A Short List of Short Novels

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 …

Author Title Published
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?

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