I don’t like long books. I don’t like to write them, and I don’t like to read them. Unless it’s a Robert Jordan (R.I.P.) book, I try to avoid reading books that are more than 150-200 pages long.
By long, I mean pretty much anything over 100k words. The shorter the better. I like the standard definition of novel sitting at 50k words. Seems like a reasonable length in which to tell an entertaining story.To me, anything far above that is just excessive.
Lately, I’ve developed such an aversion to long reads that I now browse the young adult section looking for science fiction books as often as I’m in the adult section. Young adult books are usually shorter, and the story moves faster. They’re just generally more entertaining and don’t require a large investment of time to read. And over the last few years, I’ve noticed an irritating trend: adult science fiction books being repackaged and marketed to young adults. The adult science fiction books are appearing in the young adult section. Irritates the heck out of me.
I’ve also begun turning more and more toward the “classic” science fiction and fantasy books, pre-mid-seventies. The average science fiction book was a lot shorter back then. And since, in most cases, they’re not too dated, they’re still good reads, and take a lot less of my time.
One of the reasons I decided to go the self-publishing route is that I don’t want to turn out the massive tomes that the big publishing houses seem to require, a requirement that appears to have been put in place in the mid-1970s (see below). I’d rather write two or three 50-60k-word books a year than one well-padded 100k+ book. I’ve got a very short attention span, and by the time I hit 50k words, I’m pretty much bored with the idea and ready to move on to my next project. I don’t think I can muster enough stamina to stay interested in an idea for 120k+ words. Maybe I have ADHD or something, but if I were forced to write a book that long, I’d probably never finish anything.
Here is my evidence in support of the upward trend in book length over the decades. These are actual word counts for books that I consider representative of the science fiction and fantasy genres over the last four or five decades.
I, Robot (1950) Isaac Asimov 69,000 words
Foundation (1951) Isaac Asimov 67,000 words
Foundation Isaac Asimov 66,000 words
The Dying Earth (1951) Jack Vance 53,00 words
Solaris (1961) Stanislaw Lem 67,000 words
Waystation (1963) Clifford D. Simak 70,000 words
The Eyes of the Overworld (1965) Jack Vance 65,000 words
The Book of Three (1964) Lloyd Alexander 47,000 words
Tarnsman of Gor (1966) John Norman 67,000 words
The Masks of Time (1968) Robert Silverberg 81,000 words
Across a Billion Years (1969) Robert Silverberg 64,000 words
Ringworld (1970) Larry Niven 104,000 words
Rendezvous With Rama (1972) Arthur C. Clarke 71,000 words
In the Ocean of Night (1977) Gregory Benford 102,000 words
Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977) Jack L. Chalker 124,000 words
The Sword of Shannara (1977) Terry Brooks 229,000 words
Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) Stephen Donaldson 161,000 words
Startide Rising (1983) David Brin 138,000 words
Cugel’s Saga (1983) Jack Vance 105,000 words
Star of Gypsies (1986) Robert Silverberg 151,000
Weaveworld (1987) Clive Barker 201,000
Araminta Station (1987) Jack Vance 194,000 words
Hyperion (1989) Dan Simmons 169,000 words
The Eye of the World (1990) Robert Jordan 302,000 words
The Real Story (1991) Stephen Donaldson 51,000 words
Virtual Light (1993) William Gibson 85,000
The Engines of God (1994) Jack McDevitt 132,000 words
The Time Ships (1995) Stephen Baxter 161,000 words
Perdido Street Station (2000) China Meiville 226,000
You can see the trend. The word count starts in the range of 60k average in the 1950s and rises above 100k in the mid-1970s and into an average of 150k and above in the mid-1980s onward. The word counts just march steadily upwards, with a rare back-step. Nowadays, the reader is hard-pressed to find a book below 150k words. For me as a reader, if a book is that long, that's one strike against it. The early writers of science fiction were so prolific not only because they probably wrote faster, but the books were about one third the length they are today.
I may be wrong, but I think attitudes toward short books have changed as well, so that shorter books are now regarded as somehow inferior to, or as having less literary validity than, longer books. But would anyone dare to claim that the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg are inferior to modern-day writers? Robert Silverberg is both a “classic” science fiction author and a modern-day author, and his novels have followed the upward trend in length.
I think one of the trends of this new age of digital publishing is going to be shorter books. They take less time for the author to write, and they’ll probably be more entertaining for the reader, since shorter length will probably equal faster pacing. I think those unwieldy multi-thousand-word counts were forced on both the writers and the reading public, and they’re quickly going to fade away.