Saturday, February 23, 2008

Reader Question: What's the ideal length of a submission?

A reader wrote to me with this great question a couple of weeks ago. I have so much to say about it that I've been stalling on replying. I hope this reader doesn't feel unloved, since it really is a good question (and a chance for me to get on my soapbox).

Hey there, Moonrat (it feels a bit odd writing that, I have to say) [fair enough, dear reader],

That said, I have a couple of questions on length of submission. I write horror/supernatural suspense and my agent is currently shopping my first project(90,000 words).

My work-in-progress is going to check in at around 75,000 or 80,000 words maximum. I read widely in my genre and I've noticed a lot of debut novels coming in around 190-220 pages in trade paperback format. That seems pretty short to me, but I can't tell how many words that might be. I enjoyed Joe Schreiber's Eat the Dark (edited by Keith Clayton), which came in at 193 pages and had over fifty chapters.

My questions concern the nuts and bolts on something like this. Do editors acquire texts with fifty-plus three and four-page chapters? Does this affect the marketability/desirability of a project? I appreciate any insight you can offer on this topic.


So many interesting points here for me to talk about (ratty field day). Let me start with a caveat--although I have worked in genre fiction (and do work on some now), it's not my specialty. I'm going to have to skirt around your very genre-specific questions just a little.

First of all, you've noticed the trend toward shorter books in publishing--even genre publishing, which has historically been a safe haven for Tomes with a capital T. Maybe TV is ruining society and attention spans are getting shorter, maybe publishers are just trying to make their print margins work in an age of inflation (shorter books are much cheaper to produce).

Either way, I have to admit my personal taste is toward shorter books. I really like submissions between 60 and 80k words. I'm relatively open-minded, but anything shorter than 60,000 words usually proves to be a little half-baked. (This is not always true, of course, but often it just comes up short--a good novel needs cohesive structure and enough development to pull a reader in, and often this can't be accomplished in fewer than 60,000 words.) I also cringe whenever an agent tells me she's sending me a 200,000-word debut novel. I think the upper limit of my patience for books I edit--even genre books--is about 120,000 words. I like all my books to cast off under 400 pages when they are typeset (and I like pretty spacious font so my readers don't have to develop glaucoma over my titles).

My personal reading preferences aside, I also have some professional pressure to either acquire shorter books or edit books down to manageable lengths. There is the basic margin--book prices don't escalate relative to inflation, and it becomes harder and harder to make our numbers work at all on the book production end.

There's also the famous sell-in problem. National chains like shorter books. More shorter books fit on the same shelves as fewer longer books, but the shelf full of more shorter books has a much higher cumulative retail value. Bookstores buy more copies of shorter books. Therefore, a shorter book has a slightly higher chance of becoming a bestseller (quality of actual book not taken into account).

So I know this all seems very superficial, but from a commercial standpoint manuscript length is a factor.

That doesn't answer any of your questions directly; it's mostly me on a soapbox. To get back to your situation, it sounds to me like you're in a very healthy length range. In terms of format, I don't think you should worry about it. Write your book organically in the format that's working for you. Although gimmicks in formatting get old quickly, we (editors and publishers) are always looking for innovative structures. And sometimes the gimmicks really work (look at Chabon's GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD next time you're in a bookstore--his gimmick is illustrations and artsy two-color chapter openers). I would say don't tailor your book's structure to anyone else's ideas unless that helps you write it more effectively.

Hope this helped. Let me know where I've left holes in my argument (I am blogging on a non-work day so my brain is a little non-working).


writtenwyrdd said...

Uh oh. Me write Tomes. Like, 110,000 to 120,000.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that when I read a book at night, I convince myself to read just that next chapter if it is short enough. So short chapters would work for me. That said, the length doesn't really matter as long as the chapter breaks are natural.

How the word count would translate to page numbers depends on the size of the page and the margins the publisher and printer uses. I'd pull some books off the shelf by that publisher and compare them to see what the most likely word/page ratio would be.

Conduit said...

Oddly enough, I was reading something from UK genre agent John Jarrold recently where he stated the trend was for longer genre work, preferably 120k and up - though he may have been specifically referring to fantasy which doesn't tend to favour brevity.

Robert McKee makes a strong argument for short chapters in his excellent book Story. He uses two examples:

One is people reading books in those few moments of spare time in the day, such as on a train. They will enjoy a book more if they can digest it in small pieces.

Two is, as anonymous above comments, that when people consider whether or not to put the book down or not they'll flick ahead a few pages to see how long it is to the end of the chapter. If it's not too long they'll keep reading. If you end that chapter on a cliffhanger, all the better, 'cos they'll flip forward a few more pages, and if it's only a few they'll keep going. Thus you have a page-turner. Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas works on just that principle.

Personally, as a reader I like a mix of book lengths. Sometimes I want something I can wallow in, and other times I want something I can zip through. It depends on the mood and time available.

In writing, my two complete (and earlier almost-complete) novels clock in at about 80k. They weren't planned that way, that's just how it turned out (that's Word's word count, btw, not printer's rule). In my last novel I kept the chapters short throughout, about 60 of them. I deliberately made them a little longer at the start, shortening towards the end, so by the third act the chapters are five pages each and all with cliffhangers. I think it gives the feeling of a build towards a climaz, rather than the headlong rush of some contemporary thriller writers.

A question for our hostess: when calculating word count, do you use the word processor's count, or the 250 per page rule, or some method of averaging out words per page? I read various approaches to this. Going by the 250 rule, my last novel would be more like 110k.

Conduit said...

Damn, I write some long-ass comments!

Daniel W. Powell said...

Afternoon Moonrat (that's easier to write in this format, as opposed to a personal e-mail),

Thanks for your thoughtful resposne to this question. The more I work on my writing, the closer attention I pay to trends in the field. It's nice to hear from someone in the business on the reaction to manuscipt length.

I recently met with my agent and discussed the page count. Her reaction was very similar--tell a great story, and 80,000 words is a nice size.

On another note, I envy you. Robert the Publisher seems like a neverending fountain of...knowledge. Sounds like a fun environment to spend the day in. :)

Thanks again.

Charles Gramlich said...

An ideal read for me is somewhere between 65,000 and 80,000. too often longer books seem so padded to me.

writtenwyrdd said...

I like Tomes. But the do have to be well written. 200+ pages is good; 400+ is better. But I read mostly sf and fantasy titles, which do seem to be longer.

What might be padding to some is worldbuilding to me, and I really like that. But if it seems like padding, I'm with Charles.

cyn said...

i'm querying both fantasy and YA agents, and i've only had agent mention that 98k is a lot of words. i have no aversion to revision, and i'm sure it can be whittled down with guidance.

irony is, my first draft was 73k, and i actually added 25k during my rewrites. i tend to be a skeletal writer, so i need to flesh when i revise, not cut.

thanks for answering a great question, MR! happy sunday! it's raining here.

Brian said...

What I find interesting is when factions within the industry disagrees on questions such as these. Most agents who represent YA novels put the cut off around 70,000 words (I've seen some as low as 60,000). However, this doesn't jive with what I'm seeing on the shelves at the bookstore in the YA section: massive gluts of dead trees with which you could choke a yak. First time novelists churning out 3-400 page books, which would fly in the face of what the agents are calling the cut off point.

Do we say, "Well, the writing must have really wowed the agent/editor and they didn't care about the length?" This would surprise me as the agents I know who do YA won't even look at anything ove 70,000, negating the ability to determine if it's "wow" writing or not. Guess it just means this, like so much in the writing world, is subjective.

On a slightly different note, I'm interested in what anonymous says about short chapters. This is my instinct as well. In reviewing my thesis manuscript, the advisor suggested I take to back-to-back chapters and combine them into one. I said, "But then I'll have a 20 page chapter." He said, "So?" Some people are totally unphased by this. For whatever reason, it pokes at my instincts.

I should remind myself that good writing is good writing and some books don't even have chapters and a chapter length is arbitrary at best. But why can't I shake these instincts?

booklady said...

Thank you. I'm not the original poster, but I found this helpful all the same. As for chapters, I'm in favor of fairly frequent chapter breaks--or at least scene breaks. They keep me reading, for exactly the reasons Conduit gave. And I second that question--is word count now going by actual word count, or is it still that special 250-word-per-page formula I still hear about on occasion?

Bernita said...

Thank you.
I write lean so this is encouraging.

Shameless said...

Very interesting stuff, moonrat. I've always asked this question, and it's good to have clear ideas before starting out with a project. I also notice that chapters in books are getting shorter and shorter ... attention span thing?

no-bull-steve said...

Thanks for the blog post. There has been quite a bit of debate on this in writer circles of late. Your opinions seem on target. Of course there are still those with the 190,000 word manuscripts that they claim "are really good" and should get published. It seems that it's not like it's impossible but at that length it seems your odds diminish exponentially.

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

I'm mooching around for an agent at the moment to whom I can sub my now complete YA paranormal and was interested to read on a couple of sites that there is definitely, as far as YA is concerned, a tendency towards shorter MSS. I think the big hulking later Harry Potters made many writers think they could pile in and write tomes - and JKR got away with it just (though many have commented the books could have done with much tighter editing), as has Stephanie Meyer but I think one has to accept that readers probably have become lazier - and it probably is TV etc as Moonrat alludes to - and also people are simply busier so reading time is generally less. So it doesn't surprise me if the market wants shorter books. I know I personally prefer them - she says having just watching her 78k YA morph into a 92K YA (and crit partners wanted still more detail! Eek!)

Great post, Moonrat - really interesting.

Jill Myles said...

I am late to this but I just wanted to say that no one could ever feel unloved by you! ;)

That, and I agree about long books. I used to love them as a teenager - now I groan when I pick up a much-anticipated book and find it a lot thicker than I had hoped. Shorter is better the older I get.