Books are getting longer, but is that necessarily a good thing?

There’s been a lot of discussion about book length recently, in the light of findings by Flipsnack that books are now 25% longer than they were in 1999. From an average of 320 pages fifteen years ago, they are now around 400. 

Reasons have been many and various. The director of Flipsnack thinks that it’s because of the rise of Kindle and ebooks in general. Whereas you’d be put off by a 400-page tome in a bookshop, or the practicalities of comfortably holding an awkward, brick-shaped book to read it, with an ereader this isn’t an issue. Size doesn’t matter so much when it’s on your Kindle or tablet or phone.

A literary agent has another approach. She believes that readers now prefer “long, immersive texts”. But do they? Kobo’s findings regarding the ‘finishability’ of books found that, for example, only 44.4% of UK readers got to the end of the very long, widely extolled The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Kobo speculated that the length of the novel “likely proved daunting for some”. People may buy very long books because they hear they’ve been recommended, but they don’t necessarily manage to wade through.

However, we’ve all bought books that have extremely widely-spaced lines, or inordinately generous margins, and these are a few practices that publishers have employed in the past to pad out a shorter book, pandering to some sort of need for value for money in the consumer. (It’s the same way that many food packages turn out to have a lot of empty space in them as well as food, packets of cereal for example.) Now the padding tends to come with words.

Is that a good or bad thing? Personally I don’t like it. My own take is that books are getting longer because of certain agents and publishers demanding that a book must be at least 100,000 words or more before they will even consider it. This is frankly ridiculous. A book is as long as it needs to be.

I signed up for Audible a month or so ago and have enjoyed listening to several books being narrated. However, I returned one, something I thought I’d never do. I was tempted to buy it by the inclusion of the words ‘Christmas’ and ‘knit’ in the title, two of my favourite things in the winter! However, after nine long chapters the action had only just got going. I was willing to give it a little longer, but then we had a completely pointless, wordy flashback to when our heroine was a child and had a puppy. It had absolutely nothing to do with anything apart from being rather twee filling. That was the final straw for me. I feel that this particular book would have been twice as good if it had been half the length. It had some truly wonderful descriptive writing and many touches of witty humour, but it just dragged on and on.

Something else to bear in mind is that this research is based on ‘official’ books, i.e. those that have been traditionally published. It therefore ignores the vast amount of self-published books out there. A quick look at Smashwords, for example, reveals that for every 100,000-word+ epic it publishes, there are many, many more much shorter novels. A popular length seems to be around the 50,000 mark. I edit probably over a hundred books a year, and only a handful of those are longer than 100,000 words. There is a definitely preference amongst the indie authors I work with for a book of 60,000 or so words. This generally works very well and allows for an engaging, complex story or narration to emerge without the author and reader getting bogged down with irrelevant or over-complicating subplots and expositions.

Books don’t need to be longer, and I think this trend for more pages is not a particularly healthy one. It’s likely to result in slower-paced, pedantic, overstuffed novels that would seem to be the exact opposite of what you’d expect to appeal to consumers in this fast-paced, instant-gratification electronic age that wants entertainment and information in byte-sized chunks. It will be very interesting indeed to see what happens over the next fifteen years and what length books will be by then.   



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