Apropos of #NaNoWriMo, our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "How long should my book be?" We're exploring the seemingly ever changing definitions of “book” length, novella length, etc.
It seems this question comes up around NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month, where participants attempt to write a 50,000-word "novel" during November - because of that magical 50K word goal. I can tell you all with good authority, because I've heard it straight from the mouth of Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, that he picked 50,000 words as the month's goal because it seemed like a nice, round number to him. At the time, he had little idea of how long a novel should be.
It can be a bit misleading because, while novels are considered to be more than 40,000 words as defined by organizations sponsoring awards - like SFWA's Nebula Award* - it's rare for a novel to be that short.
As far as traditional publishing is concerned, very few imprints consider books that are less than 80,000 words. The sweet spot for most publishers seems to be 85,000-100,000 words. Recently, several author friends and I have noted that our editors have asked us to trim our novels to be less than 120,000 words. We think that's a window dictated by printing press limitations. After that benchmark, the cost shoots up. Some imprints, like Harlequin category romances - very slim books - are around 55,000-60,000 words, but that's a very specific brand. Some literary fiction books might come in below 80,000 words, but again, that's a fairly specific genre, so you'd want to target that carefully.
And sure, with self-publishing it doesn't matter - except that readers have expectations. If something isn't clearly labeled as a novella or shorter, they tend to get cranky. Frankly, even if a novella or short is labeled clearly as such, reviews often note that it's too short.
So: how long should your novel be? Shoot for 85,000-100,000 words and you'll be golden.
*Incidentally, the word-count definitions for the various story lengths as defined by SFWA are:
Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words
Novel: 40,000 words or more.