On the length of fiction

As writers, we often forget (until rent day or tax time) that we’re part of an industry that has supply and demand forces, same as others. We need to forget that to make art. But what happens when the art doesn’t fit the model?

This article looks at the novel and the novella and asks which forces decide which length it’s going to be: from perceived value to expense to pricing to format changes. A neat piece.

I have now written most of two novels as well as a whole bunch of short stories. Some of my short stories are very short, and some run to 40+ pages. But don’t worry, they’re not very good and I won’t publish them.

That said, the mainstream novel I started many years ago petered out around 275 pages, with an estimated 50 pages left to write. My fantasy novel that I was bombing along on until Covid hit is sitting in stasis at 400 pages, with probably 200 more to go. And that’s part of a trilogy. Why is one so much longer than the other?

Is it because I grew up reading fantasy trilogies and have subconsciously mimicked that in my fantasy book (along with 250-300 page “literary” books in my 20s being responsible for the other?) Or does the market just want those sorts of lengths? (Whenever Ms. Ninja edits my fantasy novel, she tries to cut, to speed things up, to make the book leaner and meaner, and while I get that impulse, I have to explain to her that fantasy readers WANT lore and backstory and digression to look at something cool “over there”. You seldom see a slender adult fantasy novel for a reason.)

And this leads to the question: is there still a place for more succinct pieces? No one really buys them, I suppose, so there’s no real rush to publish them.

The novel is an extremely flexible form. It can come out in countless shapes, include infinite content, and end up almost any length. Let’s call the lower limit of a novel 40,000 words. Long novels like Infinite Jest and The Stand are more than 10 times that length, and that’s not even getting into series or In Search of Lost Times type works that are published in dozens or more volumes. So why are most novels published in a relatively narrow range of 60k to 120k words?

Or to put it another way: why doesn’t anyone publish novellas in America? Novellas as a form thrive in many parts of the world. They’re very popular in Latin America and Korea, and hardly uncommon in Europe. Yet it’s almost impossible to find one in America outside of the translated small press shelf.

One thought on “On the length of fiction

  1. Interesting article, though it seems to me that there are a ton of authors in the SFF world who have been releasing novellas in the last few years. Some of the novellas are from small presses like Subterranean, but Tordotcom has a thriving line of novellas with ever-increasing price points. They started at $2.99, got a price jump to $3.99 early on, and now prices of newer novellas range from $5.99 to $13.99.


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