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.




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