Why Are Books So Long?

The beauty, and danger, of the web is precisely that it contains an ongoing worldwide 24-hour-a-day conversation on every topic imaginable. I have never watched tv much, but I do now waste time online just because it is so easy to do. And online, certain topics seem to rear their heads with impressive, or tiresome, regularity.

One is the question of why books are longer today than they used to be back in the Golden Age of sf.

This is not about the long vs short debate: I think a book needs to be the length it needs to be. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is (in my opinion, anyway) a masterpiece of the field; it’s short. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, likewise; it’s long. However, LotR would not have worked as a 70,000 word novel. And The Martian Chronicles, as written, is not trilogy material. Neither are the other kind of book.

So why are books longer today?

I don’t know, but I will toss out a few comments.

1) Styles and approaches change. What interests readers changes. How readers want to read changes. This suggests that the boom in huge multi-volume fantasy series of the 80s and 90s and early 00s may come to be seen as a artifact of that time, just as the current boom in (much shorter) urban fantasy and Young Adult novels may come to be seen as an artifact of this decade.

Or not.

I note that the bestselling fantasy debut of last year (as far as I know) was the fabulous Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, volume one of a fat fantasy trilogy. (And I use that phrase “fat fantasy” affectionately rather than pejoratively.) I would suppose that, based on its success, publishers are looking for “something like that book,” just as publishers are noting the raging success of urban fantasy and Young Adult titles and seeking novels that would, they hope, be equally successful.

Why would publishers do that?

Because they like to sell books.

2) Writers are smart enough to observe trends.

Books sell, or they don’t sell. Many writers I know would like to sell their novel, write another one, and sell it, too. They have more than one idea, and they are flexible. They can make decisions about what they want to write without being forced to do so by publishers.

3) As far as I know, novelists are not paid by the word.

I’ve never been paid by the word for a novel. If any of you guys are being paid by the word for your novels, please please please let me know because I would like a piece of that action.

4) Are they? Taken over the history of the novel, are novels in general longer today?

I genuinely don’t know if there is a longitudinal study on this issue, rather than an anecdotal one. And does the study include The Tale of Genji?

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    Well, I find it interesting that the form of the written word that’s doing the best (from a purely economic standpoint) is the longest, I think it’s partly because the shorter forms of literature have more competition. These days, folks who just want to dip into something watch a TV show or a movie instead of reading a short story. But they still read a novel when they want to be completely immersed in a story. The more they like the story, the longer they want it to be.

    The exception is the debut novel which is often much shorter than is now popular just because of the cost/risk to the publisher.

    Which is not to say this is a good thing, For one thing, I consider that it’s harder to write a good short book than a good long book.

  2. 2. Zora

    Wouldn’t one want to look at the history of the novel over a longer period? Early epistolary novels, like _Clarissa_ or _Sir Charles Grandison_, were extremely long. The mid-19th century “Mudies’ triple-decker” novel was long. I have a feeling that the average book was shorter by the end of the 19th century, but then there were also series novels — such as Joseph Altsheler’s books about a band of Kentucky rangers, a series that just goes on and on and on …

    A quantative rather than impressionistic answer would be best. I have been hearing about Franco Moretti’s quantitative work in literary history for years, but haven’t had time to read his books. Perhaps there’s something there. There’s also a huge, expensive book on publishing and the literary market in the 19th century that I would like to read … name on tip of tongue … memory failing me. Aargh.

    Oh, and as for long literary works, not limited to Western-style novels: Shahnameh, Monkey, Mahabharata, Dream of the Red Chamber, etc.

  3. 3. greg

    As a pretty avid reader, I think that one of the keys to the length of novels is something you touch on without delving into. LotR is fantasy. The Martian Chronicles are science fiction. Now, there are obviously exceptions, but it seems to me that the majority of fantasy novels are much longer than science fiction novels. I think that this might be attributed to the desire of many authors of fantasy to develop extended and very in-depth universes. Everywhere you look there are trilogies and even longer fantasy series. In science fiction, the trend is much more toward the one-and-done idea.

    I think that this is an idea that could certainly be fleshed out as part of the development of the two genres where the early and defining works of science fiction were short stories and derived from pulp novels, where the defining work of early fantasy literature was the Lord of the Rings, and even other early works like Gormenghast were channeling the classical/romantic writers whose ponderous tomes are the bane of many a high school student’s english lessons.

  4. 4. Kate Elliott

    Karen, do you mean novels vs. short stories? I think it is very difficult to make a living writing short fiction today, and I do think there is a lot of competition for that entertainment dollar, as you say.

    I’m not sure I agree that it is harder to write a good short book than a good long one, as I would argue that it is hard to write a good book, period, but you may be meaning something entirely different than what is going through my mind (indeed, I expect that is likely!), so I’d really be interested to hear you expand on that thought.

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    In the early days of SF writers stopped to explain everything from wristwatch communicators to computers to automatic doors. Nowadays, thanks to a large body of existing work, SF on TV and in the movies, and real life gadgets, all that exposition and explanation can be left out. (If you don’t, people moan at you.)

    In fantasy books nothing is consistent, and so all that explaining and back story is still part of the fun. (I’m not suggesting for one second fantasy books SHOULD be consistent. I suspect it’s the unexpected variations on well-worn tropes & cliches which help new fantasy trilogies to sell.) Anyway, if you don’t build a fantasy world properly, people moan at you.)

  6. 6. Kate Elliott

    Zora – exactly. That was my point in #4–that I would have to see a historical study–it may be that the short sf novels of the Golden Age are an aberration rather than a norm. Or, not.

    Greg – picked up a Peter Hamilton sf novel recently? *g*

    But there may be something to what you’re saying in the sense that a certain style of sf comes from the nifty concept/single idea strand of plot and writing while space opera and big sprawling fantasy epics may have grown out of a different tradition. Or maybe some would argue that space opera is actually fantasy? Man, I myself would not want to open that can of worms (I let it all sit under the big tent of literature of the fantastic), but if you want to go with it, I’ll read your argument with interest.

  7. 7. SMD

    From what I’ve read and heard in podcasts from publishers and people in the publishing industry it has a lot to do with publishing costs and what readers will pay. A book of 120 pages is not cheaper per page than a book of 500 pages. In fact, the publisher saves more money in the long run by putting out larger books because they can charge less on the scale. 120 page books aren’t 25 cents anymore. They’re $4.00 or $5.00, sometimes more. Readers are much less inclined to buy a book of 120 pages if they can pay $7.99 for a book 5 times as big. For a publisher it is much more economical to release larger books because they are more likely to sell and will earn the most money. It sucks, because I happen to think 120 page books can sometimes be better than longer books (look at some of the really good Golden Age and early period SF works…like early Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, etc.).

  8. 8. chrisweuve

    I’m mildly amused at the comments (faintly) bemoaning longer books; I look back on the SF books of the 50s-80s and see a lot of books I *really* wish had been longer.

  9. 9. Kate Elliott

    Simon, I’m not sure what you mean by: In fantasy books nothing is consistent,

  10. 10. Kate Elliott

    Chris,
    yes, in my experience some very short books seem a little scant. Just as some very long books seem a little bloated. For me there’s also a taste issue, in that I like characterization and setting and books that take their time with these; not every reader (obviously) has the same tastes I do.

    SMD: I think there could be a “portion” issue in the sense that people browsing in a bookstore might look askance at a very short book if they feel they’re not getting much for their money. But on the other hand, it does not make sense to me that publishers are publishing purely on the basis of size (I’m not sure it is more cost effective on other scales–certainly in these days of high paper costs, very long books are not economical to publish).

    Readers want a good reading experience. So they would only continue buying 500 page books if they contained a reading experience that the readers enjoyed. I don’t think that physical size can be the determining factor. In the end, the readers have to like what they’re reading, otherwise they will stop buying books.

  11. 11. Greg

    Kate – I’ve not actually read any of his work. To be quite honest, I’m somewhat out of the loop with regard to current science fiction that is being published. Very little of it seems to be making waves in the way that fantasy has been over the last several years, though it could just be a matter of my not knowing where to look. And I completely understand your trepidation of addressing the scifi/fantasy divide. Many have tried, none have died, but only the oblivious few have escaped from that battlefield unscathed. I don’t want to claim that scifi is better than fantasy for addressing the “novel idea” or that fantasy is better for creating fully fleshed universes, just that the tradition of the majority of writers in those areas tend to stick to those ideas. And that a lot of readers have come to expect that from the genres.

  12. 12. Karen Wester Newton

    Kate– re: short vs. long. Of course it is hard to write a good book, regardless of length. And some books just plain need to be long. But while I have read books that made me say “that would have been a better book if it had been 50 or 100 pages shorter,” I have never read one and said “that book was too short to tell the story well.” I’m not saying that hasn’t happened, but I think it’s less common. The difference between what needs to be in the writer’s head and what needs to be on the page can be extensive.

  13. 13. James Alan Gardner

    Let’s not forget that computers facilitate the writing of long books. Not only is it vastly easier to edit a book on the computer (as opposed to by hand or using a typewriter), it’s easier to maintain files of background information and to search for details within the text. This often leads to “word bloat” but it also opens the door to greater complexities…not just for Tolstoy-like geniuses who can keep all of “War and Peace” in their heads, but for everyday writers who might otherwise be forced to think small.

    Furthermore, look at what passes for mass entertainment these days. The TV of the 50′s was far less ambitious than TV today. SF is being written for people who watch Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and all the other shows with complex year-long or multi-year plots. Not only are readers accustomed to long complicated tales, they *expect* that degree of complexity. Writers expect the same thing; we aspire to meet and beat what’s considered the modern “standard”.

  14. 14. Kate Elliott

    Karen, thanks.

    Greg, Peter Hamilton is a British sf writer known for writing immensely long space opera in multiple volumes. He’s quite good — but again, loooong books.

    James: I think that US television has finally caught up with the “telenovela” — the finite multi-part series — that’s been popular for years in other countries. HBO, forex, is doing amazing stuff right now.

    As for books, hard to say. Early and Victorian-era novels were indeed, as you say, often long and quite complex. So are the stories of the sff Golden Age a norm or an aberration? Or just a trend that was popular then and may (be) return(ing)?

  15. 15. Marie Brennan

    Coming very late to the discussion, but I also happen to think that the changes in readers’ tastes aren’t just for longer and shorter works, but for what those works contain. A lot of Golden Age SF didn’t concern itself overly much with character development — the Idea, after all, was king — but nowadays many readers want nuanced protagonists and antagonists who change over the course of the book. We’re also less tolerant of straight-up exposition, which means that now communicating that info might take three or four times as long. Etc. I think our desires wrt content tend to go hand-in-hand with more wordage between the covers.

  16. 16. Kate Elliott

    Marie, naturally I would agree about readers (a certain group of readers, that is) wanting more nuance in characterization. Also, yeah, the exposition v communicating info via scenes, the old rule that sometimes 30 pages of showing ead more quickly than 5 pages of telling.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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