The issue of how long a book should be is not as significant as it once was from a purely professional standpoint, simply because in this era of DIY digital publishing, those constraints are no longer relevant, since things like page and word count no longer apply. Trees are not the casualties they once were, sacrificed for the sake of the literary industry.
Back in the heyday of pulp magazines, readers often craved not only serialized novels by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but longer stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett, so novelettes and novellas were very much in demand as magazine filler, but not so much as standalone books, given the print costs.
The reason traditional publishers were once so insistent that a book be a certain length was naturally due to commercial considerations. By and large they wanted consumers to get more bang for their buck. Also, since printing and distribution costs could be so exorbitant to the point of being prohibitive if the book was from an untested author, major companies wanted to protect their investments by supplying quantity as well as quality within those strategically designed, priced and marketed covers.
This is understandable if publishers are paying in advance for a sizable run of print books for widespread stock, and they don’t want to get stuck with stacks of unsold copies, sent back from unsatisfied brick-and-mortar retailers.
But with POD (print on demand) technology now being commonly employed by not only self-publishers and small presses but increasingly larger companies as well, books are now like music MP3s in that they can be purchased and downloaded individually, without distributors worrying about dealing with problems of either over or under stocking.
Naturally, many authors still prefer the conventional satisfaction of knowing a batch of their books exists, ready to ship to bookstores. If you’re going with a middle or large sized publisher, this is still the deal. So if that’s you goal, go for it!
But if not, keep in mind that most bookstores – whether chains or indie – refuse to stock POD books, especially via their nemesis, CreateSpace, the most popular resource for self-publishers and small presses alike. This is due to the fact they perhaps rightfully resent Amazon’s dominance of the marketplace as well as the fact retailers can’t return unsold copies for reimbursement – and no one but Amazon really profits once the customer buys the book, because of the way this particular pie is sliced: far too many pieces to satisfy everyone individually.
Authors that spring for the Ingram distribution service Lightning Source may have better luck seeing their books on the shelves of their favorite stores, because this company is much more retailer-friendly.
In any case, back to the main point: authors circumventing this tricky and often biased system also don’t have to fret about things like the size of their book, even if they’re offering both print and eBook options (which is highly recommended). You only really have to limit your word count if you’re submitting a short story with specific guidelines regarding length, since the editor needs to factor all that in when compiling a number of stories from various authors.
Generally speaking, when thinking of pitching your manuscript to an agent or editor, keep the following “rules” in mind when it comes to word count for each distinct category of fiction:
Flash Fiction: 53 - 1,000 words
Short Stories: 3,500 - 7,500
Novelettes: 7,500 - 17,000
Novellas: 17,000 - 40,000
Novels: 40,000 + words
But if you’re going it alone, the only practical impact of your book’s length comes in pricing. If you’re publishing via Kindle, you can still offer your book at .99 (for a smaller cut of the profits) rather than the suggested minimum costs Amazon requires if you want a bigger cut (70%) of each copy sold, which you’ll discover during the process of uploading and preparing your manuscript for publication.
The same metrics apply to print books. But artistically speaking, you have free reign, and in fact in this era of shortened/conflicted attention spans being bombarded with distractions and competition for immediate attention, many offering instant gratification, shorter books are actually coming back into style, big time.
It’s Not the Size That Matters
Historically speaking, many of literature’s most enduringly popular and influential books were actually quite short, and in fact if it weren’t for the established notoriety of their authors, would probably be rejected today as not being long enough for standard “beach reading.” A few famous examples: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
In more recent times, only bestselling celebrities like Stephen King could get away with publishing novellas, but those were typically bunched together in a package deal. And long ago, literary legends like Charles Dickens serialized very long books in magazines, and since they were paid by the word, why not pad ‘em out?
The main difference between the various formats of fiction lies in what a writer can accomplish given the distinguishing perimeters.
Novels allow for much more in-depth character exploration and expanded, even intertwining plotlines. Novelettes and novellas, however, are often not even broken into chapters, meant to be read in one sitting, and focus on a single character, situation or theme, providing more a more intense but less complex portrait of the subject.
This is how you decide how long or short your story should be. All the old rules have been tossed out the window. No need to jump out with them.
Listen to your own story. It will tell you when it’s time to stop.