According to Dean Wesley Smith, the 80,000 word (or longer) novel was an invention of Big Publishing. A typical novel in the 1930s and 1940s was in the 30,000 to 40,000 word range, with stories of 20,000 words being called “short novels”. The popularisation of paperbacks in the late 1940s and 50s did little to change that with typical novels rarely exceeding 50,000 words.
This lasted up until the 1980s when costs of traditional publishers started to rise. Shipping costs and a run-away returns system were just two of the major factors that drove publisher costs up. Also, since publishers remained in the high prices of New York City, the overhead of publishers shot up as well.
So as costs of publishers went up, the prices of books needed to go up or people would have to lose their jobs and their offices in New York.
So traditional publishers hit on a perfect idea to help readers not be angry at them for raising book prices. Simply make the books thicker.
The publishers, in author contracts, slowly forced authors to write longer and longer books over the decade of the 1980s and into the 1990s.
My first book contract in 1987 had a required length of 60,000 to 70,000 words. By the time I wrote my last traditional book, the contract wanted a book of over 90,000 words.Dean Wesley Smith, Killing Even More Sacred Cows of Publishing…
He adds (in bold too!):
Publishers forced writers to write longer books, not to make the books better, but to justify their need to raise book prices because of other costs. (Paper and printing were cheap, so most of the extra costs were in overhead and could be made up with just fatter books.)Dean Wesley Smith, Killing Even More Sacred Cows of Publishing…
Elsewhere, Smith explained how writers of his generation handled the new length requirements using what he calls “plot loops”:
[I wrote a] hundred plus books … under contract for traditional publishers. They required things to be longer because they needed to charge more money for the books, so a 40,000 word story had to be 70,000 words or longer. So I got real good at having characters go off to do things and then come back to basically the same point without readers noticing and while making it interesting.Dean Wesley Smith, Day Nine of a Seven Day Novel Challenge
These days, Smith’s books typically range between 35,000 and 55,000 words:
It’s what I grew up reading, it’s a wonderful length to tell a complex story.Dean Wesley Smith, 12/21/16 Daily
And naturally, he’s indie-exclusive:
… when I left that crap of traditional writers being forced to write a story a certain length no matter what the story needed to be, I swore I wouldn’t do them again.Dean Wesley Smith, 12/21/16 Daily
What are some examples of what we would today call novella-length novels? Here are some interesting examples from Wikipedia, none of which exceed 40,000 words …
|Anthony Burgess||A Clockwork Orange||1962|
|Albert Camus||The Stranger||1942|
|Truman Capote||Breakfast at Tiffany’s||1958|
|Joseph Conrad||Heart of Darkness||1899|
|Charles Dickens||A Christmas Carol||1843|
|Fyodor Dostoyevsky||The Gambler||1867|
|George Eliot||Silas Marner||1861|
|Gabriel García Márquez||Chronicle of a Death Foretold||1981|
|Graham Greene||The Tenth Man||1985|
|Ernest Hemingway||The Old Man and the Sea||1952|
|Henry James||The Turn of the Screw||1898|
|James Joyce||The Dead||1914|
|Franz Kafka||The Metamorphosis||1915|
|Doris Lessing||The Fifth Child||1988|
|Thomas Mann||Death in Venice||1912|
|Richard Matheson||I Am Legend||1954|
|Iris Murdoch||Something Special||1957|
|Herman Melville||Billy Budd||1924|
|George Orwell||Animal Farm||1945|
|Annie Proulx||Brokeback Mountain||1997|
|Thomas Pynchon||The Crying of Lot 49||1966|
|Jean Rhys||Wide Sargasso Sea||1966|
|Philip Roth||Goodbye, Columbus||1959|
|Francoise Sagan||Bonjour, Tristesse||1954|
|Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn||One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich||1962|
|Muriel Spark||The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie||1961|
|John Steinbeck||Of Mice and Men||1937|
|Robert Louis Stevenson||Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde||1886|
|Leo Tolstoy||The Death of Ivan Ilyich||1886|
|H. G. Wells||The War of the Worlds||1898|
|Edith Wharton||Ethan Frome||1911|
So do you really need more than 40,000 words to tell a good yarn? What do you think?