Kill your darlings. It’s a phrase you’ve all heard, but how many of you have been brave enough to be truly ruthless with your own writing, to cut in a big and bold ways when needed? How many of you have written a too-long manuscript and allowed an editor to go in and hack huge swaths of work that represented weeks, maybe months, of effort and tenacity to get on the page? Courageous writers do, but so do writers who understand the business of writing, and why too-long books are more difficult to sell. There are in fact readership, publisher, and cost considerations that factor into why the industry standard for the length of a book is 80,000 words, and I would argue that in today’s publishing climate, less is more. Here’s why:
1. Attention spans are shorter. People are reading more than ever, but there’s more competition than ever for those readers’ attention—and not just with other books. As an author you’re competing against online content like blogs and news sites, and against anything readers read. If you can, aim for under 80,000 words. I’ve been working with novelists and memoirists who are writing 60,000-word books, something I would have discouraged ten years ago. Writers will argue with me on this point, I know, reminding me of crazy-long bestsellers (Goldfinch, anyone?) and pointing to authors’ success with long books (J.K. Rowling, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ken Follett), but these authors are the exception, and most readers simply don’t have the attention span for long narratives. So if you’re just starting, aim short; if you’re running long and are pre-publication (and you can stomach it), work with an editor to cut cut cut.
2. Overly long books are a red flag to agents and editors. While there will always be space in the literary landscape for authors’ magnum opuses, you shouldn’t feel that your first book needs to be one. In fact, you’re better off if it’s not. Putting yourself on the map with something more modest and reasonable is a good strategy. Long books are a big risk, and they’re difficult to sell because of agents’ and editors’ bandwidth. Publishers, for the most part, do not want to grapple with the higher costs of publishing a long book (see point 3), and most authors could use an aggressive edit. Someone recently told me that she thought Jodi Picoult’s editor was getting a little soft. I thought this was an interesting observation, but it led me to think about the fact that most editors probably err toward being soft because they’re not given the mandate to be aggressive. It’s easy to get very precious about your work, and much more difficult to trust that an objective eye (coupled with your hard follow-up work) may be just what your baby needs to truly thrive in the world.
3. The longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce. Most writers aren’t thinking about the length of their book and its correlation to various expenses, but it’s all publishers are thinking about. And if you’re self-publishing, or footing your own production or printing bill, you need to be thinking about it too. The longer the book, the more expensive the copyedit, design, and printing. If you have a 400-page book, you’re cutting into your profits to keep your price point low. And yet you want to keep the price point competitive to, well, compete. You’ll discover if you end up printing your book print on demand (the way of the future) that a single book is expensive, and it behooves you to keep your page count low. The difference in cost between a 60,000- and 100,000-word edit is about 20 hours of work, and about $1.50/unit on printing. So it’s a big deal—no matter who’s footing the bill.
Do you have a story about having pared down your manuscript that you want to share? Or maybe you have a success story with your long book and you have another angle from which to approach this topic? Either way, I'd love to hear from you.
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