Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • I don't understand book lengths. How can books have the same number of pages but have different word counts?
    It's one of those clever - and necessary - sleights of hand by the production people.

    I like to place a bet with readers (which I've always won so far, so never be tempted to lay down your money) that they can't estimate the word count of a novel. Unless they're skilled at something called "casting off" - working out word count on a printed page and applying that to a book - they generally look at the thickness and physical size of the book. And they guess wrong.

    Book word counts vary wildly - ORDER 66 is 190,000 words, pretty well twice as long as the average novel. How does a publisher deal with that in an established format?

    Books need to be a predictable size; they have to be manufactured to a price, stored, transported and displayed. Then they have to fit on home bookshelves. People tend to like books that are easy to read, handle, and store. We generally like and need novels to be certain sizes. If you picked up a diary-sized novel in a series one day and the sequel was the size of a family bible, you'd probably find that annoying. I know many readers won't buy hardcovers and wait for mass market paperback editions simply because the regular size of "MMPBs" fits their bookcase, or is easier to carry around.

    So, production editors and typographers do a very clever job of smoothing out that big variation using white space and font sizes to get more words on each page - or fewer. They're so good at doing it that a manuscript of 100,000 words can be made into a book that is identical in overall size to one up to twice the length. Don't believe me? Pick a few books at random, do a word count, and then look at the appearance of the pages. You won't notice it unless you're looking for it.

    I turn in long books. It's just the way I write - with a few exceptions in specific circumstances, my novels are between 150,000 and 190,000 words. The average mass market novel comes in at between 80,000 and 110,000. But I don't know many readers who've spotted that. They shouldn't, to be fair. The typesetting will disguise much of it. And then there's pacing. Even though my books are long, they're a fast read; there are lots of characters, lots of scene changes, and no spare words. They're densely packed with information and they cover a lot of ground. So readers tell me they can rip through them in a day or so. When I tell them they've read the equivalent of two novels, they're often surprised. A shorter novel can seem a lot longer because it's written "slow."

    Page count doesn't mean a thing. It doesn't tell you how much book you're getting for your money. And, to be brutal, if your evaluation of any book is based on how many words you get rather than the impact it has on you and how well it's written - well, that's just dumb. Sorry, but it is. It's not like a pound of apples for 50 pence being better value than a pound for 75 pence. You're not being short-changed if you get a shorter novel. And left wanting more is not being short-changed. It's what good books are supposed to do.

    My novels are immersive - readers tell me they get wholly absorbed in them - but that's not because they're long. It's because of the way I write them.

    So don't get hung up about counting pages. A book is as long as it needs to be to tell the story. Just open it, and enjoy.

    ©Karen Traviss 2008