Does Word Count or Storytelling Matter More To Readers?


How long is too long for a novel? According to everything I read from “experts” online, a novel is defined as between 50,000 and 110,000 words, with 100,000 often the upper limit of word count that an agent or publisher will even consider for publication.

For Young Adult novels, the upper end of the word count is defined as 80,000, with 70,000 or less preferred. Anything over 80,000 words is considered “too long” to engage teen or young adult readers.

Here’s my question to you, the reading community – do you consider word count before you embark on a new book, or do you select books because the story sounds interesting and/or you like the cover art?

For myself as a reader, I love long books if the story and characters are engaging. I do not like extraneous detail that adds to the word count and detracts from the story. By “extraneous” I mean describing in extreme detail what each character is wearing each and every time he or she appears on the page, or describing what paintings are hanging on the walls or other unnecessary setting details. If such information is intrinsic to the plot or essential to understanding a character, it’s fine as long as it’s not overdone. Most of the time, however, authors simply “indulge” themselves.

As an example, I know people love the Song of Ice and Fire series, but I cannot get through them. I read two and a half books, very slowly and sporadically, I might add, while simultaneously reading other books that I found more appealing, and then finally gave up. Besides the constant brutality, especially towards children and teens, the author spends far too much time describing things I don’t care about. What Circe chooses to wear in every single scene is not important – a general description in a few words suffices to create an image in my mind. I do not need paragraph upon paragraph of descriptive detail when that detail does nothing to move the story forward.

Digital printing of paperback books is not very expensive. I know this because I have self-published books and my novels have better covers and formatting than many works from large publishing houses. That’s my opinion, of course, but I find the finished products to be stunning and completely professional.

It seems to me that the word count numbers used nowadays by agents and publishers reflect the overall “dumbing down” philosophy of media in general. I feel insulted that these people equate me with someone who only watches television or other “short-attention span” media. Readers, by definition, have longer attention spans and like being engaged with the printed page (or even the digital one.) I know people are busy these days and life is more complicated, but as a reader I love to be involved with characters I care about no matter how long the journey is, or how many words the author needs to finish the story. Some books have a lot of characters and plot – I’m very guilty of this – and thus require a higher word count to give both the story and the characters justice.

So here are my questions, and I welcome your comments and opinions – do you as readers only want short books, or does the quality of the writing and the complexity of the plot matter more? Do teens and young adult readers only want short books with simplistic plots and only a few characters to keep track of? Are readers incapable of following long stories with involved plotlines? Does word count matter more than storytelling?


13 thoughts on “Does Word Count or Storytelling Matter More To Readers?

  1. Anna Lund says:

    Oh, Michael, you DO pose the best questions!
    I love a good long story, but only if it is good (for me, which is very subjective, of course). I was the same when I was a teenager, and devoured the written word. In those days, the limit was set by the physical heaviness of the book itself, but I still remember how excited I was when the a series came out in one, single volume.
    My nieces are the same, you’ll find them sitting with huge volumes, happy smile plastered on their faces.
    I think the publishing world has MISSED that some of us like many many words, in one single book. Of course, they earn more if they cut it up in two volumes, and water down the content with filler.

    Very many of us want a long, long book. They are getting more and more difficult to come by.

    The short books are for the X-Factor people of the world. Let’s try to give both sides what they need, eh? 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Anna. I agree with you, obviously, and I do see kids devouring long books (the Harry Potter and Twilight series are prime examples.) I also think publishers want to save money on printing costs while simultaneously charging long-book prices for short books to goose their bottom line. Take care and bravo to your nieces! 🙂

  2. arranbhansal says:

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a published author and commented:
    Really good post, and a difficult one to answer. My first book was too long, mainly due to the subject matter. I think word count does matter and for each type of book you write, there should be a word range within which you stay. Otherwise, you risk losing the reader!!

    • Arranbhansal, I’m curious to know what your long book was about. You mention the subject matter made it long, but shouldn’t something like subject matter dictate the length? Authors can put in too much about a given subject by repeating themselves, but if a subject is complex it does require more words to flesh it out. Likewise, if a plot is complex and there are a lot of characters, more words will be needed to give justice to both. Otherwise, me, as a reader, feels short-changed because I wanted to know more or because the author didn’t satisfactorily follow through on every plot or character strand he or she set in motion.

  3. Mia Kerick says:

    As an author I am also very interested in this topic. I will be putting this on my Facebook Page and hopefully it will get some more answers. Personally, I have always liked long books, again, if they are good, which is subjective. It is comforting to know that I will be taking a long journey with characters I love. The interesting thing is that I tend to write shorter novels and they seem to be fairly popular. I wonder if it is a trend in the marketplace that will change… But one thing I can say is that if I am reading a longer book I do not want to read it on Kindle because I can never judge just where I am in the book, as i can with a paper copy. I get lost in the Kindle pages. Great blog post!!

    • Mia Kerick, I completely agree with you on the Kindle reading of long books. Seeing a percentage read isn’t the same as holding a book in hand and knowing you have completed x number of pages. There’s a psychological satisfaction in physically seeing what we have accomplished. Also, depending on the type of story, you know as you near the end that mysteries will be resolved soon, or character arcs will be completed, that the journey is nearing its end. When I love a long book I almost want to slow down as I see the end is near because I don’t want it to be over. LOL You mention your short books are popular – could that be a factor of genre? Do romance books tend to be shorter if they are not paranormal or fantasy? Another question for another post. Thanks for your input!

  4. Great post. I definitely don’t think word count should ever be more important than storytelling myself. If a book catches my eye, I will read it regardless of length, but I am often put off by books that are part of too long a series, like the Song of Ice and Fire, or the Wheel of Time books, simply because I like to reach a satisfying conclusion without having to spend years following them.
    Also, young adults and teens may not be inclined to read long books but I think the idea of them only liking simplistic plots is not right at all. Again, the length of a book should never be an indication of how good a story is.
    I write fantasy novels and they reach around 70,000 words, which is quite short for the genre, but that is only because, like you say in your post, I don’t indulge in padding or over describing.
    I think a story should be as long as it needs to be.
    Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks, Steve, for weighing in. You mention your books are around 70,000 words. I wonder if a publisher would balk if you submitted one that was 110,000 words, even though you did not indulge in extraneous detail and the story demanded the higher word count. Appreciate your insight.

  5. As an aspiring author, and in the beginning stages of my first novel of my trilogy, I didn’t start writing until I did as much research on my genre of interest as possibe (high fantasy). The more I dug, the deeper I felt in a hole of limitations. I started to feel like I was constricting my writing for fear of the dreaded Word Count Monster. As the author, my tone will translate to my readers. If I want them to follow along freely and willingly, I should be inviting and write as I wish initially, then when I go back and edit, don’t keep checking the word count, but focus on flow. Readers will read, I think, no matter the weight or feel of the book, but whether the story is gripping and the author provides a welcoming environment. My vote is for storytelling.

    • Thanks for your input, My Fifth Journal. I agree with you. My new, as yet unpublished book, is a long YA horror thriller that has a lot of plot and many characters, but is still very lean in terms of unneeded words. Alas, it is over the “allowed” submission word count for every small publisher I have researched, so I will have to convince an agent it is worth reading. Sadly, good storytelling will become a lost art form if this obsession with word count continues amongst publishers. Best of luck to you with your project.

  6. katepavelle says:

    Dean Wesley Smith has something to say on word count and the history of book length. And, productivity 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s