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How long is too long?


One of the things that I struggle with (as a writer) is book length. I’m a Fantasy / SF writer and most of the books that I grew up reading in those genres were either big, thick epics – Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, Dune, Magician – or they were series – The Belgariad / Malloreon, The Tamuli, The Shannara series, Discworld, Dragons of Pern. Many of the Stephen King books I liked to read were of the doorstop variety, as were the historicals like Chesapeake or Shogun.

So I was used to reading stories with long story arcs, lots of characters and events. Inevitably, when I started writing, it was to those writers that I turned to for advice on how to structure my books and how long to make chapters etc.

My first book (currently on it’s fourth or fifth version, and no, I won’t release it until I’m happy with it either…) came in at a whopping 180,000 words, which is approximately 800 pages long in page format.
When I showed it to a couple of writers and editors I’d met online, the one thing that always came back was “It’s too long.” So I took them at their word and broke it into three books of  60,000 words. Then, I sent out a couple of tentative queries… only to be told that “Publishers aren’t interested in epic fantasy series at the moment.”

Yes, I cried. And threw the biggest temper tantrum I could.  And threw the Manuscript into a box and forgot about it and writing for a long while.

This was in 1998… two years after GRR Martin had “The Game of Thrones”published… a coincidence? Probably…

When I started writing again, I went back into it  by writing short stories, then I moved up to Novellas. I learned to write to the length of the story that wanted to be told, not to an arbitrary word count (unless you’re writing for an anthology where the editor needs to keep the word count per story to a particular length – or if you’re writing Flash Fiction) and then fit the finished, edited story into a particular book length; not the other way around.

So when I started publishing my own books through KDP / Smashwords, they tended to be novella length, sometimes longer.  Actually you can tell what time of year my books were written at – anything novella and under wasn’t written in November.

NaNoWriMo has a lot to answer for… *grins*

With my current publishing project – The Tower and The Eye – my Editor and I decided to put all five books into a single volume. That’s four novellas (that had already been published by me) and a single novel length book. I’d always intended to publish the five as one once all five books had been finished, as an “Omnibus Edition”.

But the spectre of word length reared its ugly head with me again… shades of rejection from that first experience… yes I know, this time I have a publisher interested in it  and committed to publishing it, so I shouldn’t worry.


So I went looking for what READERS think it the right length (not publishers) and I got as many answers as there are romance novels with half naked men on them…

So I thought I would ask my followers what they think.

Yes, that’s you lot – stop looking around…

As READERS, What length should a good book be in your opinion? Does the expectation change with Genre or Format?

3 thoughts on “How long is too long?”

  1. Mandy, I don’t have much experience with publishers, but it does seem to me that with modern technology, they can be much more flexible with book lengths, at least with e-books. Like you, I write to the length of the story, not to a word count. Having said that, it’s probably more common to overwrite than underwrite, and a bit of trimming can often improve flow and pace. But not to the extent of losing important background or character development.

    So, regardless of genre or format, if the story grips me I’ll read as much as there is of it, and perhaps want more!

    1. That’s pretty much what I thought. When you google “How long should a book be” you get two different answers though.
      The first tends to be from other writers / editors / publishers who are specifying lengths for novellas etc.
      The second comes from readers and when I was researching it, there were some that didn’t care, some that wouldn’t read more than 70k and some that only read e books, so they hadn’t paid attention to the page length that amazon puts up in the book details.

  2. With the advent of boxed sets, some word counts can be very high. If you have five novellas, and between them that’s (say) 25k each = 125k words, that’s fine. So is 150k. Or whatever. It gets a bit harder if you want a print version, though. Production costs will be huge.

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