It’s not the size that counts… Is it?

I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the size of books (not whatever it is you were thinking when you read the heading!), and whether the number of pages (word count) affects my decision to buy/read them. I was planning an in-depth, objective post on the subject, possibly ending by comparing published novel length, my own preferences and my own writing style…

And then Stephen Watkins went and beat me to it. (Damn you, Watkins! :))

He took a look at some of the more popular and well-known series and books, and how their word count compares to the industry “standard” and the guidelines offered by agents and publishers. His conclusion is that many best-sellers are longer than these word limits, and he extrapolates some further conclusions from that. Click over and read his whole article — it’s really interesting, informative, and incredibly long (thus proving his own point about word length).

I can’t compete with his researched, reasoned argument. What I can do is share my own opinion, and then ask for yours.

Back when I was in my teens and early twenties, I loved long books. It was all about “value for money”, and when I say money I really mean time. (Although sometimes $$ mattered as well.) When I went to the library or the bookshop, I wanted big, solid, long books. I wouldn’t have even picked up a thin book. If I was going to invest time in getting to know characters or a world (especially considering it was usually Sci Fi or Fantasy), then I wanted it to count. I wanted to stay with those characters, in that world, for as long as possible. If a book wasn’t long enough on its own, its only potential saving grace would be if it was part of a series.

So I was in my early teens when I read some of my favourite books and series of all time, including Clive Barker’s Imajica, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series (both of them), Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles and, of course, Lord of the Rings.

I own and will reread these books/series at the drop of a hat. BUT now that I’m at a different point in my life, there’s absolutely no way that I’d pick up any of these books if I hadn’t already read them. Because they’re just too damn long.

Any Stay at Home Mum will tell you that looking after 2 kids, a husband, a house, and all the related stuff is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. Plus, I write. Plus, I’m looking for part-time work. My time is precious and all-too-little. So when I pick up a book, I need to know that I’m going to be able to read it and enjoy it.

Bigger books tend to have more characters, more sub-plots, and more complications. They take a longer investment of time and mental energy to read. Considering I can only spare 30 – 60 minutes a day to read in between doing other things, a 300 page novel only takes me 3 or 4 days to read. But a huge 1000 page novel would take me 3 weeks, because every time I pick it up again I have to try to remember who everyone was, and what was happening.

(As a note, this is why I can reread long books I’ve already read. I know what’s happening, so there’s less mental gymnastics required even if I only read 1 chapter a day.)

These days I generally read books that are about 250-300 pages long. I’ll sometimes go out on a limb for something that looks absolutely fantastic, but it’s very rare. 

Perhaps when the boys are a bit older, I’ll go back to reading bigger books again, but it’s just not possible right now.

What about you: Longer? Shorter? Or it’s not the size that counts, it’s how the story’s told?


Filed under Opinion, Reading, Writing

5 responses to “It’s not the size that counts… Is it?

  1. For me, it’s seriously not the size that counts. I prefer how the story is told. I used to think the longer the better, but that’s not the case now. One of my favorite books is a novella-length story. I’ll read whatever sounds good to me, and if it’s written well, I’m more likely to keep reading. Long books do tend to get in my way. I’m usually pressed for time as well, so even novella-length books take me at least a week to read now when they used to take me a night. Then again, I don’t mind taking a while to read books now because I get to stay connected to the story and characters a bit longer. 😉

  2. I really don’t consider the length of the book when I’m choosing one. All I care about is being engaged in the writing once I start reading. I guess I don’t mind having to take a couple of minutes to remember what was going on and who the characters are, and I definitely have to do that with some books. But if I’m enjoying the story, I guess I just consider this to be part of the price for that enjoyment.

    Granted, my son is in high school, so I’m not juggling the kind of caregiving that you are. But I honestly don’t remember ever deciding not to buy or check out a book because it was long.

  3. Even as an adult; particuarly one with a limited cash supply; I still feel the value for money question is important (eg I flat out refused by buy Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner’ Novella because it was $14 for about 150 pages; I borrowed it from the library instead). Lately, I have switched to buying e-books because of the better value for money (I am going to ask Santa for a Kindle) and to get my paperback hit I go to the library 🙂 Sorry, I got off topic.

  4. I’ve always resisted the “value for money” argument for longer books. I had friends back in the early 1970s who always went to see a band called Hot Tuna, because Hot Tuna gave the longest concerts. They played for hours and hours. So, more value for the money. But there were bands that I liked better, so I went to see those bands instead, even if the concerts were shorter.

    And, in general, I value concision. One of the main aspects of writing well is knowing what to throw out. Not that I’m against long books, but they need to justify the length. The same with long movies.

    When people complained about how long the movie Nixon was, Oliver Stone defending himself by saying, “Hey. Citizen Kane is long.” Actually, no. Thanks to, I can point out that Nixon is 192 minutes lone, and Citizen Kane is a mere 119 minutes. Kane has just as much content as Nixon, but it’s much better made, without all the fluff and padding and pointless repetition.

    Also, as Jody points out, length matters less and less the more the world goes to e-books (and I’m not entirely clear how length will even be measured, since obviously page count will be irrelevant — willl casual readers start talking about word count?).

  5. Well, you sort of already know my thinking on the subject. (I wouldn’t take that blog post back even if I could – though maybe I’d think a little more about whether it could be split up into multiple posts…)

    I will add this, though, as it may not have been clear from my post: my argument is not meant to be and ought not to be construed as an argument in favor of quantity (i.e. higher wordcounts) over quality. The quantity don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. 200 pages of clear, thrilling, engrossing, engaging, and interesting whatever is clearly superior to 1,000 pages of boring, pointless, and stultifying. My argument was made in an “all other factors held equal” condition – which I why I noted the caveat about writing longer not necessarily equating to writing better; I was trying to stave off criticism of my argument based on a question of quality because I was specifically looking at the question of quantity. Although, it should be said, that quantity is, itself, a quality of the work, and certain types of work that aim achieve certain other potentially desireable qualities would be hard-pressed to do so without also incurring an impressive quantity of wordcount to go with it. Anyway.

    I find Anthony’s question an interesting one – because historically “wordcount” has not been a measure or quality that readers have been interested in. Length has more typically measured in “pagecount” at the reader-level perspective. But in an age of e-readers, where a page of text can vary in length based on user-level settings such as font typeface and size and kerning and so on… pagecount becomes pretty meaningless… because then it’s “pagecount given this font and this size aand this kerning and so on” and that’s not a meaningful metric to a reader. So yes… I think over time there will be a greater trend to reporting wordcounts, because over time that will be the more meaningful and useful metric to consumers interested in length as a quality of their fiction. I can already see it in some of the stats Amazon is beginning to report, as a few books now have the wordcount measure available in addition to the pagecount measure.

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