Friday, April 15, 2011

Novella, Novelette, Page-Count and Word-Count

Most people these days are used to two definitions for length in a story. It's either a novel or it's a short story. There are longer and shorter versions of each, but nothing in between.

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.

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Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

This is handy to know bot as a reader and a writer.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks Giggles (sorry I didn't respond earlier -- it was a busy week and I missed your comment!)

With ebooks, length is getting to be more and more of a problem -- or maybe less and less of one. I mean it's a problem because people need to know what they're getting. But now a story can be the right length, not just the most marketable one.

J.R. Pearse Nelson said...

I love that all of the shorter sizes are back. I always struggled as a writer with the length of my fiction, because I tend toward novella length projects. I agree that we need to mention word count in descriptions so people know what they're getting. I also think there's a big market for the shorter stories, because people want to be able to read a great story quickly in the attention deficit digital age. Not that writers should pander to that urge, but with ebooks it's possible to have it all, from flash fiction to epic novels. What a great deal for readers, and writers!

The Daring Novelist said...

I hear people saying both ways -- some people love the huge doorstop books. But I do think that the audience for shorter works is not only there, but will grow.

There are many of us who want something more meaty and satisfying than a short story, but still not that long. I think some of that audience drifted away from books over the years as they got longer. But given that a novella is something like the length of a movie, I expect that audience will come back.

Anonymous said...

I have only just started to see the light at the end of my first writing stint and am glad at the information received here as I am sure to say I am nearing the end of my first Novella and the start of exciting prospects with online publishing.

Bob Banks said...

Because I am now 69 years old and an avid reader, it annoys me that my older paperback books actually said "Novel" 0n the spine and description,
Yet when I read a modern description of the book the word"Novella" is used.
I perosnally prefer, not the number of words, but how many pages it takes in print. For example, anything that takes up fifty pages in=s a short story. From 51 - 100 pages is a novelette. Anything over 100 pages is a novel.
Way back when, the average short story was 20 pages and a collection of them and a novel would be about 150 pages long. These days that 150 page work is called a novella. Which is a term I refuse to use.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all these comments, they will rally help me. I am just finishing writing my first short story, novel, novella etc. The problem I'm having is that it is not science fiction or non-fiction. It is a true story so I don't have a lot of flexibility to be creative or add to the content without being too fluffy or losing the audience or believability. It will be about 60 pages (15.000 words). Any advice on how to get this published would be appreciated. Thank you

Jean Reinhardt said...

This is a great blog, thank you. I used to read really big books but nowadays I am so busy, I just don't have the time. Shorter novels are great for quick reads and the plot tends to be fast paced, which suits my lifestyle at the moment. Anything I have written is either Flash Fiction, or between 40k and 70k words.

Jasmine Jobe said...

Helped, thanks!!

Cassandra said...

Great piece. Very helpful re: page count explanations for novellas and other shorts! Thank you for sharing this -- and thank you for adding your reference sources.

Cassandra Black
Romance Author of Mini Novels

Suzanne Tyrpak said...

Hi Camille,

I googled novella length and found your used article. Thanks! Fun running into another former Kindleboarder.

Hope you're doing well!


Synova said...

I appreciate the explanation you've included here. It's very useful.

I'm poking about the internet to see what the definitions of different lengths of stories are, first, because I'm starting to suspect that my "natural length" for fiction is a novella, and second, because I find it frustrating from the reader POV to buy an ebook only to discover it's a short story.

In the past I've laughed at the pretentious tone of "a novel" printed on the front of "a novel" under the title, as if we needed to know it was fiction, but when you can't pick up a volume and hold it in your hand and judge the heft for yourself, I've become convinced that all books should say very clearly what they are in order to avoid disappointed readers that feel they were misled.

Seems like a good idea.

Michael Peverett said...

Maybe worth mentioning that "novelette" has sometimes been used to mean a book on a light, trivial, romantic or sentimental theme.

(E.g. the last few chapters of Wuthering Heights being dismissed as "novelettish")

I think this meaning of "novelette" must have almost died out.

The Daring Novelist said...

Possibly, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the novelette was largely associated with pulp magazines.

Every pulp magazine had novelettes ("Complete In This Issue!") and, of course, pulp in the early days wasn't just tough-guy fiction. It included pot-boilers and romance. Or blends of all of the above. (One of the famous Street and Smith titles was "Ranch Romance.")

My other theory (completely unproven - a guess really) is that there may have be a culture difference in definition. When I have heard people use "novelette" to refer to pulp-like fiction, it has always been English people. Maybe that definition is more prevalent there.

T.K. Lawrence said...

Thanks! This post has been so helpful!

james brownn said...

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DeeBee said...

Love your blog. And I was sweating over word/page length of my new novel when I came upon your article which helped. I do write short and am successful with short stories...having waited and waited to put in the dramatic scene at the end of the first act, I looked and discovered I had only written 15,000 words. So have to assume this is going to turn out to be a novella. And what's wrong with that?

capnsid said...

This has helped me with my s/f, which naturally tends to be novelette length. I have some semi-fic and maybe a potboiler, both novelette length, so this helps.

Lilith said...

I seem to remember that most people read faster than I do, something like 150-320 words per minute with the average around 200. I am at the low end of those numbers as I read at approximately the same speed as an ebook plays, since I hear the book. I remember upwards of 95% though, so I don;t mind the time. I don;t have to reread what I study or ebven outline. I make notes of thought while studying, and sometimes copy a section to a notebook (both electronic)e. THat is mostly when I research and need to capture citations.

For me, I think reading time would be a good measure. Since I mostly listen to all but non-fiction, that is actually a useful measure, along with word count.

Keturah Lamb said...

Very interesting. I have been having a hard time determining the lines between novella and novel. And I never even heard of novelette!