Novel Lengths


For the last month, I have been listening to the Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie.  I love these books.  But I started a Hercule Poirot novel when I finished them and noticed the audio narration was only 5 hours.  The average for a Miss Marple novel was 6 1/2 hours.  

Which got me thinking about the word counts of Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland.  These are two of the best selling authors of all times, who wrote in very different genres – Christie was a mystery writer most of the time and Cartland was a prolific romance author.

And until James Patterson began farming out the actual writing of his novels, making it so he could release three and sometimes four novels a year, Christie was the best selling mystery writer of all time.

The reason this interested me is because in recent years I’ve heard a ton of complaints from readers that indie authors would be better if they wrote longer books.  Anything over 50,000 words is considered a “novel” nowadays.  With different genres expecting different lengths of novels.  One expects a fantasy novel to be longer than a mystery novel, kind of thing.

One of the most reproduced books in cinema history The Murder on the Orient Express was written by Christie, evidence of the impact she’s had on literature and film for the last 100+ years.  But by modern standards, not even Murder on the Orient Express stands up as a “novel.”  It’s a meer 43,000 words.  

Furthermore, only 3 Agatha Christie novels hold up under modern standards as “novels” meaning only 3 of them, all standalone novels,” were over 50,000 words.  3 of 72 published novels are over 50,000 words.  The rest are basically novellas with many the same length as The Dysfunctional Chronicles – 25,000 to 30,000 words.

And as far as I can tell, the same is true of Barbara Cartland.  Of her 273 published novels, there are 6 of them over 50,000 words with most in the 35,000 – 40,000 word range… slightly longer than Agatha Christie, but still not a “novel” by modern standards.

We as a society, did not start expecting longer novels until the 1980s.  Two of the best selling novels of the 1970s Watership Down by Richard Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams are both under 100,000 words compare their length to It by Stephen King, which is 170,000 words.  The unabridged version of The Stand weighs in at a hefty 500,000 words, more words than there are in the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy, the 3 books together have slightly more than 400,000 words.  And yet, when the first one was published in 1954, the publishing house didn’t imagine it would sell because it was just too damn long at 143,000 words.

So, my “novellas” are the same length as the second best selling mystery writer of all time Agatha Christie and my D&R series at 70,000-100,000 words really aren’t that short.  They seem short because modern readers have gotten used to extremely descriptive books.  If I spent ten pages (5,000 words approximately with the way I write) describing each murder scene in D&R, they would probably be closer to 200,000 words.  And they would be even more gruesome than they are now.  And writers can think Stephen King for this trend.  As the successful sales of books like ItThe Stand, and Desperation, encouraged publishing houses to desire longer novels from authors.  

It should be noted though that Stephen King’s most successfully sold book ever is also his shortest, Carrie has around 47,000 words and is “technically not a novel” by today’s standards, but it was the first novel he published that got good reviews from critics as well as the first novel someone decided to turn into a movie.  The book was released, in 1974, the movie was released just two years later in 1976.  

The point being that indie authors aren’t killing book lengths.  We don’t all write exceptional short books, although I can think of a few authors that usually just barely hit 50,000 words per novel… We’ve just grown to expect longer books in the last 30 years than ever before and there are indies, including myself that have returned to “shorter” word counts, because we can tell a good story with shorter word counts.  I don’t think doubling the word count of any of the D&R novels would make them “better” books.  I think they’d just drag on at that point.  But I admit they would be more in-line with modern expectations of writers.  If Elysium Dreams was 150,000 words instead of 83,000 words how much more would you learn?  And what exactly would it be?

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