Sunday, March 6, 2011

The word count fetish

I just posted a comment on Ed Cote's Violet Skies blog about word counts. His post followed one by Dean Wesley Smith discussing word counts in the current day. Both were enlightening to me, one with damn little experience in anything but reading books.

Ed  suggests one model that may become more popular would follow that of webcomics, where new content - usually related thematically - is posted on a regular, or not so regular, basis. I replied that I have five such webserials that I follow through their RSS feeds. While I have no information concerning the financial support of the sites, they all but one have ads, mostly Project Wonderful, and several have tip jars or donate buttons. For example:
Dragon Wars
I have no way to tell if the ad or donation support is sufficient to fund any portion of the process; since the content is provided for free, I can read and reread it whenever I like. I'm uncertain of the business model being pursued. It may be advertising on its own, attempting to attract readers to the author's other works - if so, for me it fails, because I haven't clicked around to discover the hook. That's not because I don't like the content, and wouldn't read more; it's because I have as many of those as I have time allocated. It's similar to the 60 or so webcomics I follow: I will vote, and when I have money (not often since losing my job), I'll donate or buy merchandise, but for the books, I just read. Can't say how typical or atypical my behavior might be. As far as the model goes, there are few webcomic artists making a living at webcomics, at least if we go by the artists' blogs. Free content has always seemed to me to be a loss leader.

Another point is that, like webcomics, these webserials are provided in chunks that I think of as chapters,  and serve a story line that is long term; we'd like them to last forever! Or a long time, at least, until we fickle consumers find something else to salivate over. I've thought about trying to mold one of my novels into the format, but have been unsuccessful so far; the natural breaks in my story are too far apart, I think.

In my comment, I also gave a half-hearted defense of publishers, which also applies to Dean Wesley Smith's post as well. We cannot forget that publishers are businesses. For profit businesses. The requirement that they turn a profit drives their decisions. I don't envy J.K. Rowling's agent the job s/he had when selling Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Scholastic. Smith points out that substantial costs are involved in the return process; I assume that's the result of taking unsold books back at essentially cost so the bookstores are not at risk (except the opportunity cost  of their shelf space).
  I agree with the view that Smith describes, that publishers drove larger books by word count - or page count - as a way to soothe buyer's feelings over the higher prices driven by rising production costs (only loosely related to word count). As we rejoice in the possibilities afforded by ePublishing our own works, we should remember that this change is disruptive to the classical industry, and eventually, winners will change to survive, and others will hang on to either fail or to become boutique publishers catering to consumers who demand hard covers and smooth, flexible paper pages.
Publishers drove word count until the production costs for larger books reached the tipping point and the buyers declined to pay more. Being the only game in town, authors had little recourse to the limits unilaterally imposed by publishers; now however, as Smith so succinctly puts it:
There are no restrictions, no right lengths for novels anymore. Just write what the story demands to be written and then decide what to do with it.
 Never having thought of traditional publishing as an outlet for my own work, I was never much concerned about word count. Although I felt comfortable with Piers Anthony's opinion that 125K words was right for his Xanth stories, I was just telling the story, without much regard to how many words it took to get there. As a result, my first series came in with four natural breaks: the first is 40K words, the second, 43K words, the third 74K words and the last, 27K words. For the sake of packaging, I have it in two books, the first comes in at 83K and the second at 101K, in deference to the approximately 100K word limit. The second series, a fantasy/SF work, has six novels, at least two of which come in at novella length:
48K, 83K, 99K, 200K, 250K and 51K. The fifth novel is incomplete, so the 250 is an estimate. In deference to the fetish, I packaged the first two together, yielding 131K words. However, these six were always intended to go as a set, a single thread through all six, and one main character as protagonist in all, so it wasn't a matter, as Smith complains:
That always caused either slight expansion of a story-line or leaving a story-line out that belonged in the book.
 I am happy to have an outlet for work that doesn't easily fit the model the publishers like, and provides the ability to write with topics that are important to me but not necessarily to a great many others. Freedom from another artificial constraint is a joy; write at the length that fits the story you're telling. Then decide the medium for its distribution.


  1. I'm interested in your web-serial mention. I am starting an episodic YA series called Icarus Helix. The first novella-length episode is already out ("Cheat") with the idea that a new one comes out on/around the 15th every month after.

    I've started the 2nd novella ("Liar") and already have the cover for it.

    I'm hoping to drum up some good interest to run it for awhile. I think it will help push me as a writer to have that constant deadline in place. I've named the 3rd episode, but haven't let slip the title to anyone but my cover artist yet ;)

    For your 6-novel piece, I would recommend packaging 1+2+3, then 5+6 together. That would give you a "trilogy", with the last being the longest (common, IMHO). Also, at 200+k per installment, you could probably safely charge a higher price. Though, if you're looking for a loss leader, I'd say the first no lower than 2.99 (Amazon's 70% cut-off). I mean, 200k words is a lot of time... Michael Sullivan makes a killing in the 4.95 - 6.95 range with his works.


  2. Also, white text on a black background is really hard on the eyes :( I can't stop by often because it's incredibly difficult for me to read! Let me know if you change your color scheme :)