Long Books

HuffingtonPost.com recently published an article by Brooke Warner entitled “3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter than 80,000 Words.” The reasons are as follows: 1) Attention spans are shorter, 2) Overly long books are a red flag to agents and editors, and 3) The longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.

20f12-readingI think Point 1 is pretty much self-explanatory, but I’d like to single put what seems to be the central thesis of it in the article: Successful long books are the exception, not the rule. She goes on to cite examples from such authors as JK Rowling and Ken Follet, followed by this statement: “…most readers simply don’t have the attention span for long narratives. So if you’re just starting, aim short; if you’re running long and are pre-publication (and you can stomach it), work with an editor to cut cut cut. (emphasis added)”

Ms Warner is comparing apples and oranges here. Ken Follet and JK Rowling are not good examples of “authors [who] are the exception.” They are long-time veterans and bestselling writers, and they made their bones with long novels. Some, in Ms Rowling’s case, got longer and longer.

I will admit there’s some merit to the idea of making your first published novel shorter, but I would also contend that, on the whole, this article is New York-centric, or perhaps Manhattan myopic. You’ll see what I mean as this post progresses.

My first published novel is over 106,000 words. The one coming out next year is over 90,000 words. Both novels are—and here’s the key, a quote I’m hearing from every author I know—just the right length for the story being told. My second novel is cut down from its original length considerably. In fact, by the time I finished it, it was long enough for two novels (the second half will be my third crime novel), and that’s after cutting some 14,000 words from the original manuscript. I ended up with one 96,000-word novel and one 89,000-word sequel.

Bear with me here.

The second point Ms Warner makes is that long novels are red flags to editors and agents.

Well, yeah, they probably are in New York. And anyone who bothers to keep up with the publishing scene knows what’s going on there. Fights with Amazon over pricing. Books sitting in warehouses unsold. Publishing houses losing money. Advances going down or disappearing altogether. And I’m sure there are more sad stories I’m not aware of.

So, yeah, they don’t want to see long novels from first-timers. Why? Because they’re schizophrenic. Or something like that. In essence, the Big Five are always on the lookout for the next Stephen King, the next Gillian Flynn, the next JK Rowling. Or so they say. The reality is, they’re looking for that author, but they’re so afraid to take a chance on anyone being that author that they pass up what could be bestsellers because… they want to focus on the next novels from Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, JK Rowling, et al. In other words, they want the next big thing, but they’re afraid to take the risks necessary to make sure people know about the next big thing.

And that’s because of Reason 3: the longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce.

If you’re publishing with the New York model, that’s true. The New York publishers make big print runs. Essentially, they take a chance on every novel they publish. So, if you’re on the fortunate list of perennial bestsellers that includes the people I’ve mentioned above, that’s not a big deal. Though he may have fallen off recently, Stephen King is still guaranteed to sell big. I doubt Scribner has to worry too much about getting returns on his books.

Ms Warner goes on to finally acknowledge the world outside New York in this point—by citing self-publishing. Yes, if your book is long, you’re going to have to keep the price as low as possible in order to be competitive. But what she fails to mention is that many self-publishers go the e-book route because it’s essentially free, and it’s becoming the wave of the future. She also cites print on demand, another trend that’s gaining popularity.

She completely ignores the indie publishers, and that’s where the myopia shows itself. I can’t speak for other indie publishers, but at Oghma, we’re not concerned with book length. As long as it’s a quality story, we’ll stand behind the author and pay the set-up fees to produce a larger book. In fact, we’ve already done so with Beyond the Moon by Velda Brotheron and Type and Cross by Staci Trolio. And we’ll have more long books coming out in the future.

Most indie publishers use the print on demand that Ms Warner talks about in her article—the one she cites as the wave of the future. And she’s right. She just doesn’t cover all the bases when it comes to the world of publishing these days.

Of course, if you go with an indie publisher, you’re going to have to go with whatever they want. If they want you to cut your book considerably, then that’s what you’ll have to do. Also, listen to your editor. We work hard to make your book the best it can be, and if we see long sections that really don’t advance the plot or are irrelevant to the story in some way—or can just be done in a way that makes them shorter and more concise—we’re not asking you to cut it in order to torment you or make your life harder. We want you to put out the best product possible, and that almost always entails cutting something, even if it’s just a few words here and there. Chances are, if you’ve done your homework and learned your craft the way you should, there won’t be a lot of cutting involved.

Besides, we’re all going to write some novels long and some short. If you want to persevere on the New York route and want to attract a lot of attention, push one of your shorter novels as your first work. My first published novel wasn’t the first one I’d written. Far from it. It wasn’t even the first crime novel I wrote after embarking on that genre. It was the second. I was still revising the first (the one I mentioned above that ended up becoming two novels), so I decided to make Spree—a nice standalone story-my first published work.

The final decision, of course, is up to you. But if you want my opinion, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. And if that means making your first novel a longer one (I didn’t even touch on the way Ms Warner totally ignores taking genre into account), then go for it.

If it’s good, they’ll want it.



2 thoughts on “Long Books

  1. veldabrotherton

    Some good points, Gil. I worried a bit about my novel, Beyond the Moon, being so long, and it’s far, far from my first published work. The people at Oghma assured me they wanted it. We did cut some things out of it, but not much. I so appreciate dealing with the editors and other people at Oghma long before I actually became a part of the company. That was a decision I only made because of Oghma’s 21st Century attitude about publishing. This company is truly a wave of the future.

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I thought the article was seriously short-sighted. I agree there’s something to be said for keeping your debut novel short, but under 80,000 words? That’s not even close to the average novel I’m seeing on shelves now.


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