How Long Should Your Ebook Be?

By | July 19, 2011

When you’re publishing an ebook, you’re not bound by the traditional publishing rules. There’s nobody to say to you: “Oh, we can’t publish a novel that long, paper costs will kill our profit” or “Oh, we can’t publish a novel that short, it will look weird on the shelves”.

You don’t need to keep track of the foibles of arbitrary and conservative publishers. However, you do want to attract as many readers as possible, and that’s where wordcount IS important.

Think about it. If you buy an ebook for your Kindle on Amazon, and it’s only 10,000 words long, you’ll finish reading it in an hour — or much less, if you’re a fast reader. You’ll feel cheated, especially if you thought you were settling in for a nice long read.

You can sell short stories on Amazon and elsewhere, sure. Just remember to make it clear that they are short stories. Then, to give readers a better value for their money, you can bundle them. 5 short stories for $1.99 is still a bargain.

So, now that we’re only looking at what readers want and expect, what is a good length for your novel?

We’re keeping to wordcount, here, because page length doesn’t mean anything on electronic devices.

The old editor’s rule of thumb, “count the pages and divide by 250”, is only useful if you write by hand. Then you don’t have any more accurate way to track your wordcount, the way you would on a computer.

Here’s a list of word counts from recent tradionally published bestsellers:

The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

You’ll notice that the wordcounts are steadily creeping up in both series, though in Harry Potter they eventually go down again, but not by all that much. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a small book; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was more like two phonebooks stapled together.

There is no literary rule that states that later books in a series must be longer.
No, this is a purely commercial effect: the publishers give an author more leeway, and more pages, once she starts selling really well.

So, when you’re publishing your own ebook, you can start out with more words than JK Rowling did. Still, you’re in the same position JK Rowling was, when you’re writing your first novel: nobody knows you, and you have to work hard to draw in your readers.

That’s why I believe it’s smart not to write a 300,000 word epic for your first ebook. Your readers don’t know you yet, and have no idea if you’ll be able to bring such a long book to a satisfying conclusion. Once you’ve proven to them that you can, they’ll be back for more.

To put this in perspective: JRR Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings
to be published as one book, not a trilogy. Can you imagine? It’s nearly 500,000 words long! On the other hand, Tolkien first caught the public’s attention with The Hobbit, a charming book of only 95,000 words. The people who read that shorter story were ready to follow him deeper into Middle Earth.

In short: there are no rules for ebook writers, and that is a wonderful thing. But smart, successful ebook writers will keep the length of their ebook to about 100,000 words. Especially if it’s their first novel.

And hey: if you write 1,000 words a day, that means you can write three full sized novels a year.

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