A Novel By Any Other Name

So, what is a novel?

This question was easy to answer ten years ago.  For reasons of money and printing and savings and stocking, most publishers said something like “a novel starts at 80k words.”

Now it seems at least from browsing my books that a novel is whatever you say it is.

At one time it was this way, too.  A novel back in the fifties and before was ‘long enough to be printed as an independent book’.

I once counted words on a Simak novel and found that it was 20k words long.

So I probably shouldn’t raise eyebrows when people post stuff like “I finished my 20k word novel.”  I shouldn’t, but I do.

Look, the problem you’re going to run into with electronic is that you’re still selling to the public, and if the public feels cheated, they will visit unholy reviews on you as a result.

Now will the public feel “cheated” with a 20k word “novel”?

I don’t know.  I do sometimes, coming to the end of something I bought thinking it was a novel think “oh, poop.”  Of course, I don’t leave bad reviews  so you have nothing to fear from me, but that I won’t buy you again.

Dean Wesley Smith says anything 30k and longer is a short novel.  He also says not to put novellete on the cover, because no one outside publishing knows what that is.

He may be right, but I would advise you to call anything 30 to 50k words a “short novel.”  And make sure that’s both on the description and the cover.  Look, my kid has got complaints on his short stories because they’re not novels, even though it says so on both cover and description.  There is no reason to invite the one-star reviews.

Now, once you’re in the more than 50k territory, you’re probably in novel range.

What you have to understand though is that novel isn’t a size.

I once was stunned when a newby told me she’d written a novel, when what she had amounted to little more than notes on a world.

A novel is, sure, more than 50 k words to allay reader frustrations.  BUT it is more than that.  It is also a unit of action and character.  The character solves a problem/achieves something in the course of the story, and all subplots should support either action or theme.

So, there you have it: A novel is a story that takes at least 50k words to tell.  YA can trend to the lower part of that range, but it’s not necessarily so.  Oh, and in erotica you can get away with 20k words and it’s not a problem to call it a novel.  They just seem to be smaller.

Erotica is also, usually, priced higher (not always.  There’s a chick who makes a living on 99c erotica pieces) but in general newby novels, first novel are 2.99 to 3.99.  After that you can raise the prices, though the sweet spot (which yeah, I didn’t follow, but it comes down when second comes out) is between 2.99 and 4.99.  2.99 is needed to get the Amazon 70% royalty without resort to tricks. and 4.99 seems to be the top people pay for “electronic, unknown.”

See, all your questions answered.  No?  Then ask in comments, and I WILL answer.


  1. I am not going to call my current project a novel, really … it’s more a series of linked short stories about a small town in Texas, interspersed with short and amusing essay-info-dumps of about 500 words describing some of the characteristic institutions, personalities and history involved. I’m just going to call it a chronicle and leave it at that.
    I’m aiming for about 90,000 to 110,000 words, though.

    1. I would point out that Time Enough For Love, one of my favorite Heinleins, is really a collection of novelettes and short stories strung together with a bit of verbage and a common theme.

      1. Roger Zelazny did the same thing in “The Lord of Light”. I remember reading the first two segments in Fantasy and Science Fiction back in ’67 {I think, if my memory isn’t failing me again}.

      2. You could say the same for most of the Future History books. Indeed, this was common back in the days when the magazines dominated the field. Not only Heinlein, but Burroughs, Kuttner, Asimov, Van Vogt, Blish, Sturgeon, and many others produced ‘novels’ which were short-story collections with filling to glue the stories together into one narrative. This became less common as the magazine dominance faded.

      1. More like a mad combination of Cecily, Alaska (of Northern Exposure) and Lake Woebegon — with the understanding that I don’t despise the small-town fly-over-country people that I am writing about, as Garrison K. seems to do.

  2. I tend to think of a novel as having a certain degree of complexity to the plot, and a lot more elaboration of the aftermath. Stuff that is often sketchy or left entirely to the reader’s imagination in short works are often written in detail in novels.

    1. I was honestly SHOCKED to find how short it was by word count. I THINK it was The Goblin Reservation, but I could be wrong. It’s packed now. Prayers for house to sell fast, so we can move and unpack?

  3. “A novel back in the fifties and before was ‘long enough to be printed as an independent book’.”

    That was the day of the complete-in-this-issue pulp novel, which often took as little as 50% of the magazine, and the tête-bêche Ace Doubles. Of course, there you got other stories for your money.

    Some days, I missed those novels that you could read in less than a week …

    1. I read the last Harry Potter book, per records I found, in a bit less than three hours. That may not be the biggest of modern novels, but it has only now occurred to me that my reading speed could influence the upper limit of what I tolerate in size.

    2. Norton’s “The Sioux Spaceman” was always packaged as a standalone novel, but it would be a longish short story by modern standards. The poor thing was barely a quarter inch thick, stuck in the wire rack at the same price as other books.

      1. Nope. It first appeared as the flip-side of Wilson’s And Then the Town Took Off. Two ‘novels’ for 35 cents. (As I recall, the Wilson had been a two-part serial (in Infinity) in the days when most book-length stories were three-parters.)

  4. My never-ending project is either a series of short or even barely-novels (15k to 50k) or one ginormous uber-novel (240k and counting). But each segment or the whole thing, every way you look at it, it *reads* like a novel. Novels. Series of novels. Now I’m confused.

    A reader commented that it’s more a serial than a series, and I’m like YES! that’s what I’ll call it! entirely avoids the dreaded n-word!!

  5. When I was in short pants, my teachers (who were sticklers on this point) made it clear that the definition of what-is-a-novel is utterly meaningless without reference to structure — which IS the defining characteristic. And I am perfectly willing (and un-diplomatic enough) to cast withering sarcasm upon anyone (beyond this august company, of course) fool enough to take me to task on any other basis — IFF — I were able to write something **I** would call a novel which, though structurally complete, was less than about 40,000 words, which I was brought up to understand as the lower bounds (aside from structure) of novel length.

    But that’s just me.


      1. Considering my inability to write short, (Flash? What’s flash?), I don’t see this as ever being a problem for me.


          1. Breaking News

            Remains found at residence of cabinet official.

            Eighteen identified so far.

            President claims ignorance.

          2. Note that what I wrote is fiction. I’ve been proud of it, and wanted to stick it somewhere people wouldn’t mistake it for reporting. There are also hundred word (drabble) and two sentence story projects.

          3. More as a joke than serious, years ago I read of the shortest story in two chapters: 1. Coughin’ 2. Coffin.

  6. “Once upon a time in the West”……..

    Not to be to picky, but once upon a time I had a lit class where the terms, “short story, “novella,” novelette, and novel were explained in detail.

    The usual things, like how plots were developed, and what each had to have to qualify. Then word length…….. the cut off for novels was 40k.

    I suspect there’s room to quibble on that. Its also true that 40k words makes for a short novel. If you figure roughly 330 words on a page of a typical paperback, then 40k words means that the Louis L’Amour novel you just picked up only has 120 pages. Pretty thin book. That 60k novel next to it for the same price? 180 pages.

    Its probably pretty good advice to call it a short novel. Following someone’s {now year old} advice on making the first novel of a new series just over 40k,
    words so it didn’t hurt to make it free, I did that on my first Urban Fantasy, following it with the second novel at 62k. Since it’s scheduled {the first one} to be published in mid-September, I’ll do that, put the short novel in the description.

    Thanks Sarah. Great advice as usual.

    1. When I was reading The Hardy Boys in the early ’60s, a 20chapter novel was 186 pages, and a 25 chapter novel was 212 pages Pretty universal for over 40 books. I counted them as novels back then. New ones written today are shorter and less detailed, to the detriment of story and character.

      1. Consider the age range. When I wrote an action/adventure for the family, I planned on two chapters read aloud per night. This made for more short chapters than you’d find in a novel for an older age group. Then there was Pratchett, who used no chapters at all.

  7. Semi related question. What’s a good pricing range for short stories and novellas to keep readers from feeling cheated?

  8. “Tales of the South Pacific” by James Michener was a series of somewhat-related stories, which were combined to make the musical & movie ‘South Pacific.’ I think most of his works were like that, but maybe tied together a bit more.
    I make this statement to supplement, not to disagree.

  9. A good topic, but the comments that it has kicked off are the most interesting part. It seems almost everyone ran across different definitions at some point. For me it was always:
    1000 to around 15,000: short story
    15,000 to 50K: Novella
    50k to about 150K: Novel.
    Anything past 150K: Epic.

    That said (mostly just because, well, we’re all sharing them, I get really annoyed with the indie authors out there who sell a 20 page story as a “novel,” or a 20k word story as a “novel.” Honestly, I think they know what they’re doing most of the time too. They’re trying to trick people into buying their book on that trust of “This is a novel.”

    However, there’s a point someone here made about what goes into the story, and that’s pretty true as well. I have heard from several readers that while they enjoyed one of my novels, they felt it was over too quickly, like it was short, because they’d finished it in one setting. The catch? It was a 140K word book. It definitely wasn’t short (in fact, my editor had worried that it was too long).

    But some readers were blasting through it quickly, all at once, and so they felt like it was too short.

    Maybe there’s a way around that. I’m still not inclined to think it’s that much of a problem, but maybe I’m wrong. Still, from it I learned that length is as much a construct of the reader’s mind as it is any actual length of the book. Which may be why some of the shorter genres mentioned above my comment (like erotica) are able to get away with it. Then again, that last assumption may be completely flawed.

    Maybe someone with a few more books under their belt has a better answer. I still don’t consider it a problem when a reader comes to me after a 15,000 word chapter and says “This just felt short” (and actually, after I pointed that out on a serial I’m running, the running joke among my readers has become to finish a new chapter and then post “How on earth do you make Xk words feel over so fast?”), but I have wondered if it’s something I should perhaps be paying more attention to. My assumption has been “Well, it’s good that they’re so engaged it feels short,” but that’s my assumption, and I don’t know my assumption is correct, or if it’s a by-product of audience type or some other factor I haven’t explored yet.

    What a fancy way to say “I don’t know for certain” with anecdotes, huh?

    1. That’s interesting. You might analyze it, looking at things like definite breaks in the action, so, for example, it doesn’t read like one dragged out fight, rather than three or four discreet encounters. (Mind you, Thrillers are supposed to be non-stop. But most others give the characters (and readers) a breather between battles.) Look at paragraph length, sentence length and so forth–although, frankly it sounds like it is _very_ readable. And finally, are you cutting the “Happily Ever After” bit at the end too short? You might look at your subplots, and see if you can wrap up a dangling thread as you ride off into the sunset. You know, _finally_ kiss the girl.

      1. “Wine of the Gods” – at 17 BOOKS – is too short (it’s even shorter the second time you read them). Just saying.

    2. Have to note that kindle will show the kb of the download, so you should verify it really is a novel size.
      Also, some novels seem to be a slower read. I call them dense reads, which doesn’t make them bad, just a slower read.

      1. I always check that. As well as Amazon’s estimated page count. Too many try to sell a 9 page story at novel prices.

  10. I go by the standard that is in wikipedia at:

    Which says that a novel is over 40K words.

    Now, all of the books in my current series are over 55K, (smallest is 56K biggest is 91K) and I had one reviewer downgrade a 59K word novel as ‘being too short for the money’ – I sell that one at 2.99!
    In fact, I sell my books for LESS than most other ebook authors of the same rank and level, who tend to sell at 4.99 (which is why I recently raised some of my prices to 3.99 and am considering 4.99 for the 91K work).

    What it really comes down to is the reader. Some won’t care, some will, and some are just terribly cheap and picky. If people complain I point them to the wiki. If they still complain I point them to the authors selling 45K books at 4.99 and let them know that I’m giving them a deal by charging less than the market can bear.
    After that, I just tell them to shut up and buy someone else if they keep complaining. You can’t please everyone, after all.

  11. Well, there’s long, and then there is fascinating.
    I remember reading a review of Ton Clancy’s “Sum of All Fears,” which made mild complaint that he got too technical. As an example, they pointed out that he had taken 18 pages to describe a nuclear explosion.
    As it happened, I had already read ‘Sum of All Fears’ before I read the review, and it caused a “???” moment. I had devoured that bit of writing with all the glee of a hungry cat scarfing down wet kibble. Not only does he link what is going on inside the bomb with what an outside observer might see, he uses that to establish a major plot point, which is why terrorism is identified instead of action by a nation-state.
    I recall, as a teen, picking up a book of short stories, and selecting the shortest of them to read first. There is an explanation for that, but I will leave it as an exercise for the reader.
    Because I am exclusive to Baen and KU and OpenLibrary, Story length isn’t an issue for me, EXCEPT for one particular item: I want resolution at some point. I’m willing to put that off for a while, but I want resolution! To that end, I was disappointed that there was so much left hanging at the end of Ringo’s “Black Tide Rising” series, but I’m of the understanding that he’s opening the world up for more writers to play. Heck, his writing is so good, I’m actually do a re-read now. (Should I blog a review?)
    BUT, along those lines, FORGET (!!!!!) George R R Martin’s massive gunkology. I was loaned the entire published output by my first-born son, and if I had known what HE was going to do with the story, I would have returned them without opening the first book. (YMMV)

  12. I don’t really have much to add but a joke (and this comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows me.) There was a literary agent once who had a woman come to him and ask, “How long is a novel?” He looked at her in surprise, and said, “Well, it depends. Some are as short as 40,000 words, but ‘Gone With The Wind’ is over 200,000.” The woman was not satisfied, she wanted a more precise answer. Pressed on the point, the agent said, “Well, I suppose anything above 75,000 words is certain to be a novel.” Sighing with relief, the woman pulled a box of loose manuscript pages from her voluminous purse and plopped it on the agent’s desk. “Thank God! That means I’m finished. Here, would you read this?”

    1. That one’s so old scribes probably stabbed the old version onto clay tablets…

      I’ve seen people say, “A story is as long as it needs to be.” Which is true.. But I’m reminded of Steve McQueen describing some advice he got from John Carradine when he (McQueen) was just starting out: “Steve… say what you need to say. Then shut up.”

  13. Leon:
    I used do Writer’s In Schools workshops.
    Kids were amazed that I didn’t tell them they should write three pages or
    eight pages. “Just write till you’ve told the story. If you can finish it in a
    page, fine with me. If you need 30 pages fine with me too.”

    I have 22,000 + words of something and don’t think it will make 40,000.
    So, I might be on the other side of my old advice.

    “It’s a novella,” somebody told me. But I still haven’t decided what to call it.

  14. My wife was writing her first novel–she didn’t intentionally start out to write something that long. After 15K words she asked me, “This is going to be longer than a short story. How long is a novelette?” I looked up the SFWA definitions for their awards category and told her. A month later she asked me, “How long is a novella?” I told her again. After a few more weeks, she asked, “How long is a novel?” I gave her the answer. After another month, she asked, “How long is War and Peace?”
    China Harbor: Out of Time ended up being 180K words, a mid-series Harry Potter book.

    1. *giggle*
      After I finished the Adelsverein Trilogy, which was one epically long single book divvied up into three volumes for the convenience of the reader, I found that the word-count was the equal of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
      And if I had gone into any more backstories of secondary characters, it would have been longer …
      I am trying to dial it back, lengthwise. Really, I am.
      But I am a long-form writer.
      No wonder I can’t do Twitter.

  15. Here is a link with word counts of a bunch of famous novels:
    I am skipping a bunch:
    30,644 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
    46,118 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
    47,094 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
    49,459 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
    50,000 =========== NaNoWriMo cutoff
    59,900 – Lord of the Flies – William Golding
    63,766 – Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
    64,768 – The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
    69,066 – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
    77,325 – [Harry Potter and the] Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling
    78,462 – The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
    84,799 – [Harry Potter and the] Chamber of Secrets – JK Rowling
    88,942 – Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
    95,022 – The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien
    100,609 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
    119,394 – Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
    135,420 – A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
    143,436 – The Two Towers – J. R. R. Tolkien
    155,960 – Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
    169,481 – The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinb[e]ck
    190,858 – [Harry Potter and the] Goblet of Fire – JK Rowling
    206,052 – Moby Dick – Herman Melville
    211,591 – Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    311,596 – The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
    349,736 – Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
    418,053 – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
    561,996 – Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
    587,287 – War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

  16. It’s also a matter of taste. To me personally, even though I read pretty fast (in English), anything much over 100K words is in the “this’d better be very good” category, unless it’s segmented in semi-standalone chunks that can be read at one sitting. If something is shorter than 50K because the writing is compact, I actually appreciate it rather than feel cheated.

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