This week authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss if word count matters when you’re indie publishing based on readers’ expectations and genre conventions.
Crys: Welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my co-host, J Thorn.
J: How you doing, Crys?
Crys: I’m doing all right. It’s just one of those weird weeks where I feel like I haven’t done anything, even though I know I have. I haven’t done fiction work and that, a lot of times, is where my brain logs work. Like, ah, yes, I have created things. And I’ve been creating things, just not fiction.
J: I know that feeling.
I’ve been running the how-to book challenge this week. It’s going great. I’m getting a lot of good feedback from it. And it’s a lot of work, but like you, I haven’t gotten many words. Like I did get about 3000 words on one day this week, and I felt like I won the Superbowl or something. I got words in and like the rest of the day was just so much better. And I had to remind myself like, yeah, that’s kinda why I do this is because I can’t not do it.
Crys: Yes. Yeah. You get that itchy feeling when it’s been too long.
J: Yup. I had that this week.
Crys: Yup. Our question this week is a bit more of a craft/business question. And that is: does word count matter when you are indie publishing?
J: I don’t think we have very many questions on this podcast where I come up with a strictly definitive answer, but I have one here, and it’s absolutely not.
Crys: All right, but let’s dig into why. I agree with you, but also, mine’s not definitive. It’s not absolutely not because there are some genres that are specifically defined in that they are short. So that’s my caveat there.
Or long, so for instance, epic fantasy, you’re not going to have a 60,000-word story that’s epic fantasy. Now, that’s not any different than traditional publishing though.
J: I totally agree with you, I think it’s genre dependent, but I also think there’s two variations of that question. One is, I don’t feel like I’m doing a good enough job because there’s not enough words here, versus I don’t know how many words I need to meet this reader expectation. Those kind of feel like two different questions in a way.
Crys: And I would add a third one of, oh no, my book is getting too long, I keep adding things to it. And answering those questions gets far more subjective. And a lot of it is what you said about like reader expectation.
J: There was an interesting question that came up in the challenge this week about a non-fiction book. And someone said, “I’m worried, it’s too short.” And I’m like, a non-fiction book can’t be too short. Like by definition, you’re solving a problem and people want their problem solved fast. They don’t want to read through pages and pages of filler. So that’s not a problem in my opinion.
Crys: A hundred percent. Like if your book is 5,000 words then maybe that’s a blog post and not a book, but other than that, like as long as it’s thick enough to have a spine and not a fold, it’s long enough.
This came up because a coaching client of mine was like, you know, my book is a hundred thousand words already, but my beta readers are saying they need more descriptions. So I keep adding, but it’s so long already. And I read the book after they said this, and I was like, your pacing’s fine. So if you need to add little bits here and there, and you add 5,000- 10,000 words of description that some of your readers need, that’s fine.
I’m not one of the readers who needs a lot of description and so as a writer, I often default to the white room syndrome myself. So I don’t need that as much when I’m reading. But I also will listen to readers when they say they need that. And it’s like, if readers are saying they need that, go ahead and add that. It’s not going to hurt this story. You don’t have to add a full page of description every time. You don’t need to add 250 words of description every time you shift a location, you can add a sentence, you can add two sentences. It’s going to be fine.
J: Do you consider yourself an underwriter or an overwriter?
Crys: Definitely more on the underwriter side.
J: Yeah, me too. I’ve never had the problem of like, oh, I’m writing too much. I always seem to write just as much as I have to, until I’m asked for more. I don’t necessarily know if that’s a good thing or not, but that’s just how I’m wired. And I’m always just astounded when I hear writers that are like, “Yeah, I don’t know, I thought it was going to be like 70,000 words is now it’s 120.” And I’m like, I can’t even imagine that. I can’t even get my head there.
Crys: Yeah. I’m like, I really wanted this to be 70,000 words and we’re at 50.
J: Yeah. You’re like, damn, did I miss a zero? Did I not carry the four? How am I not at 70?
Crys: I am thankful with romance because with my romance I’m fully in KU, and romance readers, particularly in my sub-genre, really love just fluff. Like if you want to add three scenes of just everyone being happy hunky dory at the end of your book, three whole chapters even, they’re delighted. And so if I have length that I’m trying to meet because I get a certain amount from Kindle if it is a longer length, I get paid more if it’s longer, I’m not upsetting their expectations. I’m giving them more of what they love. But if you try to do that in a hard sci-fi, you would get torn to pieces.
J: Yeah. Yeah. There are definitely genre conventions you have to pay attention to. But generally speaking, I think the word count, even the trad pub word count, has nothing to do with craft at all.
Crys: I was going to say, I do want to talk about why trad pub has generic word count kind of ideals. And it is simply the cost of printing those paperbacks because they do print runs. That is the reason. They don’t want to risk thousands of thousands and thousands of dollars on an unproven writer with a long ass book that costs more than a 60-to-90,000-word first novel to prove themselves. They want to spend as little as possible.
J: Yeah. And there’s also the marketing logistics side of it, in that novels for trad pub are typically 75 to 80,000 words at a minimum because that’s the width of the spine they need to be able to market it on the shelf. Again, it has nothing to do with craft. It’s a Relic Of another time when people did all their book buying in bookstore. The whole word count thing is very nebulous. It’s not something I would worry too much about.
Crys: Yeah. And going with the spine thing, your category romances, like your Harlequins, your Mills & Boons, those were going to be 40 to 60,000 because they were the small trade mass market size. And again, they were going to get the right spine width size.
For anyone who is stressing out about word counts, wondering if there’s a right length, I hope we have assuaged your somewhat.
J: Yeah, that is definitely something you don’t have to worry too much about.
Crys: I am a bit at a loss as what to ask folks. So do you have anything that pops to mind?
J: I guess a related question is, underwriter or overwriter? Cause it seems like most writers fall into one of those two camps naturally?
Crys: So are you an underwriter or an overwriter? All right, friends. Thanks so much for joining us this week.
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