How Long is a Novel?

Image by Hassan Nawaz from Pixabay

How long is a novel? I am at that stage in my current ms where I am starting to worry about novel length. A lot.

This is a story that has deepened and matured over time. The first draft umpty-um years ago was just over 100K words. Which I knew was too long for what it delivered. But is that still true?

I think it’s grown in complexity. But is it really delivering more, or is that just vainglorious fantasy because I’ve been working on it so long? AAARGH.

So I’ve been digging a bit to see what I can discover about novel length across time and genres.

Novel Length – in the Beginning

The first novel out of the trap in English is generally held to be Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson in 1740. It comes in at around 177,000 words. The plot is convoluted and repetitive. The story doesn’t need to be that long. But Richardson was the printer as well as the author and he got the thing into two volumes. So if you wanted to know the ending, you had to buy Book 2. Result! Reviews were mixed but it was scandalous and hugely successful.

It seems as if he was also a prize tiffler, expanding letters and adding new ones to his book as he went. His second, Clarissa (1747), was longer. Like Pamela it is delivered in letters and, to be fair, they are not the most economical way of delivering narrative. (Though the hero-villain’s letter to his friend to tell him that Clarissa’s seduction is completed is brutally concise: “It is done.”) There are more characters and more events, too. But still is was surely unnecessary to hit 970,000 words. I think it may still be a record.

Even A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993) was only 591,552.

The Three Volume Novel

Wilde and busyLike many romantic novelists, I have long winced over poor Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). According to Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, she had penned “a three volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.” Was the three volume novel the Victorian norm, then?

Well, yes and no. At the prestige end of the market, they held sway for nearly 70 years from 1820 or so. But they were (and remained) expensive at half a guinea a volume. Publishers delayed producing a single volume version for, say, a year after. (Think of the old relationship between hardback and paperback in the last century as a comparator.)

The 3 decker was the brain child of Sir Walter Scott’s publisher, Andrew Constable. He worked the price up from seven shillings the volume for Waverley (1814) to ten shillings for Ivanhoe (1820) until Kenilworth (1821) finally reached ten shillings and sixpence, which became universal and remained stable until 1894.

Ivanhoe is 179,00 words long. I read it when young and thought I loved it. Only then I found that the book I’d read had been abridged for children. The real thing was, well, so turgid in places I could hardly bear it. And in 2012, Professor David Purdie, President of the Sir Walter Scott Club, produced a new version at 80,000 words.

Victorian Novel Length

Georgian Library reading roomThe word count for the three volume novel was around 150-200,000.  All the Victorian greats were published in this form, as well as cheaper single volumes and, frequently, serialisation. Dickens, of course. Trollope. George Eliot. The Brontes.

But so were popular novelists like Rhoda Broughton. She wrote her daring first novel, Not Wisely But Too Well, when she was only twenty-two. It was turned down by one shocked publisher – the heroine is seduced by a sexually irresistible cad – but it was hugely successful. She became a best seller and her publisher, anxious to maximise the return on another title, Second Thoughts, offered her £750 for the two-volume-sized manuscript, but would increase it to £1,200 if she added enough story to make a third volume.

Of course, few readers could afford the three-decker. They mostly borrowed them from the circulating libraries, like Mudies, on whose consistent purchases Victorian publishers could rely. But the profile of the reading public changed and so did the economics of the industry. The habitual three volume novel declined over the 1890s and the last 4 were published in 1897.

What Readers Want?

Elinor Glyn and Rudolph Valentino

Writers slimmed down their offerings. Padding reduced, along with sententious authorial commentary. Film makers adapted novels – Ouida’s Under Two Flags (1867), Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907) . The audience began to appreciate a punchier style of story telling.

Writers adapted to it, partly by cutting out the boring bits but also by narrowing their focus and reducing the cast list of the book in progress. It might still include history, adventure, social issues, murder, mayhem, a ghost and/or a love story. But one theme would start to predominate, at least in popular fiction. Discrete genres began to evolve.

It seemed to be a gift for the reader. Temporarily, it made life more difficult for the publishers.

They soon adapted. And readers did too, with more precise expectations of one genre or another. But not so much on length, as far as I can see.

The Writer’s Perspective

Which brings me back to my current conundrum. How long should my novel be? For the reader to enjoy it?

There is all sorts of advice out there. I even found an interesting rule of thumb on word length per genre.

An editor once told me that if I wasn’t sure, kick out the first three chapters. Then start from Chapter Four. (That’s certainly advice Walter Scott could usefully have followed. Well, at least the first chapter or two.) Doesn’t work with my current story.

Another editor told me that her employer felt a novel should be as long as it needed to be. Which is comforting but not terribly helpful in identifying a ballpark target.

So I’m back to flying into the mist in editing, as well as writing. Wish me luck.

Sophie Weston Author



15 thoughts on “How Long is a Novel?

    1. Sophie Post author

      I must say I was surprised when an editor told me that. Such was not the case with Mills & Boon. But then they had a strictly controlled package and price – and every book was 187 pages, if I remember correctly.

      One of the advantages of e-publishing that I hadn’t thought of before is the way it frees author/publisher from the constraints of the international paper price.

  1. lesley2cats

    Really interesting. And thanks for posting the Now Novel link, which I also found interesting. (It’s made me wish publishers put the word count in the blurb sometimes…)

    1. Sophie Post author

      It’s interesting, isn’t it? Probably only to a few of us, though. But novel length can be deceptive depending on how engaged you are, I suppose.

      I remember slogging through The Luminaries on Kindle – interminable first chapter, thought I would never get to the end. I only finished the book because I was on holiday and was happy to sit under an olive tree, raising my eyes occasionally to the Tuscan plain in a heat haze. But The Luminaries is less than half the length of A Suitable Boy, from which I doubt if I raised my eyes at all while reading. (263,520 words and 591,552 words respectively.)

  2. Liz Fielding

    I really enjoyed this blog, Sophie. Things have certainly changed since the novel became a thing. And the length of book seems to equate the weather on bank holiday. A gorgeous day and good company means that it is never long enough. If it’s dull, with boring company, it can be interminable. And echoing Lesley’s thanks for the Now Novel link. I need to start planning an ending!

  3. Joanna

    Fascinating stuff, Sophie. I remember talking to the late Carole Blake about my SF thriller which wasn’t finished and had already got to 140,000 words 😉 She said that it would end up the length it needed to be and not to worry about it. So I finished it and it was 170,000 words. Every editor or agent I showed it to had conniptions and told me that it didn’t have a chance unless it was no more than 100K. So it’s never found a commercial home, though I’m still trying…

    1. Sophie Post author

      That’s interesting. Maybe “as long as it needs to be” is the idealist’s creed. And gets trumped by cost considerations when it comes into real life.

      My own book went from 90K words to 96,200 or so. Which was probably within permissable overrun. (Though some readers thought it was still too short, with at least one scene they wanted still missing.)

  4. Joanna

    Re Walter Scott. We had a complete set of Scott’s novels at home and I started reading them all when I was 9 or 10, I think. I very quickly discovered that starting at about the middle of chapter 2 meant I missed all the boring descriptive guff at the beginning and didn’t miss any of the story. The wisdom of 10-year-olds, eh?

  5. AnneGracie

    Interesting — I knew that a lot of the older novels were published in several volumes, but not how lonnng some of them were. But the publication of novels in volumes seems to be coming back in some areas. The other day I noticed a number of authors were publishing novels in up to six parts, and listing each part under “short reads” or “kindle singles” on amazon. At around 80 to 100 pages, each one priced around two to three dollars, they seem to be doing quite well. And a six part series would be about four to five hundred pages costing a total of around seventeen or eighteen dollars. Of course some of them are free for the first or last in the series, but still, it’s an interesting development.

    1. Sophie Post author

      As you say, very interesting, Anne, especially when you have a strong subplot that needs longer to resolve and minor characters that you don’t want to let go.

      One of my sources said that The Lord of the Rings was essentially a three volume single novel, which of course is true. But I’d have thought JRRT was more influenced by Anglo-Saxon and the Icelandic sagas than the 3 decker novel. He was born in 1892, so the practice had already died out before he reached reading age. Though I suppose his mother might still have had some on her shelves.

  6. Elizabeth+Hawksley

    I really enjoyed Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ as a child – I think I read it several times but then, my mother taught me how to speed read when I was about seven – a very useful skill I’ve been using ever since. And it’s not a very long book anyway.

    I do wish that someone would abridge other Scott best-selling novels to bring out why he was ‘The Wizard of the North’! in about a third of the original length. Still, at least he provided a lot of composers with splendid stories for operas!

    1. Sophie Post author

      I think I Ivanhoe was the first book where I took issue with the author – not to mention the hero. Honestly who would marry weedy wet Rowena when he could have had Rebecca, who did stuff and was resourceful and generous and warm-hearted. Bah!

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