Monday, October 7, 2013

Word Count - Page Count – What's a Novella?

With ebooks allowing stories to be published at any length, readers can become angry – and leave you a one-star review on Amazon! – if the story isn't as long as they think it should be, even when the story's length is part of the sales copy.  That 99 cent deal turned out to be only 10,000 words instead of the full length novel they thought they were buying.  While Amazon also gives an estimate for page length, I thought maybe it might be helpful to have a breakdown.  First what is the difference in a short story, a novelette, a novella, and a novel?

I hit the search engine and found all kinds of answers.  One of the first articles I came across was by Lee Masterson, a freelance writer from South Australia.  She placed the word count of a novella at 20,000-50,000.  If this was true, many novels published in the past aren't really novels.  I feel like this isn't quite it.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America breaks it down like this:

Short story - 7,500 words or less
Novelette - 7,501-17,500 words (many editors simply lump this category into either the short story or the novella groupings)
Novella - 17,501-40,000 words
Novel - 40,001 or more words

So how does that break down into manuscript pages? Well, it depends on how many words you put on a page. I used to see several different formulas for calculating word length.

"You should count the words in X number of lines on a page, then average them, then multiply by the number of lines on a page, then multiply by the number of pages . . ."

"You should count all the words on X number of pages, then average them, then multiply by the number of pages . . ."

"You should count the words, but only count words that are three letters or longer . . ."

Writers, of course, had many important things to do back in those days – like getting a second cup of coffee or walking down to the mailbox to see if that blankety-blank publisher finally sent that check (some things never change) – so it's no wonder that they didn't want to sit around hunched over a typed page counting words. Because of that, the industry standard came to be, "Well, that looks like a normal page . . . margins are about right . . . dialogue's not excessive . . . 250 words!" The editors and publishers went along with that because, hey, it was easy to figure out. A thousand words every four pages meant a 200 page manuscript was 50,000 words, and all was right with the world.

Then computers came along with their accurate word counts, and all that went out the window. We discovered that books were often a little shorter than we thought they were. In some cases they were longer. Most normally typed pages run between 200 and 250 words, so the old rule of thumb wasn't really that far off. If you accept the SFWA's categories, that means (and we're doing some rounding here):

Short story – up to 35 pages
Novelette – 35 to 85 pages
Novella – 85 to 200 pages
Novel – 200 pages and up

I'm not sure the designation "novelette" really means much when it comes to ebook publishing. Sales copy tends to break down along "short story", "novella", and "novel" lines. I think of anything under 50 manuscript pages as a short story. 50 to 150 pages is a novella. Anything over 150 pages is a novel. For purposes of the Peacemaker Awards presented by Western Fictioneers, anything under 30,000 words falls into the Short Fiction category  (eliminating the need for extra categories) and anything above 30,000 is a novel.

When you're writing sales copy, I've learned that it's a good idea to give the reader as much information as possible. If your ebook a short story, say it's a short story. If it's a novella, say so – although you might want to specify that it's not a full-length novel, as the word "novella" might not mean anything to some readers. Go ahead and include the word count, although again, many readers may have no idea how many words are in a full-length novel. One of the best things to come out of the ebook surge is that it's possible to write and publish novellas again, a length that had become almost non-existent what with publishers wanting bigger and bigger books. So go ahead and tackle that novella you've been wanting to write. Just don't try to pass it off as a full-length novel, because somebody will complain if you do.

And if you are a reader and really enjoyed that 99 cent novella that was described as having 18,000 words , please be fair and don't give it a nasty 1 star review because it wasn't a full length novel.


  1. Livia,

    Really important stuff to be writing about.

    What we all need to know.

    Thank you.

    Charlie Steel

  2. I was actually burned by this a couple of months ago. I received a 1-star review on a short story, which specifically stated in the product description that it was A) a short story, and B) its length of 8,400 words.

    While I'm all for people pricing their products at whatever floats their boat, it has caused - perhaps unreasonable - expectations that a full-length novel can be had for $0.99, and when an unknown reader discovers they spent that almost-dollar on a short story, they get cranky.

    My Commando novels are coming in between 43,000 and 49,000, and the most push-back I've ever received was that they were "very quick reads", but it wasn't a criticism.

  3. I meant "unknowing reader", not "unknown", sorry!

  4. Livia, I've had this happen to me review-wise as well. Even though Amazon states the word length and it was plainly described by my publisher as a short story. Thanks for this enlightening post on lengths. I remember "back in the day" when there was a short story or a novel. LOL

  5. Good information Livia.
    If I reach over 8000 words on a short story, I go back and look for something to cut.
    I have been asked to expand a story but I don't believe it was criticism.
    thanks for the info.

  6. Very useful. To me, I don't care about the word count, it is the story that is important. I have read some amazing .99 short stories that were great and some .99 novels that were horrible. But there are some who think the word count it most important and put stuff in that does nothing to move the story forward.
    I appreciate you taking the time to help writers and readers comprehend the new world of publishing. Doris

  7. Very helpful, Livia. Thanks for posting.

  8. I'm not sure reviewers realize how much they hurt the author's sales when they rave about how great the story is and then give it one star because it's a short story. Amazon tells exactly how many pages it is, so there shouldn't be any confusion.

  9. Yesterday the same short story was given a 1-star rating in the UK store for pretty much the exact same reason.

    "Too short should be longer or maybe the whole book was not downloaded fully. However would like to read similar book."

    I'm going to move the notice about it being a short story and its length to the beginning of the product description because people are clearly not reading to the end of the description.

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  11. Let's look at this from a reader's perspective. For me price/value, length and quality, go hand in hand. You can't have two of these things or just one and think that me a reader will bother with it. For me it's the expense of $0.99 per short story, when you can find full length Westerns, or in my case multiple genre's with full length books for $0.99 and even free short stories.
    Let me add, you have a newbie to short stories, that just blows everyone away, lives up to the Western mag. era stories, has amazing word craft skills, gives you an extra helping of action in each story, they toe the line with Elmore Leonard and Les Savage, Jr. and with each story, they raise the bar for everyone else, effected what I'll buy short story wise.
    I will also preview the listing when I can on, or, look at author's websites for snippets or for reviews. True you have some reviewers that feel cheated, but you have more honest reviews than the whiney ones!

  12. If a reader thinks 99 cents is too much to pay for a short story, where the author only gets 35 cents, then they don't have to buy it. It's my opinion that it's an unfair review to give one star for a good short story because of the cost or the length. The reader knows both before buying. This is not something has has happened to me, but I've seen it happen over and over to other writers.

    There are a lot of great reviewers, and authors owe them a lot for giving up their time writing reviews. They are greatly appreciated.

  13. Sorry I don't see it like you, but can see were not every readers like me and just clicks the back button! See it everyday at my paying job, you can't please everyone, but I just looked up four WF authors on, two authors I read and two I don't. I looked at two books a piece from them, three of them don't have any 1 star reviews complaining about the price. I found just one that does, but the same author has two complains about the quality of his writing in a 13 page story, and the last one. The reviewers disappointed that the author wrote a short story verse a full length book. So how is that bad?