Economy of the Novel

Charlie Stross asks why novels are the length they are. Not surprisingly, the length of the novel has been closely tied to its medium and economics since the Victorian period. With serially published novels, chapters needed to be short enough that they didn’t dominate a magazine, and the length of the total work depended on the author’s endurance, the publisher’s faith, or the (sometimes-short) life of the magazine.

The length of the novel today has been influenced by such factors as paperback originals, binding technology, and by consumer reluctance to pay more than $24 for a hardcover.

To add to the fun, when you take an 800 page book and split it into 300 page chunks, you do not get two 300 pages bits, or even three 300 page bits; each book has around 100 pages of scene-setting, recaps, and interweaving to make it work as a self-contained module. And stuff proliferates and gets out of hand, and you have to come up with sub-climaxes to make each book work satisfyingly as a book, and, and ... At the end of the day, the 800 page sequel turned into four books averaging 310 pages each; a 50% expansion!

Stross predicts that this model for pricing and length requirement will change dramatically with the adoption of eBooks. He also predicts a revival of some of the neglected forms, including a resurgence of the serial that is already underway.