectations for certain genres aren't going to change overnight just because the books are electronic. Fantasy and SF will continue to get away with longer word counts due to the immense world-building required, while mystery and romance readers will still want books that are tight and get them to the good stuff in a reasonable timeframe.

    I do think the ability to make shorter stories available for lower prices will make them more popular, though, and have seen signs that serial fiction is making a comeback. I don't know if such a thing will ever be my strong point, though, as I tend to overwrite the beginnings of my stories a little and then cut out or slim down a lot of material later. I'd have to write the whole story first so I could do this, and then I'd feel bad about holding back parts of it just so I could publish as a serial.

  12. I think we are already seeing a comeback of short stories and, even more so, novellas.

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Yes, ebooks mean you can self publish a 200k book for the same price as a 50k book, though those who follow the traditional route will still have increased costs associated with editing. Thing is, you have to think of the reader. Present the reader with a novel that hasn't had the fat trimmed, and the reader probably wont buy your next novel. We've all read books that seemed to drag on forever; I, for one, don't want to be that author.

  14. I think you're so right that humans generally like to have guidelines.

    And readers certainly have expectations. If I saw a 200K word romance or mystery, I'd pretty much assume the writer was a wordy amateur. But for fantasy, when I want to get lost in a brand new world, I want it long. Maybe because I've invested some time in getting to know that world.

    I love that ebooks are bringing back the novella. It seems the perfect form for our fast-moving era.