Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Size Matters or… Does the Word Count Speak Volumes About a Book?

photo credit – Tom Murphy VII (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a slow reader and I prefer reading short books. I often find long books associated with poorly structured stories, with muddled middles, containing pages and pages of impenetrable narrative.

It is extremely hard to write cohesive long stories without succumbing to one or the other sins of fiction. The old masters like Tolstoy and Hugo justified that by creating the chronicles of their times. Other literary writers also put a couple of philosophical or psychological studies into their novels.

Long literary novels have been scarecrows for kids at school, take War and Peace or Genji Monogatari. Yet, at the same time, long genre novels are actually more popular than their shorter counterparts. The heftier the book, the bigger its chance to become a bestseller. Smashwords’ Mark Corker reports that the average word count of books in the top 100 bestseller list at his website is 115,000 words.

Clearly, compared to the literary cousins genre novels are more plot-driven. So if you want to make a lasting impression on readers, they need to spend a lot of time in the world of your book. So, it’s better for your book to have high word count or be a part of a multivolume book series.

Word count therefore reflects the value of genre fiction: the longer – the better. Entertainment x time = a greater commercial success. I need to point out that genres like YA or humor show preference for short novels (50-80K) compiled into book series, while books belonging to a sci-fi or fantasy genres can be extremely long (over 100K). Another exception is erotic fiction, which is often represented by short stories or novellas. With its function to arouse the reader, it shouldn’t require the big word count (LOL).

It’s not quite the same with literary fiction, in my opinion. The success of a literary work depends on the depth and quality of its ideas, its originality rather than the extensive world-building or the amount of plot twists in it. However, I often see high word count books receive leading literary prizes. Are we so easily fooled by size? Are we not capable of appreciating short prose anymore?

Looking at literary giants of the past like Chekhov, Yates or Hemingway we know that it’s possible to be a concise writer and still achieve success. With new generations’ attention spans getting increasingly shorter, why the short literary fiction still sells poorly? Perhaps, it’s because literary fiction sells poorly in general. So, inflating the word count is a way to make a novel look monumental and maybe it’s easier to sell it this way? But isn’t this a disservice to readers?

Are you like me, suspicious of books that are longer than 300 pages, or you prefer the lengthy super-descriptive sagas? I rather read many short books by different authors than one long book series by one author, yet I know that many people prefer book series, why is that? Inabilty to easily invest into a new fictional world and its characters?

The word count is just a number, but is it? To what extent is it manipulated for commercial purposes in the literary community? Should a writer ever consider lengths of their books before they are written or simply let their stories flow without size constraints?

Does short fiction have a great future?

I’m a big supporter of CONCISE.  As the old proverb says:

Brevity is the soul of wit


Your brilliant thoughts