Wordsrated recently published research findings that bestselling books are getting shorter over time. After analyzing over 3,400 New York Times bestselling titles, the decrease in length between 2011 and 2021 is very noticeable:
However, the literary world is not a stranger to short(er) books. Some of English literature’s most beloved books of the last century are extremely short: Sula by Toni Morrison (192 pages), Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (159 pages), The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (127 pages), We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (160 pages), The Great Gatsby (166 pages) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Animal Farm by George Orwell (110 pages) and many, many more.
With recent traditionally published bestsellers from the last couple of years clocking in at 350 pages or less, the reading trend across genres has ticked downward, though it is most notably in literary and contemporary fiction. To illustrate, in just the last year (2021), “only 38% of bestselling books were more than 400 pages long, which is a 29.5% decline compared to 2011.”
Keep in mind, however, that genre fiction like romance and mystery/thriller have almost always skewed toward the shorter side. Of course, there are always exceptions, but short, sweet reads and quick, punchy plots have been a standard of these genres for some time. This shows the limits of research like this that focuses almost solely on literary fiction. It would be interesting to see if reading trends in terms of length of books in these areas have changed over the years!
Regardless, this information is key in understanding how the a portion of North America’s population reads, which, although not all-encompassing, has its impacts on writers and publishers around the world. If the trend has skewed towards shorter novels, will we see the return of the novella?
So, what does this mean for you, the writer? Should you be working on cutting down, shaving off those extra sentences, and telling your editor to be harsher than ever? Well, yes and no.
Ultimately, it’s important to pay attention to reading trends – not just content and sales trends – if you want to make the most out of your authorial career. Being aware of why a reader might choose to read a 200 page title vs. a 500 page title is important; for example, Wordsrated found that readers buy longer books in the winter: “January and December are the months when readers buy the longest books. Bestselling books are on average 35.2 pages shorter from April – July compared to October – March.”
Maybe your fantasy epic would best be published in November to catch those winter readers, while those of you writing short and succinct stories should schedule their publication for the summer. Be aware of how sales of romance and mystery titles (most of them, again, falling on the shorter side) rise during the warmer months and be sure to keep an eye on how specific genre sales rise and fall during the rest of the year.
But what makes a novella vs. a novel? Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, which is awarded to a novel – but, technically, as it is less than 40,000 words, what he wrote was a novella. Novellas and their poetic cousins, novels in verse, are usually 15,000 words minimum with a 40,000-word maximum, but some can go as low as 10,000 or as high as 60,000. At the end of the day, the choice is yours, though no one will be fooled if you call your high fantasy volume or historical epic a novella if it rings in at 100,000 words or more!
Discussion around novels and novellas continues, but at the end of the day, marketing your short novel as a novel is going to prove more effective. Readers often don’t care for details such as specific definition: a novel of 200 pages marked as a novella is most likely going to sell the same as a novel not marked as such. Page count is more important than word count to most readers; it’s a lot easier to conceptualize the amount of time it would take to read 100 pages than it would, say, 45,000 words. There’s no need to stress yourself out when it comes to reaching that word count! But if its important to you, check out these planning tips to make your writing experience that much easier.
And, remember, a short book does not a bestseller make. Trends are almost always subverted at some point, and lengthy books exist alongside the shorter ones on those coveted bestseller spots. Writing what feels best for your story as well as your schedule and output is, ultimately, going to make for the best experience for both you as the author and your adoring readers.