Mention a number to writer who’s been at the craft for a while and you’ll probably get a Pavlovian response in word count.
700? Flash fiction.
3,000? Standard main-stream magazine short story length. 8,000? The “one-per-issue” exception if the fiction editor likes your work.
15,000? Novelette. 25,000? Novella. 50,000? Short novel, a slim volume you might be able to sell to an unsuspecting—or forgiving—public.
75,000? Industry accepted minimum length for a debut novel, about 300 paperback pages.
150,000? Unless you’re Stephen King or George R. R. Martin: an agent’s rejection slip followed by a suggestion to find a good editor.
Despite the immense spread, however, these numbers have two things in common: they are the industry-accepted perceptions of what the public desires for a “good read” at particular moments. And they are all restrictions imposed on story-telling by the physical limitations of the medium in which they are delivered.
The Finite Wordstream
Let’s put aside the first point for a moment. The second is an interesting thing to ponder for a second. Short stories are, well…short, because historically magazines were expensive to print. Putting out 35 glossy pages every month is costly and it took years of experimentation for publishers to triangulate the sweet spot of issue length, reader interest, and expense. The formula they arrived at allowed for three to five 3,000 word short stories with room left over for a novel excerpt, a couple of book reviews, and a letter from the editor.
At the other end of the scale is the novel. 75,000 words translates nicely into a 300 page paperback which, when placed on a bookstore shelf, has a one-to-two inch spine that is narrow enough to leave room for the latest 480 page New York Times best seller release and long enough to keep a customer from feeling cheated.
Anything in-between these lengths (the long short, the novelette, the novella) was eventually found to be either too long or too short—and here’s the point of this article—physically. It either didn’t meet the compressed economics of a magazine or it didn’t give value on the bookstore shelf by merit of its heft.
The Missing Link
The much more important half of the equation, reader satisfaction, has been the poor, unwashed cousin in this relationship. Our tastes in literature over the last century have been shaped as much by the 300 page standard as they have by story-telling, literary merit, or creative genius. Or, put another way, since those attributes can be shoe-horned into a predetermined, one-size-fits-most model driven by economics…they have.
What’s changed? Electronic publishing. Certainly, the old tropes of historic publishing remain—the feel and smell of a book, the pleasure of holding it, the sense of tradition you get sitting by a fire with a novel. This isn’t the place to argue those points (which I agree with, anyway). But if epublishing has done one thing—and it’s done more—in the field of literature, it’s that it has broken the chains of physical limitation on the creative process of writing.
In a digital medium, format as expressed by word count is not just irrelevant, it’s meaningless. It’s like asking someone how much air they breath. A lot? A little? The important thing is that you’re breathing. Old monikers like short story and novella begin to slip away. And with that side of the equation gone, what are we left with?
The only thing that should matter: reader satisfaction.