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I am thinking of going down the self publishing path. Now looking at most agents and publishers websites, it seems the expected word count for most novels is around 70-90K. Now these word counts may have made sense in the traditional world, where books had to be printed, bound and shipped all over the world.

If I am self publishing in digital format. Do I still need to follow these arbitrary word count limits?

I ask, as I have a 60k novel, which is longer than a novella (50k words), but shorter than what agents expect. Originally, I was going to add another 10-15k words, mainly by adding more plot, and developing sub plots. But now, I'm wondering, is it worth the effort?

Do readers care for these word count limits? Is it worth me padding in the extra words, to meet the limit of traditional publishers, when I'm going to self publish?

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Important question - when you say "self-publishing", do you mean self-publishing an eBook? It's implied by your question (particularly distancing your case from "where books had to be printed"), but not stated explicitly. I'm editing on the assumption that that's your intention; please let us know if that's not the case. –  Standback May 20 '12 at 6:33
    
Word count expectations differ with genre! SF is usually on the long side (around 100k words) while Middle Grade Books are still perfect at 20k. So the first question is, what genre for which audience do you want to publish? –  what Jun 16 at 12:46

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

All that readers care about is that you present them with a well-crafted compelling story. Length is of minimal importance. Some of the best written and most memorable stories have well below 60- or even 50,000 words. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, Fight Club, and The Great Gatsby all have less than 60k words (Hitchhiker's only has about 46k). If your story is complete at 60k words, type two more, The End, and call it a day.

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My feeling is that you shouldn't add more words than the story needs to be told properly, regardless of how it's being published. Why pad it with garbage?

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You're quite correct in your assumption that digital publishing removes a lot of the necessity of typical length categories. Here's some things to bear in mind when coming to a decision.

There's no restriction except "what works well for the story." Traditional publishing is bound by all sorts of restrictions and best-practices - printing costs, shelf space, product appearance, etc. etc. You're free of those. All you have left is making sure that your story is as good as possible - including that its length is appropriate, that it works well.

However, length categories have also evolved for certain reasons. Writing practices, story structures, and reader expectations have all developed in concert with those length categories. What this means is that an odd length may (may) indicate that your novel is an "odd duck" of some sort. That's a sign that you should devote special attention to this topic - basically, making sure that if it is an odd duck, then that's for good reason, and the unusual element works well.

So consider the possibility that your book is too short (as you fear) or too long (a long novella, not a short novel). Feedback will help - be sure to ask specfically about structure and pacing. As long as those are OK, though, you're doing fine.

Once you've determined your length, be sure to market appropriately. Readers want a sense of what they're buying, and I don't know if you offer pagecount on ebooks. So do try and give a reasonable impression of how long the book is when you're marketing and publicizing it - readers might be jarred by a story much longer or much shorter than they're expecting.

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I don't fear my book is too short. I think it is the perfect length, and I was going to add extra words just for agents. –  Shantnu Tiwari May 20 '12 at 14:52
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@ShantnuTiwari: That's great! In that case, never do anything "just for the agents" unless absolutely necessary. If you don't see sense and benefit in it yourself, then even what might be valid guidelines won't be well-served by following them without seeing their point. Best of luck! –  Standback May 20 '12 at 16:18

Do not add unnecessary filler to your book. I agree with @Lauren, @Jed and @Standback here, but let me add one thing, because you want to self-publish: the price of your book.

Length may be arbitrary, but prices are arbitrary, too. Most people expect a certain price for a certain page/word count. Or at least to pay less for a 40k novel than for a 60k one.

So think carefully how much money you want for which word count. To get some ideas I suggest Smith's suggestions about pricing as a starting point.

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I thought about adding a blurb about charging less for a shorter work but then I realized that implied that length and not quality of content should be the driving force behind price. And while I know the feeling of being shortchanged by an overpriced and remarkably short e-book and a self-published novel, I still think that readers are more interested in the quality of the ride than how long it is. I'd much rather pay more for 40,000 words of awesome than 60,000 of dreck. Provide a good enough story and you can charge what you like; to charge less implies your work isn't as good. –  Jed Oliver May 20 '12 at 15:17
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@Jed, so you will tell people "look, I have that 40k novel and I charge you more for it, because it has a better quality than my 60k novel." I'm not sure if that works well for your 60k novel ... –  John Smithers May 20 '12 at 16:14
    
I think you need to price it appropriately - maybe slightly lower than a similar but longer novel. But it has to be your own strategy. If you think you can sell your book for £243, then do so. The problem of self-publishing is that you have to make these decisions for yourself. And live with the consequences. –  Schroedingers Cat May 20 '12 at 19:57
    
I think if you look at the prices of books on sale in a bookstore, books with comparable physical characteristics (hardcover/trade/paperback, prose/graphic novel, page size, length) have comparable prices. Publishers seem unwilling to announce to a potential reader “We think Book X isn’t as good as Book Y, so we’ll sell you X at a discount.” –  Seth Gordon Jun 16 at 15:54

Going on the assumption that you are talking about an e-book, I would say that the number of words doesn't matter as much, especially if you make sure that your potential readers know what they are getting in advance. My experience has been that more and more readers are starting to feel slighted if they spend $5.99 on a story they assumed to be a novel, only to find out it was a short-story. I have even seen some instances where books (not my own) are receiving very negative reviews because the reader was disappointed to find out that they got a lot less content-wise than they expected.

With a printed product, they can see how many pages there are and make a fair comparison. With an e-book, however, they have a more difficult time determining the length of the work. Sometimes they can gauge based on the file size, but more often than not the bulk of that file size is determined by the cover image, and not so much on the content.

Take the time to include some additional information in your description to let your potential readers know what they are getting. If you are trying to sell them a novella, then let them know that, and make sure to price your work accordingly. If you try to sell a shorter work for a higher price than the last full length book they bought, then you better have a really great story to keep the reader from feeling slighted!

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Thanks Steve. Amazon has a new feature, where they give an estimated page count for e-books. I guess we writers should give the word count in the description as well –  Shantnu Tiwari Jun 4 '12 at 20:20

"Do I still need to follow these arbitrary word count limits". Firstly, no, you don't have to -as a self-pubber, you're the publisher and you do what you want with your book. Secondly, as a reader, the reader decides whether your book suits his tastes, his expectations price-wise, quality-wise, length wise, etc. Thirdly, as a publisher of some 18 years standing, although I also started with similar feelings to yours, I can assure you that such limits/guidelines aren't arbitrary; they grow from experience and the realization that the reader's opinion is all that counts, if you want his money. The saying "customer is king" applies to books as well as other products.

Ebooks are much less restrictive than paper books but the reader is still the final arbiter, so it's well worth doing all one can to get the formula right.

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