Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing Even More Sacred Cows of Publishing: #1… Novels Must Be A Certain Length

Here we go… Book three in this series.



Both books are available everywhere in electronic, paper, and soon audio.

What I call a “Sacred Cow” is basically a myth spread around publishing like the truth. Myths such as “rewriting must be done for every story.” Myths such as “you need an agent to sell a book,” or “sell a book to a different country.” And so on.

You can either buy the first two books to get all twenty of the Sacred Cows, or just click on the tab above and read them here in their original blog posts for free.

For the first chapter, the first Sacred Cow in this new book, I’d like to take a stick and beat to death the silliness coming from all directions that novels must be a certain length. Usually I hear that a novel can’t be real unless it’s between 80,000 and 110,000 words.

Hogwash. And just a slight knowledge of history will cut the head off this silly myth.

So here we go once again into book three full of Sacred Cows of Publishing.

There sure are a lot of myths about publishing.

Sacred Cow #1: A Novel Must Be A Certain Length

You hear this myth spouted from almost every blog or young author or young editor at one point or another. The writers spouting this myth all go on about how a novel doesn’t have value, readers won’t like it, the author won’t feel complete unless the novel they write is at least 80,000 words long or longer.

Now granted, some stories need to be that long. Some.

But many, many novels are padded out and basically killed in quality because of this belief in a myth. I know, in over one hundred contracts with traditional publishing, I wrote to contract lengths and most of the books I wrote had to be padded out in one form or another to hit contract length.

I hated having to do that, but back in the 1990s and into this century, it was just the way life was.

I always believed that a story just needed to be the length the story wanted to be. Not some artificial length prescribed by contract or a false belief system.

So how did this silly practice and myth even get started?

Some History

As is the format of these Sacred Cows chapters, history explains a great deal about how a myth developed into a belief system in our modern world. And this myth has a creation of stunning stupidity.

Back in time, around the 1890s, there was a major rift that intensified the difference between “literature” and “stories for the masses.” That difference had always played out for centuries before as those who thought they were better than others often showed that superior attitude by buying thick leather books full of almost-impossible-to-read words.

The theory was that when something was hard to read and not fun, it had to be literature and thus it had to be good. For centuries, writers (now long forgotten) made money from that way of thinking. Usually patronage in one form or another supported them because supposedly it took great amounts of time to produce such difficult-to-read tomes. (That’s where the myth started of the longer a book takes to write, the better the quality of the book. That, of course, is another major myth. I covered that topic in another Sacred Cows chapter in another book.)

The unwashed masses wanted great stories, from the Dime Novels all the way into the pulps that started up in the 1890s and exploded into the next century. The great unwashed didn’t need to struggle over a story, they just wanted to be entertained.

The pulps existed up until the distribution collapse of the late 1950s, when the mass market paper replaced them completely as a way of getting cheap entertainment to the reading masses. (Mass market paperbacks had been around since the late 1930s, but only fully replaced pulps in the 1950s.) During those six or seven decades that the pulps ruled, they contained hundreds of thousands of novels and even more short stories.

The novel structure we know today was developed, for the most part, in the pulps. Entertainment story structure was worked out by the likes of Lester Dent and Max Brand and other great pulp writers. (Brand was a pen name of Frederick Faust. Dent wrote under many pen names including Kenneth Robeson.)

Novels in the pulps ranged in the 30,000 to 40,000 word length, almost without exception. A story around 20,000 words was called a short novel.

When paperbacks started to take over, almost all novels ranged in the same length, rarely topping out over 50,000 words. (Of course there were exceptions, but they were rare. And there were the excessively long literature novels published in leather as well.) And novels were still published in magazines, often serialized.

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.

So let me be clear here.

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.)

Wow, the dumbest thing I have ever heard. Accountants forcing artists to change the very form of their art.

And yet writers had to go along, or they didn’t get published by the only accepted method of publication. And honestly, most never noticed. The increase in contracted word count just slowly went up. Over more than a decade until the word count topped out at around 100,000 words for most standard entertainment novels.

I remember clearly hearing in the 1990s how anything longer than 15,000 words and under 70,000 words was unpublishable. Wow, how stupid was that?

Now granted, some genre novels remained shorter, in the 80,000 word length, and category westerns and romance novels remained in the 50,000 word length.

But for the most part, a new generations of writers just grew up thinking that books should be around 100,000 words to have value.

All because greedy publishers needed to justify keeping their profit margins high.

Some Examples of Novels Under 40,000 words

This is just a very short list of some of the novels published in the pulp magazines and in what were called “slick” magazines and in the early days of paperbacks up until traditional publishing started jamming the length up. There are also a couple of the modern examples that also managed to get through in book form for various reasons, sometimes included in collections.

In this modern world, in a few genres, these are now called novellas. When most of them were published, they were called novels.

Imagine any of these books forced by contract to be padded out to 100,000 words. Again, all of these are under 40,000 words. Some a large distance under.

  • J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country
  • John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?
  • Jack London’s The Call of the Wild
  • John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
  • George Orwell’s Animal Farm
  • Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
  • Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall
  • Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor
  • Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
  • Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
  • H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine
  • Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus
  • Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
  • Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans
  • Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
  • Joyce Carol Oates’s Black Water
  • Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
  • Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Violins of Saint-Jacques
  • Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart
  • Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives
  • John Steinbeck’s The Pearl
  • Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
  • Brandon Sanderson’s The Emperor’s Soul
  • Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It

(List from Wikipedia)

So Now What?

I write this in the early part of 2015 and thankfully, it’s a new world. Traditional publishers have lost control of just about all areas of publishing.

Indie and smaller press publishers can do books easily and quickly and get them distributed around the world and into bookstores.

Readers are slowly gaining control again by buying what they want when they want it, and for a reasonable price.

The traditional gatekeepers still require books of certain lengths to make a budget and price point.

Because of that freedom of indie and small presses, writers are finding themselves more and more just writing stories that are not bloated out to some imaginary “perfect” length.

Freedom to write, freedom to be an artist once again is returning to novelists. Thankfully. (It was a long three decades in the wilderness.)

In the last seventeen months, I have written seventeen novels, novels that I never would have been allowed to write in traditional publishing. All seventeen are between 40,000 and 55,000 words long. Why? The answer is simple.

I started reading as a kid in the 1950s and my formative years in reading were up until 1980 when I turned 30. Almost every book I read during those years was in the 40,000 word range. I read science fiction and mystery series such as the Travis McGee series. I collected old paperbacks and pulp magazines.

The classics of mystery and science fiction were written at the length of 40-50 thousand words or shorter. Blish, Budrys, Knight, Norton, Vance, Silverberg, Williamson, Boucher, McDonald, and so on and so on.

And as the economics of greed in traditional publishing forced writers to write longer, some very smart publishers  started publishing lines such as Ace Doubles that allowed two of the classic 40,000 word novels to be reprinted in one. Or the fantastic Doc Savage books were packaged with two or three of the old novels in a paperback to make the price right for the publisher.

So what now?


Writers can write what we want, at any length we want.

If a story needs to be told at longer word counts, write it.

If a story is done at 40,000 words or less, write it.

The days of traditional publishing greed to try to sell books at higher prices is just about over. And the new world of allowing writers to write what we want is dawning.

So next time you hear someone spouting how all novels have to be 100,000 words to be right, just laugh and walk away. You now know that the only reason novels got that long was because publishers needed to raise prices to support their bloated businesses and high overheads.

And then write the story you want to write, at the length you want to write to make the story the best story it can be.

And, oh yeah, have fun.


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  • Gabriel Land

    This article neglects to mention the influence display racks had on the transition to paperbacks from pulps. Pulps were folded over, paperbacks were bound. Paperbacks can be displayed from their binding, a novella not so much as they are so thin. Retailers and merchants wanted to get more product on display, and publishers wanted to increase sales to so physically, a paperback made more sense as it placed more titles on less shelf space.

    • dwsmith

      Uh, Gabriel, all Pulps were bound and had titles on the spines. Not sure what you meant. Also, the display racks were already in place for the pulps, including spinners being used for comics by the late 1940s as well.