Is 50,000 the magic number for e-books?

I was talking with a friend this afternoon who is something of an industry watcher in the publishing industry, and we were discussing e-book length. Now I’ve thought about the length of e-books for a while, so it was a familiar discussion, but he brought some interesting ideas to the table.

His take on things is that thinking of e-books in terms of the conventional publishing market is wrong, because they simply aren’t paper books and don’t follow the same psychological rules as books. Size is a factor in buying books, and people these days like to feel they are getting their money’s worth as books have become more expensive, so longer books are the norm in many parts of the publishing industry. (Not all, which I’ll come to in a moment.)  Therefore, the ideas of long a book should be are based on concepts of thickness and value.

But these concepts don’t apply to e-books, as e-books have no physical form for the reader to judge, and things like word count (and to a degree even page count) are abstract enough to be meaningless to most buyers. This means that in theory an e-book just needs to be long enough to tell the story, and length is irrelevant, right?

Not so fast.

His other thought was that while the physical rules don’t apply anymore, other rules do. He felt that people simply aren’t used to reading long works in electronic format, and that this desire to spend less time staring at a screen (don’t we spend enough time staring at screens in our day already?) would mean that people would tend to read shorter works as opposed to longer ones. In his opinion, he felt that e-books would be better suited to be shorter than print books are on average, and that this is what people would gravitate towards. People would want shorter books they can consume during commutes or on lunch-breaks and the in-between moments of their day.

So, I asked him- Taking all this into account, how long should an e-book novel be?

His answer- 50,000 words, or shorter.

What’s interesting is that this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this number bandied about, not only is this the target number for NaNoWriMo, but it turns up a lot of other places as well. This is also the length of choice for most Young Adult novels, and (he pointed out) has been the target length of Harlequin Romance Novels for several decades. (When I think about it, this is also the rough length for most Louis L’Amour westerns, and was also the target for Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels back in the 60’s and 70’s.)

He suggested that for longer works, it would be better to write at this length and then serialize the story over several of these shorter books.

Is he right? I’m still deciding, but he does have some good points, and at least for a forthcoming YA project I will definitely use this as a target length.




3 thoughts on “Is 50,000 the magic number for e-books?

  1. Interesting stuff.
    Just a personal opinon, but I’m tempted to agree with him.

    I just received a Kindle for Christmas, which I’m delighted with. While reading, though, I noticed the percentage bar at the bottom of the screen. Although the book was pretty absorbing, I was also far more aware of how much I’d read and how far there was still to go. I was also aware that what I was holding in my hand was not just that one book, but several others that I was keen to get round to reading, too.

    I do think that e-readers are very much designed in their portability and capacity for travellers & commuters and so it makes complete sense to have shorter books (even, possibly, aim for short-ish chapters?) that feel more manageable. Not sure about the exact number of words. Perhaps 50,000 is a natural best choice as it’s more than half an average book and is a nice, round number that, as you say, has been tested in certain genres anyhow.

    The only issue I can forsee is related to the current problem of pricing (there’s a great article on its inconsistencies here:
    Would people feel cheated if they’re only getting 50,000 words, whereas an epic of 100,000 may be the same price? (I don’t think so, but it’s a possibility)

    • The ebook pricing issue that the article refers to is mostly about the bigger publishers and their refusal to see ebooks as anything but extra profit. (They also pay the actual writers of those books like 5% royalties on ebook sales, despite the books being mostly profit at the ebook stage.) Among the Indie (small press and self published) market, ebooks tend to be priced between free and about US$5.00 for novels and normal length works. That’s one of the things that gives them a huge appeal over the overpriced mainstream books.

      I think you’re right about the potential for readers to feel cheated, but it will all come down to pricing. Many say that the US$2.99 price point is the golden number for indie works, and I think a 50,000 word book at $2.99 is quite a bargain. (It probably took 100 hours of effort to produce, after all.) I myself lean towards a pricing system of 99 cents for under 30,000 words, $2.99 for 31,000-60,000 words, and $4.50 for 61,000 words or more. There’s no science here, but I think it’s a good pricing scheme. We’ll find out when I actually try it!

      As for reading length, you’re likely right that the better approach may be shorter chapters that feel more managable. My wife is addicted to James Patterson novels (no relation, sadly) and those tend to have 1-3 page (single scene) chapters which the reader just buzzes through like popcorn. Of course, would that affect an ebook read on a kindle? Or is that strickly a paper thing?

      Congrats on your new Kindle! I have this weird deal with myself going that I won’t buy one until I can pay for it using money I’ve earned through writing. ^_-

  2. Oddly enough, I had exactly the same deal with myself about buying a Kindle – but then was forced to renege on it by Father Christmas (not that I’m complaining, obviously). ^_-

    I like your pricing system: it looks fair. Something I’ve also noticed is that some of the more prolific authors offer their first book for a low price (some brave souls even offer it free) and then price subsequent books at a higher amount. That certainly seems like a possible idea for a series like Twin Stars.

    I guess it may vary from reader to reader but I definitely noticed chapter length much more on the Kindle – again, possibly because you don’t have it physically there in front of you you can’t flick as fast as with paper to see where the next natural break is coming up. James Patterson’s chapter lengths might be a little bit extreme, but I do think it might be better to avoid enormously long ones.

    All the best, have a productive 2012 & hope you’ll have earned that e-reader by this time next year, or long before. ^__^

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