Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Should You Write Short?

I’m doing a series of Wednesday posts discussing my career decisions and the reasons behind them. Last week I talked about committing to indie publishing. Now I’ll go into some specific details.

Decision #2: Write shorter books.

When I wrote Rattled, I was planning on submitting traditionally. I targeted 85,000 words, which is on the short end of what most publishers will accept for a genre novel. (The exception being Category Romance, where 60,000 words is standard.)

Now that I’m focused on self-publishing, I’m targeting my books at 60,000 words. Here are the reasons I’m going shorter:

  • Shorter books are faster to write. When I’m working hard on a novel, I try to write 10,000 words per week (though it doesn’t always happen, especially when I have too many paid jobs). Add in the extra editing time for a longer book, and 60,000 words saves me at least three weeks over an 85,000-word book. More books published equals more potential income. Writing shorter books may allow me to increase my output from three books per year to four. (Don’t bother trying to make the math work – I have to take breaks in between the books to catch up on paid work, and then there’s always delays due to illness, travel etc.)

  • Shorter books are cheaper to print. For print on demand, my total cost is dependent on the number of pages. It’s not a huge difference, but Rattled has a minimum price of $9.68 (meaning I need to price the book higher than that to make any money on it in certain distribution channels). Whispers in the Dark has a minimum price of $8.65. Shorter books mean I make more profit per book on print on demand copies. (Or I could price them lower if I thought I would bring in more sales.) If I wrote an even longer book – say 110,000 words – I’d have to price it above $9.99, and once you go over that $10 threshold, sales should drop, if you believe that research on shopping behavior.

People like fat paperbacks because they take longer to read. It’s the airport theory – If you’re going to get on a plane for a long trip, you want a book that will last the whole trip. Plus, people feel like they’re getting more for their money with a longer book. These visual cues disappear with digital copies. You don’t want to make the book too short, because if people think they’re buying a full-length novel and they get a novella, they can get angry – and take it out on you in their reviews. But the advantage to writing a very long book goes away.

What if you have a very long story to tell? Or what about genres such as adult fantasy, where incredibly long books are the norm? Even then, you may be better off splitting a long book into several shorter ones, releasing them individually, and then offering the complete trilogy at a discount over buying the three books separately. (For example, release each individual e-book at $3.99, and then release the complete trilogy in one book for $9.99.) With digital publishing, especially indie publishing, people don’t like to pay high prices. They might not want to pay so much for a single title, but they’ll feel like they are getting a deal with a discount for the set.

The last point I want to make is a bit more theoretical. I read some comments recently on how all the time we spend on the computer and digital devices is changing our reading patterns. People are more likely to skim over news stories or blog posts. We expect and like shorter sound bites.

It seems reasonable that this might translate into a preference for shorter books, especially in digital format. With a paperback, you always have the visual cue of how much story you have left. Digital readers may have a bar marking the percent of the story you’ve finished, but it doesn’t seem quite the same. (And for myself, when I glance down and see that I’ve only read six percent, I sometimes get a sense of dismay that I’m only that far along, a feeling that never comes from getting through the first chapter of a paperback.)

As people get used to shorter online news stories, skimming through blog posts, reading Facebook updates and super-short Tweets, a long book might start to feel “too long” and therefore a bit slow and dull, whereas a short book may cater better to our restlessness.

So, those are my reasons for writing shorter. Any thoughts on my logic? What do your own reading experiences tell you? As a writer, do you have a preference?

I should note that given my background in writing for children, shorter books come more naturally to me. I would never cut out important story elements or great plot twists in order to come in shorter. It’s more a matter of not searching for additional plot twists and subplots in order to lengthen a book. (See my post on Making Muscular Action! for advice on how I once nearly doubled the length of a manuscript.)


  1. I am enjoying this series. And I'm sharing to my group page. Thanks, Chris!

  2. Thanks, Karen! Glad to share my "making it up as I go along" process.

  3. Chris! My husband and I have been talking about creating shorter books for a long time now! I TOTALLY agree with everything you have said and am implementing it in my writing.

    When I was younger and had more time, I didn't mind staying up all night and into the next day reading a book. Now, I have seven children and a lot of stuff to do. I resent longer works. I want to read a book in a few hours and go about my day. I don't want to be chained to a book because the publisher was insistent upon word count. As a writer, (even as a reader) I can pick out descriptions, plots, characters, etc., that was added just to meet a word count--it's wasteful!

    I have a friend who refused a contract with a publisher because they wanted him to add 15,000 words to his book. He knew it would be a mistake and published the book on his own.

    Here's to shorter books!

  4. Thanks, Charmaine. I'm glad to hear that your experience as a reader echoes mine. And seven children -- wow! I'm impressed that you can ever find even a few hours for a book.