What Is the Best Length for a Book?

Tinybook-IOI recently had a conversation with an author who is planning on publishing a book of her short stories on Amazon.com. She wondered what the best length for a story and the best length for a whole book would be.

My suggestion to her was that she experiment by releasing some of her short pieces as individual ebooks, as well as and before putting them together and releasing them as a big Kindle or print compilation.

In fact, this is good advice for almost any author today, fiction or nonfiction.

Why?

The old physical constraints of paper books once forced authors, publishers, and readers to deal in bulky objects of 100 pages or more. It was just uneconomical in most cases to ship and sell physical books much smaller than that. Nowadays, ebooks let you sidestep this physical constraint, and that creates an opening to trade in smaller units of writing.

Salamander Six, a gripping short story by Mike DiBaggio.

Salamander Six, a gripping short story by Mike DiBaggio. ~10,000 words.

It’s as if once upon a time you could only buy grapes in 1lb bags. Anybody who wanted to buy less than that had to choose between (a) no grapes at all, or (b) moldy grapes in the fridge.

Nowadays, you can buy and sell grapes individually. And it turns out there are customers who only wanted one grape at a time, and there are customers who would never buy a full 1lb of some new exotic Mediterranean grape — but would happily gobble up two or three just to try it out.

Based on my experience, I’d say releasing some smaller ebooks plus a compilation gives you three advantages over authors who stick to selling great big books exclusively.

Advantage 1. You make your compilation look more awesome.

Say you were going to sell a compilation ebook of your short stories at $4.99. If it contains 10 stories, 3 of which you also sell individually for $0.99 each, then you can say that the book has 7 great stories PLUS as a bonus it contains stories X, Y, and Z for free.

Now the perceptive customer can see that your $4.99 book comes with ~$3.00 of bonus material. Everybody loves bonus material.

Advantage 2. It gives you a better chance of being discovered by a new customer.

If a new customer who has never read anything by you before, and never bought anything from you before, only has to pay $0.99 to get their first hit of your stuff, they are more likely to jump in.

Advantage 3. You get more detailed market feedback, and you get it sooner.

In the long run, this is the most important benefit.

A Car Crash of Sorts, by Frank Marcopolos. A very fun story, just ~8,000 words.

A Car Crash of Sorts, a very fun short story by Frank Marcopolos. ~8,000 words.

Let’s say you’ve finished the first 3 short stories, and you plan to write 7 more for your book. (If you’re Frank Marcopolos, you can write a story a month and then publish them all for Christmas). You can keep those first 3 stories to yourself and spend the next few months toiling away in isolation. Or you can sell those first 3 stories separately, and learn from how the readers respond to them while you’re writing the rest.

The sales and reviews will tell you whether they like your longest story or your shortest one, whether they like your first-person-present murder mystery or your third-person-past wizard duel, et cetera. And all that feedback helps you decide what to write more of and what to emphasize in your bigger volumes.

Of course, it’s a great idea to keep tabs on what other successful authors with a similar target audience are doing, but every book and every author’s voice is unique. Your writing isn’t really just another fruit in the produce section.

If Daniel Sanchez and Wendy McElroy and Jeffrey Tucker each wrote a 1,000-word article about the same new law, you would have 3 very different pieces of writing, with three different audience reactions.

The same goes for you. Your readers are going to find you and interact with your writing a little bit differently than they do with anybody else. The best way to find out how is to put some of your writing on the market and see what they do with it.

 

For all three of these reasons, nowadays I find myself advising just about every author and publisher I meet to release some smaller pieces of writing as well as big tomes of knowledge.

Its one more way to get your grapes on the table.

However, there are three caveats you should be aware of.

Caveat 1. Maximize the power of your preview.

Amazon automatically lets people see the first 10% of your book as a preview via the Look Inside feature. For a very short book, the front matter can eat up a lot of that 10%. To get around this, just put your copyright, dedication, et cetera, at the end of the book.

That way, readers who check out your preview will see the things that might make them want to buy.

Caveat 2. Amazon’s royalty system used to be better for short books.

Those of you familiar with the intricacies of Amazon’s royalty system know that Amazon recently changed the payout scheme for some royalties on some books. The short version is that within the Kindle Select program, you are now getting paid based on the number of pages your customers read rather than the sticker price of your book, so short books are penalized relative to long books with the same price.

This does reduce the potential monetary gains to selling shorter books via the Kindle Select program. But the three reasons to do it listed above still stand. Just sell a short book and include the text of it in a long one.

Caveat 3. What is the smallest size you can effectively sell?

Once upon a time, Amazon sent out messages to authors of very small ebooks, saying “Content that is less than 2,500 words is often disappointing to our customers and does not provide an enjoyable reading experience.”

A Century of Anarchy, by Peter C. Earle. A most edifying grape.

A Century of Anarchy, by Peter C. Earle. At ~5,000 words, it is a most edifying grape.

Amazon doesn’t appear to do that anymore. And some authors report having success with really short ebooks. See the forum comments here and here, for instance.

Personally, I would start out with something 5,000 words or more. If your pieces are naturally shorter than that, you could try putting a few of them together as a small compilation.

Whatever you do with a smaller book, put the word count in the description, or even put something like “A Short Story” as the subtitle, so the reader isn’t surprised by its brevity. Nothing generates bad reviews like readers who feel cheated.

(Yes, the number of pages is automatically listed by Amazon, way down on your book page, but some readers won’t look at that.)


My fellow authors and publishers, have you tried releasing pieces of different lengths, either for free or for sale? What have you learned about your own corner of the market? I’m eager to find out in the comments.

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Filed under Ebooks, Publishing

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