What Is A Novel? And Why Does It Matter? And To Whom?

According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a novel is “a long, printed story about imaginary characters and events.” I find that definition, while technically accurate, woefully vague. Dictionary.com, thankfully, has a more precise definition: “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Formal language aside, this is much better. Far more specific and comprehensive. However, neither definition concretely addresses what is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a novel: length. So allow me to synthesize parts of the above definitions with one of my own.   A novel is a piece of fiction that is 60,000 words or more.

important

But what’s more relevant than the definition itself are the reasons why readers and writers alike should care.  So let’s discuss, briefly, what some of those reasons are, why they matter, and to whom they matter. First off, I’ve yet to come across a literary agent or a publisher that will even consider a manuscript that is less than 60,000 words, so length is paramount.  My guess is that’s to do with marketing.  Agents must sell manuscripts in order to make any money, and publishers big and small are not willing to spend the time, energy, and resources on any manuscript, regardless of quality, that cannot be labeled a novel, which is, by leaps and bounds, the most popular form of fiction read today.  It’s supply and demand. Simple as that.  That said, I love short stories and novellas, but generally speaking, people don’t read them. Truth be told, I don’t read them much, unless it is for a literature or creative writing class I happen to be teaching.  In short, readers read novels. Period.

money

Money is another reason writers should be keenly aware of the definition of a novel.  Everything, in the end, gets back to money. Sad, but true.  And if publishers are going to go to the trouble of publishing a book, it needs to be of substance and of a certain length, i.e. novel-length. Quick hypothetical: imagine you’re a Kindle reader, and you purchase a “novel” that looks good, but then soon discover the book is less than a hundred pages.  You feel cheated, right? Betrayed, maybe even enough to not bother with the rest of the book.  And if you do read on, that sense of betrayal can and will color your opinion of the book in question, especially since you paid good money for it.  Now consider the cost of printing a hardback or paperback.  After paying editors and proofreaders and book cover designers, a publisher has to then send a typeset manuscript to a printer, and that costs even more money.  Publishers must be selective in what they publish. Highly selective.  It’s not just a question of money, but time as well. For all the time a publisher spends on one book, that same publisher is missing out on a whole slew of other books, all potential bestsellers. For you business types out there, you’ll know there is a name for this: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.

Bottom line, writers need to be aware of what publishers and agents mean when they ask for novels, and act accordingly. Because if writers don’t, they’ll get something even worse than a boilerplate rejection notice in their inbox: they’ll get no response at all.

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So what’s your definition of a novel? Why do you think readers prefer novels over other forms of fiction such as novellas and short stories? I’d love to hear what you think.

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22 thoughts on “What Is A Novel? And Why Does It Matter? And To Whom?

  1. A novel to me is a fiction story of not less than 60k words. That sums it up. In the day of paper books (99% of my reading is electronic these days) I can remember preparing for vacations by buying books with thick spines or buying all the books in a series I wanted to read. Now, I’m really never sure what the length of the books I read might be. I use the percentage counter on my Kindle not the page count.

    It is amazing that the novel is more popular than short fiction or even novellas. This is a fast paced age of instant gratification. I am surprised that readers are still willing to commit the four or five hours that it takes to read a novel rather than multiple bites of short stores, complete in one sitting, or novellas that just require a longer sit. It will be curious to see if that demographic begins to change.

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    1. Life is a “numbers” game–sad but true.

      “X number of pages constitutes a novel.” What if the manuscript stands at 59, 999 words? Or, 59K to be more reasonable. Just saying.

      For my first book I received a measly advance of $1,000. I grabbed it up without hesitation. Fourteen years later the same book was picked up by another publisher for a $7,500 advance. They originally offered five K; I told my agent to ask for ten. They countered with the 7.5. I’d learned a few things.

      I then received a measly fifty buck advance for my historical novel(s). 165,000 words. “Too long for a nobody” was repeated over and over; the publisher I “settled” for made me cut my baby in half. Sounds of Solomon. I took the insult because I wanted the damn thing published in time for the 150th anniversary of the War of Northern Aggression (that’s the American Civil War–a misnomer–for those north of the Mason-Dixon Line). Fifty bucks for the best thing (IMO) I’ve ever written.

      My first two mysteries received decent advances from a midsized publisher with great promotional/distribution channels (through one of the industry “biggies”). Then they dropped me despite very good reviews. A numbers game.

      My agent shopped the series around. A small press offered a four-book deal, but zero advance. I took it. I wanted the series to get established and build a readership. Four books guaranteed seemed the way to go, so that’s where I went.

      It’s all about the BIG $$$$ and that’s the way of the world. Break down the hours the average selling writer puts in and we receive a pitiful pittance for our labor. Again, a numbers game.

      Why do I play the game? I write, therefore I am.

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  2. I’m trying to get away from using my Kindle, so I’ve come up with a ratio of 4 to 1, meaning I read four paper or hardbacks for every Kindle book. Still prefer the actual item in my hand, still dig turning the pages, etc.

    I tend to disagree with you about the “era of instant gratification”; it’s more like constant gratification. And not to state the obvious, but more and more people don’t read at all. When I published my first book a few years ago, several faculty members at my college came up to me and said, “Congratulations. I’d buy your book, but I don’t read.” These are college instructors, mind you. Now I don’t mind if people don’t like my books, but read something.

    I guess my post was geared more toward any writer who’s looking to start sending out his or her manuscript. On my first attempt, I wrote what I thought was a novel, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why I was getting no response at all. Who knew a 42,000 word screed about a broken marriage didn’t qualify as a novel?

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    1. Interesting post, Max. Much food for thought. I wholeheartedly agree about the general population’s non-reading habit. Could be why this nation has been so easily dumbed-down. Ever thought of dusting off that “screed” and adding a few thousand words? By the way, your non-reading colleagues could’ve bought your book(s) and given them as gifts, or used ’em for doorstops, etc. Nothing like support! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I too love the feel of a paper book, but the cost has put it out of my reach! Sad, but true. Even what we called “paperbacks” in the old days are all over ten bucks. Some books though I have to have in book form so I can scribble in the margins and highlight. Often, when I really love a book, I will buy the trade so I can mark up the parts that I love. This book thing – it’s an illness of sorts.

      Professors don’t read. OMG, I am 1) shocked, and 2) glad I went to college in the stone age when you could have a rousing debate with any prof about books. Learned a lot that way. I came from a family of readers though, and all but one of my friends reads. I keep trying to figure out what the one that doesn’t read does with all that spare time!

      Constant gratification? Interesting concept. Frightening thought.

      My first novel was well over 100k. I proudly sent it to an editor who promptly sent it back with the comment, “You realize this is two books, right?” LOL – it did become two books, One a mystery, one a romance, and both live under my bed. Some things are better left unseen.

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  3. I’ve always understood the 60,000 word minimum for a novel had to do with printing and the number of pages in signatures within the binding process. Too few pages (consisting of roughly X number of printed words) made the project more expensive to print than what publishers felt they could charge for a book (as you say, how many readers would pay more for a short book when they can pay the same amount — or less — for a longer one?). The advent of e-books confused things — the constraints created by printing on paper vanish with an e-book.

    Novel versus short story or novella…. great question! I like what Robie Macauley and George Lanning wrote in “Technique in Fiction”: “A short story is like a flare sent into the sky. Suddenly and startlingly, it illuminates one portion of the world and the lives of a few people who are caught in its glare. The light is brief, intense, and contrasts are likely to be dramatic. Then it fades quickly and is gone. But, if it is worth its moment of brilliance, it will leave an enduring afterimage in the mind’s eye of the beholder. In contrast, the novel has great luxuries of time and space. It can explore without hurry, develop inevitable currents of action, and watch its people change and mature.”

    I do like that we’re free from writing to a particular word-length these days. If a story ends up being novella-length, excellent. It can be released on its own as an e-book or included in a short story collection.

    As for people who buy a book and find out it’s shorter than what they thought they’d bought? Shame on the seller for over-pricing, or for over-advertising.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi there, Ellen! Great quote from those authors. Paints a nice visual. The advent of ebooks is a revolution in the world of publishing/writing/reading (duh). The best (worse?) is yet to come. I believe it eventually will be the downfall of the giant conglomerates. I might be wrong, but many people thought Amazon would fizzle-out in a few years.

      Like Max, I enjoy the printed book. I have a Kindle, but it still feels “odd” reading on it. And then there are the issues of a glutted market, quality control, etc. I suppose time will tell (oops, cliche alert!).

      BTW, I’m still waiting (not so) patiently for Betty & Walt’s next mystery/adventure. Park that RV and fulfill my wishes! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for constantly beating me in the behind about the next Rollin RV Mystery…. It’s got more layers than the previous Walt and Betty adventure, so it’s taking me a little while. Plus, because I self-publish, I need to be someplace long enough to have a galley/proof copy sent, then a final version, which only happens for us once or twice a year. Tricky thing, this self-publishing gig (but then, I get to make up the schedule, which is why I opted to do things this way). So glad to know Walt and Betty are missed!!

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  4. Love the quote about short stories, Ellen. Literature–or any art–is primarily about capturing an audience’s attention for how ever long you’re asking for it. A sonnet: fourteen lines. A song: three and a half minutes. An opera: four hours. A good novel mesmerizes a reader, teleports him to a grander place, coaxes him into feeling something for a character’s plight. That’s a tall order in 60,000 words, and although I’ve written five pretty good books, I still haven’t quite achieved a level of reader teleportation that I’m happy with. Gonna keep trying, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Literature — or any art — is primarily about capturing an audience’s attention for how ever long you’re asking for it.” So true! You’re not the only one who’s always striving for that ever elusive goal.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure readers do prefer novels over a collection of short fiction. Kindle Singles are hot right now. I guess it depends on the reader. That said, I agree with you that length plays a crucial part in defining a novel. Though most agents I’ve ran across won’t look at a thriller under 80K words. A few years ago, I had a thriller that ran 65K words, and several agents told me to revise to get the word count up before they’d even look at it. I ended up only recently tearing that novel apart, a total rewrite using the same characters but with a different storyline entirely. It is now 83K words.

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  6. Sue, thanks for the insight on what agents are looking for. Last time I sent a round of queries to probably twenty or so agents, and all of those used the 60K mark, but I don’t write thrillers. Read ’em, but don’t write ’em. I didn’t know Kindle Singles were really hot, either; I guess it makes sense though seeing as how people are rushed and want a quick, enjoyable read.

    By the way, I saw a recent piece you did about Paul D. Brazill and his new collection. I read A Case of Noir by him and really dug it. Cheers.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Lots of insights, many battles fought and more to be encountered. It is hard to know which way to go unless you do what you love. I don’t think it would be better or easier to do things you hate and be bored than to fight the writing wars. I don’t want to be someone who says “My life has been so boring,” as my grandmother said many times. Writers are not conventional people and don’t fit easily into slots. Many times our experiences are unusual, strange, and unnerving. We say shocking things and find it hard to make friends who “get it”. It’s fairly lonely. This group is a warm spot, a good landing place to be open. Creative people are hard to control and writers and artists don’t have a great record for calm, easy lives. I write because I love the act of doing it. I read for the same reason. All of you know these things. This doesn’t answer what a novel is – you already defined that. If you have a drive to create it is consuming. At least I can say I am almost never bored. It’s wonderful to have support from other writers and makes those rough times in the middle of the night easier to bear.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. MJ, I often find myself in hot water for things I say, especially at work. My wife says I take “weird stances” on things; she doesn’t get it but she does get me and supports my writing habit. Glad to know MMO offers a safe spot for you. Funny, it does the same for those of us who write and run it so thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must account for your constant “pinkish perplection,” Max. Just kidding! I find it comforting/reassuring to have fellow rebels alongside. Welcome, MJ. You are also a kindred spirit. You “get” it. Keep plugging away like the rest of us. Hopefully, time will separate the wheat from the chaff, Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and his/her/its ilk will sink to the bottom like the satiated crap his (and other celebrity/shock-books are) and the cream will rise to the top!

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  9. Oh one more thing, MJ: I dunno if I am an artist but I definitely can’t be controlled. Hate being told what to do. Won’t abide it, even if I have to suffer the consequences of my defiance. I read “Civil Disobedience” every once a while to remind myself not to swallow whatever governments try to feed me.

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    1. Max, we are kindred spirits. I never liked to fly after all my helicopter “adventures” in Vietnam, but occasionally I did. After 9/11 I will never fly again. I finally had to stop taking my wife to the airport for her flights to visit family in California. Seems I was overcome with statements such as, “I DO NOT have a bomb in my shoe!” Embarrassed the hell out of Karen, and received glaring stares from the SS forces (oops, I mean the TSA employees!). Karen now understands that if we ever want to travel outside the U.S. it will be by boat/ship. Can’t help it, I was born this way (or, maybe just learned it along life’s path), 🙂

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