It wasn't always this way. People used to know what a novella or novelette were. This was back in the days when magazines and newspapers would print all sorts of lengths. And book publishers were also more flexible. However, the cost of printing and paper make it more expensive to produce those shorter lengths, and they have slowly died off as the big distributors and big box stores began to dominate the publishing industry.
With ebooks, all those odd lengths are back. And some report they are thriving. So maybe it's time to define some terms, and explain a few things about "length."
But first we should talk about how to measure the length of a book reliably:
Most readers think of books in terms of page count, but that's the very worst way to judge the length of a story, because the number of words on a page varies widely. You could have anywhere from 150 to 800 words on a page in a printed book.
In the publishing industry, they need a standardized way to measure things, and they use word count. Yes, word count does vary too, but not nearly as much. (Plus the way you used to figure length included calculations for all those variables. It's one of the reasons why standard manuscript form used to use Courier font, and why Hollywood scripts still do -- it's a standard, mono-spaced font.)
The standard length for a manuscript page is 250 words -- and that's pretty much the ONLY standardized measure in length out there. That's what Apple appears to use to estimate page count on ebooks in its iBookstore. Mass market paperbacks are a little higher, but not always. Trade paperbacks and hardbacks vary all over the place.
Because 250 is a nailed-down standard, I think a good argument could be made for authors to use it in their book descriptions to help the reader know what the length is. It's reasonable to describe a 25,0000 word novella as about 100 pages. However, since most readers don't know the standard, I'm a little torn. In a regular paperback, 25,000 words probably wouldn't take up quite 100 pages, so would it be deceptive to say that? But since there is no standard, how is any number not deceptive?
I go back and forth on which is better, 250 or 300 words per page, but in the end I think we just have to pick a standard and stick with it. And we should give both numbers. "This novella is 25,000 words, or about 100 pages." By doing this the readers can get a good idea of just what word count means.
Now as to length definitions:
The Science Fiction Writers of America uses these definitions for its Nebula awards, and most people consider them to be pretty standard:
- Short fiction: under 7,500 words
- Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
- Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000 words and up
Shorter stories use different techniques, and have different kinds of subjects, so the Short Mystery Fiction Society subdivides the shortest categories further for their Derringer Awards:
- Flash story: up to 1000 words
- Short short story: 1001 - 4000 words
- Long short story: 4001-8000 words
- Novelette: 8001-17,500 words
Beyond that, SMFS doesn't consider it to be short fiction, and there are many who do consider a novella to be a short novel. There have been a lot of novellas published as stand-alone books.
One other note about measuring length -- with the advent of ebooks you do hear a lot about file size and "locations." These are even less accurate than page count. Files might have illustrations and added features which bloat the size. Furthermore, a file can be full of hidden junk. Programs like Word like to tuck in useless things like a listing of all the fonts on the user's system, or remnants of things that were deleted, or complicated encodings for simple layout features. All of that junk not only affects the size of the file it also affects how Kindle sees its own internal measuring system of "locations."
The best measure of length is word count, and if we authors start putting word count in the descriptions of our stories, it will help readers understand what it means. Sometimes it isn't possible -- sometimes we are limited in the amount of information we can put in a description for instance. Sometimes we forget. But it's worth the effort.
I hope this post has helped both readers and writers out there to sort out the length issue.
See you in the funny papers.
If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation.
Here's a link to a list of my books. And ... hey, look at that! There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations via Paypal)