How Long Is A Novel?

By Maeve Maddox

Before the advent of ebooks, modern fiction writers concerned themselves chiefly with two lengths: long (novels) and short (short stories).

With the advent of digital publishing, the terms novella and novelette have taken on a new significance.

In the 17th century, the word novel referred to a book-length story shorter than a romance. Indeed, the English word novel derives from an Italian word for a short story: novella, a term Boccaccio used in reference to the short stories collected in the Decameron. At first, novel and novella were used interchangeably in English to describe a short fictitious narrative. Nowadays, a novel is longer than a novella:

novel noun: an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting.

How long is “considerable length”?

On average, a printed novel contains about 80,000 words. For some genres, like mystery, the minimum may go as low as 40,000 in the guidelines for some contests, but 60,000 is probably a more marketable length.

In the old days, writers estimated word count by figuring 250 words per page. According to this way of calculating, a 70,000-word book corresponds to about 175 printed pages; one with 125,000 words, 312 pages. Now, word processors keep a running total for the writer.

NOTE: A printed paperback may have as many as 400 words per page, depending upon font size and book dimensions.

Length matters in a book that has a spine to which pages must be attached. Print publishers rarely accept books that are excessively short or excessively long. Digital publishing, on the other hand, is not constrained by size.

Although popular wisdom suggests that people who read ebooks prefer them short, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, analyzed a thousand of his best-selling books “across all genres and categories” and discovered that the top fifty sellers published via Smashwords average 106,000 words in length.

Some readers love long novels; others don’t. Novelists who publish digitally can help readers find what they are looking for by categorizing their works according to length:

novel: 60,000 words and above
novella: 20,000 to 50,000 words
novelette: 7,500 to 20,000 words

Here are five recent fiction titles and the number of pages they have in paperback:

Sycamore Row, John Grisham (642 pages)
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd paperback (384 pages)
Concealed in Death, Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb (384 pages)
Reviva,l Stephen King (416 pages)
The Burning Room, Michael Connelly (400 pages)

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6 Responses to “How Long Is A Novel?”

  • Sean

    Then how do you characterize a work that is 55,000 words in length?

  • Jake Marek

    Orson Scott Card wrote an interesting bit on short stories versus novels. He had written many short stories and was trying his hand at a novel. After writing 150 pages or so, he turned it over to his editor for a quick look. The editor read it and remarked “It’s kind of long, isn’t it?”

    The problem was NOT the number of words, but the STYLE of the story. The pacing of a short story is very different from that of a novel, and THIS is a much more important criterion in determining what defines a novel or a short story.

    As an analog, a comedian who normally does a two-minute stand-up routine must alter his pacing quite a bit when performing an hour-long show.

  • Joe

    A short story is short. Therefore the novel has to be long, so seems to be the conventional logic. The short novel has become quite rare in English, but in Spanish many less than 100 pages are to be found.

  • Jason

    These categories have long been a standard part of science fiction, at least, and long pre-date digital publishing.

    The Nebulas were founded in 1965 and have existed almost unchanged in this regard:
    Rule 5:
    http://www.sfwa.org/nebula-awards/rules/

    The Hugos were founded in 1953 and originally only recognized “short story” and “novelette” but first adopted the triple structure in 1968:
    “The Categories”
    http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-categories/

    Wikipedia further shows that the novella has a long and distinguished history, regardless of genre, running significantly between the 17th century and digital publishing. Conrad is perhaps most famous for novellas and there is Hemingway, Capote, Kafka, etc.:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novella

  • Josh

    Great insights! Thanks for that. Ive always wanted to write a novel and have some scribbling going on for few years. It’s taking shape now and am planning to take 3 months break from life for that alone! Lets see how it goes, thanks for the informative guidelines..

    Cheers
    Josh

  • Briar21

    I agree with Jason. The lower limit for the novel has been set for a while now, and it is 40,000 words. There are many classics out there that are called ‘novels’ that are barely above this threshold. 60k is a nice sized novel, but it is not the ground floor.

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