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Why are SF and fantasy novels the length they are?

It's a question that comes up quite often — back in the 1960s a typical SF novel ran to 60,000 words (130-150 pages); one that topped 80,000 words was considered lengthy. But today, I'm more or less required by contract to hand in 100,000 word novels; and some of them are considerably longer. (At 145,000 words, "Accelerando" would have been considered a whopper back in the 1970s.) So what happened?

Here's how one of my editors (who's been in the business for close to 40 years) explained it to me ...

Until the early 1990s, mass market SF/F paperbacks in the US were primarily sold via grocery store racks, supplied by local distributors (400+ of them). The standard wire rack held books face-out, either against a wall or on a rotating stand. And that's where the short form factor novel became established. Thinner books meant you could shove more of them into a rack that was, say, three inches deep. Go over half an inch thick, and you could no longer fit six paperbacks in a 3" rack. And there was only so much rack space to go around.

During the inflationary 1970s and early 1980s, prices of just about everything soared. The publishers needed to increase their cover prices to compensate. But the grocery wholesalers who sold the books insisted "the product's gotta weigh more if you want to charge more". They weren't in the book business, after all, so just as buffalo tomatoes got bigger, so did paperbacks. (Even though this meant there was less room to go round in the wire racks.) You can only get so much milage by using thicker paper and a bigger typeface; so they began looking for longer novels.

In the 1960s, an SF novel was 60-80,000 words, with 80K being considered overblown and long. By 1990 they'd grown to 90-100,000 words. Luckily the word processing revolution came along in the 1990s, making it easier to write and revise longer books. (A different editor of my acquaintance observed that whenever one of her novelists switched to word processing, the average length of their books increased by about 10% .)

Then in 1992 or thereabouts Walmart Safeway woke up and said "why the heck are we using eighty bazillion distributors?" and fired 90% of them. The number of grocery distributors in California collapsed from 40 to just 2; across the US, 85% of the distributors went bust or merged. The mass market book racks imploded as a sales channel. But that left Barnes and Noble and Borders a market vacuum to fill. So all was well for a while, with the midlist paperback market replaced by a midlist hardcover market.

But the same length pressure applies: publishers want to get more money per book, and over two decades they had successfully trained their end customers, the readers, to expect fatter books. So they tried to make the hardbacks bigger. Finally, circa 2001, Borders yanked the brake handle and said "we won't buy any non-bestselling titles that cost over $24 in hardcover or $7 in mass market — they're not selling". (Each $1 over $24 apparently reduced sales turnover by 20%: new novels by unknown authors simply didn't sell at $30.)

Anyway. I began selling novels (in 2001-02) just as the trend for longer novels peaked. I'm actually writing shorter books than my earlier ones — my last two finished manuscripts ran to 102,000 and 107,000 words respectively, whereas my first three SF novels ran to 118,000, 138,000 and 145,000 words each. (On the other hand, I'm not necessarily writing less. Two bloated 150,000 word behemoths take nearly as long to write as three relatively slim 100,000 word novels, if you've got your future projects planned out well in advance.)

There's just one outstanding problem with this Just So tale of publishing folk. We who read SF/F may have been trained to expect longer books by the grocery distributors, but why haven't mysteries grown the same way? It turns out that the average mystery is much the same length that it ever was. There are exceptions, but they're obvious as such — you don't regularly see 400 or 500 page mysteries on the shelves.

I would hypothesize that mysteries didn't succumb to the selection pressure for longer books because there's a countervailing force at work — the reader's ability to keep track of multiple characters and plot threads. If you want to bulk up an SF or fantasy novel, the easy (and lazy) way to do it is to add viewpoint characters and plot threads, small stories interleaved within the larger story that shed light on it. But it's hard to do that if what you're trying to hand the reader is a comprehensive set of clues to a fixed scenario, without burying them in a midden of red herrings. Which leaves stylistic efflorecense; but a gritty, relatively terse style that has been de rigeur in mystery since Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett — there are exceptions, but florid verbosity is generally frowned upon.

Am I missing anything?




In Germany the heftier novels give the oppertunity to split a single novel into two parts to make even more money.
I don't know if this is done deliberately to get double the revenune for a single license..., but German actually is more verbose. My gut-feeling is something like 40%; does any one have a precise figure?


Tommy: 40% looks about right to me, on the basis of those of my novels that have been translated into German.


I thought American used more words to say things by redundant description, and as so many novels were American they naturally grew. There have been some wonderfully terse SF novels which don't have less in them.


Customer preference as well, I suspect. I, for one, really like big fat novels, and I don't think I'm alone. If it's a good book, why would you ever want it to stop ;)

Why SF readers should like big novels when crime readers don't is interesting though.


I suppose I'm being sexist but women like to pick up a nice light quick read for the beach or what ever and they tend not to rush through the store like men do! While us guys want more "bang for buck"if the books thick and looks interesting grab'n go! Of course I know that's also buying into the stereotype that females don't like science fiction .


Hi Charlie,

Interesting explanation on length. Of course, it only explains US length increase - but since so much of modern commerce is driven by market trends in the US, I can live with that. I've a couple of observations to add, if I may:

1. The New Wave. One of the raisons d'etre of the New Wave was to write SF as proper "literature" (whatever that means - don't start me!), distancing itself from SF's pulp roots. Pre-New Wave, SF had been very much a literature of ideas, but if it now had to accommodate the likes of characterisation, literary style and experimentation, then surely it had to have fewer ideas or more words. (I know that's simplistic, but I'm sure others can/will either refine or refute)

2. Immersion. SF writers spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort building their worlds into suitable canvases for stories. From both an author's and a reader's POV, it's not unreasonable to expect to be able to make the most of that. From a writer's perspective, I guess that means setting more stories in the same universe and wanting to spend a bit more time in each book exploring said universe. And from a reader's perspective, it's pretty Darwinian: you enjoy spending time in a certain writer's uiniverse - and if that writer's longer works consistently outsell his/her shorter works, any editor worth their salt is going to notice and start to drop hints of the not-so-subtle variety!

3. Modern Fantasy. Your post above is fine for SF but it doesn't seem to ring as true for Fantasy. The immersion argument, I think, definitely applies to Fantasy - even more than to SF - but there's something else at work here. Modern fantasy - by which you might be tempted to say post-The Lord of the Rings, but which I want to define as post-The Sword of Shannara, since it was pretty much the book that made publishers aware that there was gold in them thar Quests - has always been larger than its cousins in other genres. It started out that way and, if anything, has just got fatter. I don't have the facts and figures to hand to prove this but my gut feeling is that pre-The Sword of Shannara, Fantasy was indeed "rack-sized" - Leiber, Moorcock, et al - and may have got a little bigger in response to the situation you describe above, but I'd say the immediate commercial success of Terry Brooks and, at around the same time, Stephen Donaldson has more to do with the default size of modern Fantasy novels ranging from "My, that's hefty!" to "Argh! My wrist! My wrist!".

It's a fascinating subject, though, and I'm certain it's inextricably linked with the decline of the short fiction market.

Actually, there's probably a thesis in there somewhere!


Thank god Neal Stephenson got himself established when he did.


Quite frankly, the behemothes... Behemi? :) ... annoy the crap out of me.

I love reading an SF book and be bombarbed by concepts and ideas AND get a full story relatively fast. I started out on the old stuff that was translated into danish in the 60s and 70s (Asimov, Clarke and so on) and switched to reading english around 1990 when I realised how much I was missing.

I am one of the horrible heathens that can't really plod my way through Lord of the Rings repeatedly, because it is much too long-winded and I'd rather have something new and shiny. And I never got beyond the 50% mark of Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction because I DO get bored with "yet another zero G sex scene to fulfil the contract"-material.

Let's roll back to the 60-70Kword novels. I don't even need for the price to be reduced much. It's still cheaper than a DVD.


I think part of the reason is that the nature of SF changed. Science Fiction was much more speculative during the 60's. The average author came up with an idea, the more outrageous the better, clothed with the minimal amount of scenery and characterization to explore it, then wound the story up.
By the time the 90's came around the elements of speculation were severely degraded leaving the field with bloated fantastic adventures using the tropes of SF. Fortunately, there are signs, particularly from both current and long-standing British authors, that this is turning around.
After the New Wave put more emphasis on writing and characterization, the field, during the 80's and 90's became dominated by the mindset that "I can write a better SF story than that." And the authors did. The prose was better. Fleshed out characters were set in meticulously built worlds. But that wasn't the reason I read SF as a child. I read SF to have my mind blown.


I think worldbuilding has something to do with it. It might not be the primary impetus, but a mystery writer isn't really required to put together a whole new set of reality-rules (unless crossing genres). And it's getting harder to "make it new" in speculative fiction nowadays -- or seems to be.


I'd agree with Dave, but also the fact that we tend to be cheap bastards. If I'm paying $8, I'm going for the thicker of two good novels - there's more bang for the buck, and I'm less likely to be annoyed by a piece of fluff if it's a long read, for some reason.

But what Dave said is right - there's more characterization these days, more fleshing out, more substance. (Brevity is sometimes amazing, though. My favorite character description is from Eric Frank Russell: "He was a real ladies man: big, handsome, stupid.")

What's better? Hard to tell. I grew up reading the classics - Heinlein, Asimov, etc. And they were shorter, but they were about the idea, the world - not so much the characters. Almost like short stories (again, as Dave said - idea, clothe, finish). But give me Cryptonomicon and I'm just as happy - and for a longer period of time. Again, for the same price.

If there were short novels for $4, I'd be tempted to buy some. But then again, I can go to a half-price bookstore. Or buy a collection.


Vic @5: as a narrow majority of SF is sold to women, and they buy a higher proportion of fantasy, your hypothesis is ungrounded in solid data. (That's a fancy way of saying it's wrong, period.)

Darren: I'm sure the immersive aspects have something to do with it -- but what of the economics? I mean, it's got to cost more to print and bind additional signatures, but readers won't necessarily pay more for a fatter book ... will they?


I want shorter novels, or at least novels that aren't any longer than they need to be. 3-400 page paperbacks often feel padded out. The length that feels most right to me is about 2-250.

If the ideas and story is good enough, more is fine. But the novels that to me stand out most clearly from the crowd, are often short. In a new novel shortness is almost a stamp of quality. It implies focus.

(Then again I'm biased: I run a blog with a strict 256-words limit per entry.)


I think the fatter books are indeed a dollar or two more, at But I'm generally in it for the character development. least on the Yankee side of the Atlantic?

(Me, I prefer to stay in a good story-world for as long as possible, so I gravitate to the longer stuff.)

Neal Stephenson may be the factor that drives me to the e-books I've been resisting, though.


(Darn. Can I delete that butchered post up there?)


I found the end of Anathem somehow rushed. And have found very good 60.000 word novels as well as very good 180.000 word novels in the SF genre. So maybe, size doesn't really matter.


Just a hypothesis: The thicker the book, the less space a bookstore saves by switching it from face-out to spine-out. Therefore, in a section with limited shelf space, the bookstore employees will tend to put more of the thick books face-out, which makes them more likely to sell.

I'll go to a bookstore and compare the average page count on face-out vs. spine-out books.


Programming books seem to have gone through a similar metastasis. My ancient copy of ANSI C by K&R was lost in a move, so I bought a new one to replace it. The new version was nearly twice as thick (12mm) as the original (7mm), despite that the content was identical (including the classic troff formatting). Ritchie confirmed that there was no new content, but that his publisher was concerned that the expensive ($50) slender volume was be lost on shelves filled with 15cm thick books with titles like "LEARN INTERCAL++ IN 3 NANOSECONDS!!1!" and had doubled the weight of the paper to help it stand out on the bookshelf.

Amusingly, the quote on the back of the book reads "C is not a big language, and it is not well served by a big book.". Despite being over twenty years old this year, it is still one of the better texts for learning C.


I don't know if that's true about mysteries. I've been asked by both my editor and agent to up my word counts from the 80k mark to 90-100k, and a friend of mine's contracted to turn in books of 120k+ (and writes 150k before cutting heavily). There's certainly a growing trend in the genre for greater length overall. What's driving it, I don't know for sure, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't pressure from retailers.


I remember reading a news report years ago about an independent bookshop in Sydney that was closing and the owner decided to clear his shelves by selling all remaining stock by weight. He put a set of scales by the till and set a price per kilo for his books. As I recall it worked very well and the place was packed over the final weekend. Much outrage from the usual literati of course, they seemed to think books should be priced by the weight of their words...


I wouldn't separate this as a sex thing. Check out the size of a Harlequin Romance from the 1960's. It's at least half, more like a third the size of recent ones.


Are you missing anything? That you got this idea from James' LJ yesterday!


Here's a hypothesis: over the last few years, the cost of books' physical production and distribution has dropped relative to the cost of marketing and promotion. It costs just as much to promote a slim book as a bloater, but you can get more money from the bloater; so the industry drives towards fewer titles. The same thing is happening in movies, I think?

In this hypothesis, the explanation for the counter-example of mystery and detective stories, I think, is that there is less need for marketing those. That genre has its own demand dynamics, with many known authors, as well as a reliable audience that will buy what's on the shelf; less need for marketing, therefore less pressure to bulk up.


Doug Winter @4:
"Wheel of Time" & "The Night's Dawn trilogy" (or hexalogy for the paperback version that split each volume into two). The former, I've given up reading, and with the latter, came close to throwing it in. "For f%%k's sake, get on with it!" was a a recurring thought as reader.

Till @17:
That's typical Stephenson though isn't it?

It's all well and good the fatter books providing a deeper (longer) immersive experience for the reader. But. Only if the story is good enough that the reader wants to, er, wallow in the story.

My preference is for shorter novels; you'd need to be a crash hot writer to be able to pad out a story & retain my attention. Past a certain point, length gets annoying. "Anathem", anyone? I'm sure there's a brilliant book in there somewhere. And that's not an isolated example.

There is a natural length to a story, and padding it out to achieve a threshold wordcount usually involves addition of subplots, digressions or overly florid prose, none of which IMO improve the story.


Interesting post. Regarding the word-length of novels in the fantasy genre: one of my favorite fantasy books is Poul Anderson's 1961 Three Hearts and Three Lions. It clocks in at about 160 pages, but includes a fully realized fantasy world. It has one point-of-view character and three supporting characters.

On the other end of the spectrum you get Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Its length is colossal: (11 fat books with at least one more posthumous collaboration on the way), and with innumerable POV characters.

I bought Three Hearts and Three Lions 25 years ago, and it still has an honoured place on my bookshelves, despite many moves between purchase and now. I gave up on RJ's opus after book 7 and sold my copies. In this case, shorter is definitely better.


Brian @ 22: I was going to ask about Romance novel lengths. There's some overlap in readers, but even more they have a similar marketing history of being sold in grocery stores on little wire racks. :)


Anathem actually is a mystery. Sci-fi, but with very strong elements of mystery in it. Some of Richard Morgan's work, like 13, is also pretty long and mystery as well.

I think this had more to do with Borders and Barnes and Noble. Specifically, the design of their stores, with long shelves of a particular topic. Mysteries are handled like mangas or world specific SF like Star Wars or Star Trek or whatever that Black Elf's series is. There are many more very long series that are open ended.

I think Stross's original ideas as to how book lengths changes happened is pretty workable. It's centered in how the books are displayed in the retail arena, and plays off the interface of the expectations of the bookseller and the expectactions of the bookbuyer. Mystery people tends to have much different responses to visual stimuli than sci-fi people, and they have different expectations--where the novelty of the plot is, than sci-fi people. They just see books differently when choosing one.


Echoing Darren @ 6, the Fantasy segment does seem a little different. At least a bit of like following like. I'm not conversant with mainstream fantasy but look at Robert Jordan! Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammn. Them's big books. All eleventybillion of them. And they must sell. So having proven a market for doorstops, publishers demand more.

As for _Anathem_, I'm a huge (hah!) fan but this was the first Stephenson that was actually painful to read. Too much shoulder-torque when I'm in bed! So I guess this is the upper bound?

Hmmm. Could giant books be a cunning ploy to drive people to hardbacks just to get additional structural support? I cannot imagine what the mass market version of _Anathem_ will look like. A large paper cube?



Very interesting. What impact do you think ebooks will have on the length of SF or books in general, if any? Obviously ebooks would have to become much more widespread to have any measurable effect.


What is the incremental cost for an additional 60% number of pages (60K -> 100K words) versus the fixed cost for all manufacturing and shipment costs? Many of the fixed costs such as cover art and cover printing will remain the same, and many of the incremental cost, such editing and copyediting time won't increase linearly. In other words, could it be that the additional cost to the publisher is smaller than the additional price they can command with a larger book?

Personally, I wish publishers were still interested in the shorter books as well as the longer ones. There are great short books that just could not be lengthened without diluting them, like Budrys' Rogue Moon, Vinge's True Names, or Clarke's Against the Fall of Night*. And there are longer books that need all that space to get everything in the author's mind across, like Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, Stephenson's The Diamond Age**, or Barton's Acts of Conscience.

* The fact that lengthening AFIN into The City and the Stars resulted in a very different book is evidence for my point.
** Even taking out some sections that I believe don't add to the book (how many times do we need to emulate a Turing Machine in different substrates?), it's a long book, with a lot to say.


Note that the Nebula length categories (established in 1965, if I recall correctly) have novels at 40,000 words and up.

I think the change from sf and fantasy being primarily in magazines to being primarily in book form has something to do with at least the earlier increase in novel length.


I think you nailed it.

I started using pre-proto-word processors in 1966, if that's what you call typing onto punchcards, running them off on a line printer, and retyping any cards whose lines looked bad or needed rewrite.

Appliance word processors probably do make for longer book manuscripts, as few of us can type as fast as Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, L. Ron Hubbard, or Isaac Asimov. I'd guess that longer does not mean better. It also means more correctly spelled but wrongly slected words.

Probably the greatest benefit is for people who write bad first drafts but are very good re-writers, who benefit from 30 or 40 revisions. "Trout Fishing in America" went through that many rewrites before 1967 publication, and Richard Brautigan complained to me in 1968 or 1969 that everynoe thought he'd banged it and "The Pill versus The Springhill Mine Disaster", and "In Watermelon Sugar" out like "On the Road" riffs while he was stoned. He, like Jack Kerouac, were more conscious craftsmen than the public gave them credit. Philip K. Dick, on the other hand...

These references are to a vanished age, and a different genre. But, as I say, I think you nailed it.

Today I only managed to write double-spaced 15 pages (4,250 words) of Axiomatic Magic (a chapter on Einstein and Ramanujan in New York and Paradena) and emailed to some friends and family. That does not keep up the pace of the 15,000 words I'd written in the previous 3 days.

But I don't think I could have done this on manual typewriters, nor longhand on legal pads. Let alone quill pens. 4 cities are competing for Edgar Allan Poe bicentenaries, the way a dozen cities claimed Homer after his death. An then we'll have the Samuel Johnson (often referred to as Dr. Johnson) tricentenary 18 September 2009. As he said (according the Boswell, inventor of the modern celeb bio): "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

So much for motivation. As to speed: "When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book."

As to long books versus short: "I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get."
[Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides]

But, bottom line: "I advised Chambers, and would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy." [op. cit.]


I think it's a case of "bigger is better" and also a bit of laziness on the part of the writers. It's hard to write a stringent short text that says as much as a longer one, especially if you're reluctant to "kill your darlings" to get a better flow in the text. Case in point here is the "Otherworld" series by Tad Williams. The entire fourth book was completely superfluous. The concept is brilliant and could've been one of the all-time classics of sf/fantasy if he'd trimmed it down a bit. The biggest crime you can commit as a writer imo is boring your readers and let a great concept go to waste.

The thing I I love about writers like Charlie and Alastair Reynolds and (for that matter) Peter F Hamilton is that they have the epic scale in their novels and that most of the time they manage to bring it home without any cock-ups or by boring their readers to tears...


Tentative theory: novels are naturally long. If they're short, it's because publishers don't respect the genre.

It's a shame because some stories are better at shorter lengths. I reread Three Hearts and Three Lions not so long ago, and I think the average modern fantasy writer would have puffed up each chapter or two into the length of the whole book.


Jonathan vos Post @ 33 ....
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"

Hmmm, I was once able to ask the much-missed Roger Zelazny why he wrote what he did - and got the utterly convincing aanswer "Because I have to" - with the implication that a lot of his work (I know he did do potboilers ..) emerged, if not fully-fledged, at least squwaking loudly for attention, and demanding to be written.

How else you would explain "Lord of Light" or the seriously mindbending "Creatures of Light and Darkness" I certainly don't know .....

And those two, picked off my big rack, just now, to check, turn in at 250 and 150 pages each.


Charlie @ #12:

One interesting thing that a bookstore in Linköping does (as part of the annual Swedish booksale week) is their "kilo sale", where you do indeed buy books by weight. They have HUGE display cages of books, pile up as many as you want, then go to the counter, where they're weiged and the sale price determined, purely on weight.

That'd have you pay more for a fat book than for a slim, it would. Of course, if you plan to buy there, it'd help if you spoke Swedish and showed up for the first day or two, as most of the cherries are picked in the first few days of sale.


One factor you missed determining length until about the mid-sixties or so: magazine publication. Because a huge percentage of sf novels used to be first published as a magazine serial and there's only so much room in a magazine and you can only run a serial for so long, they tended to be short.

(Of course this never stopped Dickens or Thackeray with their novels a century or so before that...)


On books by weight:
There's a used-book store I go to, where the back room is sold by volume: X amount of money for a bag full of books. (Those are the ones that aren't otherwise selling, I suspect.)


When I was in Japan last year, I was struck by how the prices of paperbacks were all odd amounts, like 673 yen and 491 yen, and not at or just short of a round number like they are in the UK (and the US, I think) like £6.95 or £9.99. My current hypothesis is that they are priced directly according to how many pages they have. Possibly it was an artifact of looking mainly at the prices of translated SF.

Not directly relevant, I know, but I thought I'd throw it in there.


I think there's something of a fashion element to it as well. Big books go in and out of fashion.

The Wikipedia article on "Three Volume Novel" says these were typically 900 pages, 150k to 200k words. Marketing played a large part (but then marketing and fashion are not unrelated) but certain forms of story do seem to lend themselves to growing to fit the space available. These Victorian family sagas and their more modern equivalents (I'm fond of R F Delderfield myself) do, as does fantasy. So when these styles of novels are popular, novels will get fatter.

I suspect a lot of this in SF should be laid at the foot of Tolkien.


Don@18: I can save you a trip, as I work in a bookstore where I co-manage Sci-Fi.

Regarding mass market paperbacks: If the total thickness of an amount of a title (cover to cover thickness x # of copies)is greater than four inches, it's more practical space-wise to face them out.

After three edits, this is the least boring I could make this comment.


You are missing the collapse in production costs with automatic page-setting from word processed manuscripts. With cheap paper and printing a fat book costs hardly any more than a thin one, EXCEPT IN READERS TIME. I dislike fat books because they overwhelm the limited time I have for reading, and have largely stopped buying fiction for that reason. In history books I used to buy longer page counts as I equated that with value, but now realise the author was telling me more than I wanted to know on a subject. SF authors are doing the same, and narrowing their audience as a consequence. Stephenson and Baxter are good examples, I stopped reading both when they became fat, and I can't seem myself keeping up with you.

The sad sight of Novacon dealers not shifting good quality new and nearly new books at knock down prices suggests that SF fans just don't need to buy new books now, as I'm sure they all have multi-year backlogs.


You are missing the collapse in production costs with automatic page-setting from word processed manuscripts. With cheap paper and printing a fat book costs hardly any more than a thin one, EXCEPT IN READERS TIME. I dislike fat books because they overwhelm the limited time I have for reading, and have largely stopped buying fiction for that reason. In history books I used to buy longer page counts as I equated that with value, but now realise the author was telling me more than I wanted to know on a subject. SF authors are doing the same, and narrowing their audience as a consequence. Stephenson and Baxter are good examples, I stopped reading both when they became fat, and I can't seem myself keeping up with you.

The sad sight of Novacon dealers not shifting good quality new and nearly new books at knock down prices suggests that SF fans just don't need to buy new books now, as I'm sure they all have multi-year backlogs.


When I like the universe a book is set in or the story I want that story to last as long as possible. I'm a fast reader once I get hooked on something so bigger books are a distinct bonus. However I have just over 2000 books at present and no room for more (Doesn't stop me buying them however) so in that regard big books are bad. It's actually got me prefering to buy ebooks these days rather than paper books whenever I can.

Ebook releases except from certain authors always lag behind the paper editions. I'm not in the US so I have no Kindle. I'll also only buy books I can crack the drm on (Leaves me with mobipocket and lit). There have been quite a few occasions recently where I've been forced to buy the paper edition of a few books simply due to lack of ebook version. This is very annoying and I can't see me doing it for much longer to be honest. I bought Anathem on launch day from Fictionwise and I'm grateful for the lack of brick in my bag. I just wish I could have done the same with the latest Peter Hamilton. I ended up buying that on paper and then putting it off for ages because I didn't fancy it in my bag on the way to work. Happily I snagged a very well proofread pikey copy last night so Peter got paid *and* I get the convenience I want. I only had to break a bunch of laws to do it :/ )

I'd far rather read my books on my Sony. Shame the publishing industry generally doesn't want me to :(


The only real problem I have with the seriously long books is that I'm a slow reader, which is my problem. (One of these days I'll get around to my copy of "Cryptonomicon".)

I think one problem is that authors with name recognition (say, Stephenson or King) are allowed to write pretty much anything they want (not that there's anything wrong with that) and their publishers are willing to put them out because they will sell. Some lengthy novels are fine, but some could certainly do with judicious editing.

Book lengths have definitely increased since the late 70s, when I spent much of my childhood summers in a bookstore that my father worked at. I remember the shelves of the SF section being full of fairly slim paperbacks. The longest book I can think of from that time is "The Mists of Avalon", which has never been released in a US mass market edition (presumably because it still sells enough in trade editions), though it has in the UK. I once read that when "Stand on Zanzibar" came out it was the largest paperback up to that time, and that was just over 600 pages.

One thing I'm wondering is where does recycling come into this? Are the unsold copies that get pulped recycled? I always thought it was dreadful that the unsold paperbacks would have their covers ripped off and then be tossed into the dumpster. I hope that isn't done anymore.

On selling by weight; there's The Strand in New York that sells old books by the foot. Mainly for decorative purposes.

Peter @8: Behemoth is the plural of Behemah, which in modern Hebrew is a water buffalo, or somesuch creature. So no change needed there.

--This is ended up more rambling than I'd hoped. Oh well.

btw, I got the US trade edition of "The Jennifer Morgue" yesterday at B&N -a Hanukkah present to myself.


What about the #-ologies?
Despite all caution, I get suckered once or twice a year with a 400 or 500 page book which just isn't moving by the halfway point, rousing my usually-accurate suspicion that I've been stuck with the first of 3 or 4 or indefinite episodes.
I generally don't buy books with serial numbers in their titles ("#2 in the third great trilogy!!"), but they're un-labeled more and more often.


I guess the important thing about your books is that they begin and end where they should. The stories are usually very interesting and well written.

In my case, in several occasions they brought good ideas in my field of work (which obviously is not writing (LOL) but OK, I write correctly in Portuguese).

Just as example, as entertainment I really prefer Halting State to other much lengthier book that describes a fallen USA where in southern states people is struggling to control bio-engineering and genetic enhancement. This last book is considered by many as a master work. So Halting State, IMO, is something more than that. That keeps me waiting for its follow up book.


@Soon Lee (25): re Anathem -- the rushed end is somewhat typical for Stephenson, I agree. But I don't think that there is a good (shorter) book hidden in Anathem, but that it would be much better if it was 20 % longer. And that's not in the "I wish there would be another Stross big E novel" mode of thinking, but relates directly to my reading experience.

Maybe you're right in so far as the first 40-60 % or so of Anathem would work as standalone novel, with the later part either cut dramatically short earlier, or lengthend a bit for a more carefully executed story.

Anyways (@shah8), Anathem is not a mystery, but something like philosophical SF -- the core is one (really big) idea (Hylean many worlds theory) extrapolated to book-length. Typical SF, not very typical for a thriller or a mystery book.


33> I'm told that Stephenson writes longhand though... don't have a clue how he does it.

I'm fond of fat books; it's the immersion I think, and not having to jerk out of it to something new so often. Series have the same benefit. Of course some people just pad with crap (argh, Robert Jordan, argh!) but not everyone.

Fat books are pushing me towards ebooks though. I don't like holding heavy hard cover novels for too long; the older, shorter, books are better for reading in bed.


Hi, Bestseller mystery stories have "bloated." Look at Tami Hoag, Sara Paretski, James Paterson, Michael Connelly, Ridley Pearson, and Elizabeth George. Other bloated mysteries have wandered off into suspense.


Mote in God's Eye was considered a very large book when it came out. Then we did Lucifer's Hammer. At that time no paperback selling for more than 3.95 had ever made money with the exception of Shogun; our publisher was concerned that they would sell millions of copies and lose money on each one, so much so that they seriously tried to get us to cut Hammer into two books for the paperback edition (of course it was impossible and we wouldn't do it). Eventually Gold Medal bought the book and brought it out at $4.95 (I think; it might have been $5.95). Everyone rejoiced when it hit the best seller list.

I suspect that experience had some effect on the market. It certainly did on the advances paid for SF novels.

Back when I was first starting in this racket, the serial rights sale was important: Books were not the major source of an SF writer's income. No magazine would publish a book in more than 4 episodes and not many (Dune was an exception of course) got even 4 parts. Since the magazine had to have something other than the serial, the length of the segment had to be limited, which meant that 50,000 words or so was the ideal length of a novel. My first SF novel, Spaceship for the King, was actually the first part of a larger work, but Campbell told me he would only buy 55,000 words max; which is why it took a while to do the rest of the story.

Back in those days book publishers for SF were thin on the ground, and most mainstream publishers didn't think SF could break far out of category. Clarke had, and Heinlein did with his man from Mars book (Stranger). Hammer did even better, and was followed by some others.

The collapse of distributors came later; I suspect that the trend to larger books started earlier than that, although the distribution fiasco certainly had an effect in finishing the job. Laser Books, which tried to do for SF what Harlequin had done for Romance, wanted about 50,000 words, and sparked a lot of novel length fiction, some of it pretty good, some awful; the editing was, shall we say, uneven. I did three of those, and when Laser collapsed and gave the rights back to authors I sold them all to Pocket. They did all right, quite well actually, but never as well as big books did.

I think the trend to fantasy also influenced book length: big fantasy novels tended to be epic length, so most authors strove for that. I suspect that not all of them should have done that. But you're right, both SF and Fantasy are easier to write at epic length than mysteries, which have a set length probably dictated by attention span as you observed. Clancy and others showed that isn't true for high tech action adventure stories.

Mr. Heinlein used to tell me that we are all professional gamblers in this racket, and we'll always have our ups and downs. Fortunately, story tellers usually do reasonably well during hard economic times. Artistes have to be a lot better at their craft in bad time.

Jerry Pournelle
Chaos Manor


As usual, your questions are quite interesting and remind me of things going on in my daily life. Recently I had a conversation with a former university roommate, a self-confessed reader of "vampire porn," who loves nothing more than a good long book with plenty of character development, and who said that my own short stories were good, but impossible to commit to emotionally, as they had no room for said development. If the standard length of an SF or F novel is around 100K words, then the allegedly-"saleable" length of an SF or F short story is lagging behind in scale at around 5K. Or rather, the print length is lagging behind -- online markets typically accept greater length, which allows for more worldbuilding and longer character arcs, as mentioned above. I wonder if this isn't part of the decline in printed short SF magazines, or (again) the decline in youth readership. Our children have been raised on a diet of media franchises, not episodic one-shots. They're accustomed to buying sequels or multiple volumes, not anthologies. It's not that their attention spans are too short, it's that short stories aren't satisfying to brains accustomed to Rowling-length narratives.

None of this explains why mysteries haven't scaled up (though I agree with Marilyn@51 that bestsellers have), of course. I'm grateful for the history you've shared, though, and I'm intrigued to learn that your books have pared themselves down over time. Do you find shorter projects more difficult? I imagine that doing prose with greater economy would be a more difficult dance (my attempts at it always feel like pulling teeth, but I'm quite green).


I have not read all the comments, but there is one limiting factor for long, epic, books -- age and arthritis. I am in my 70's now and I would say most of my favorite books run 500 to 1,000 pages, with the exception of the compete "The Stand". Unless I get a kindle or a Sony reader, I am probably out of luck as far as rereading these treasures again. (BTW, Mr. Pournelle, "Who knows, maybe the horse will learn to sing!" is one of my favorite quotes when I start an impossible project, and I lived for a while in both Los Angeles and the foothills near Fresno and Bakersfield.)
But I do hope that authors keep writing those marvelous, long stories and I will, somehow, someway, keep reading and loving them. And this is not meant to run down some of my other favorites like Simak, Dickson, and Norton.


Jerry, when you were starting, how many of the magazines were serializing novels? (I'd have thought only 3-4 of them, unless I'm off by a decade or more -- the pulp market collapsed in the late 50s, didn't it? Prior to which, yes, the serial was important -- but off-hand I can only remember two in Asimov's SF this decade.)

I make "Mote in Gods Eye" out to be around 178,000 words (from the Baen ebook reissue). That's still a long novel by SF genre standards -- at least, if you're on the midlist.

Madeline: unless you're really trying to pump up the complexity, a long novel probably doesn't have any more ideas in it than a short one. It may have more characters, or more depth of characterization, or more plot threads and action, but the core of ideas won't be much fatter, and SF is a literature of ideas. So yes, shorter projects are in some ways disproportionately harder than longer ones.

(I may be scarce around here for a while: succumbing to a winter chest bug.)


I sold my first sf story in about 1971. All my shorter works were sold to Analog, Galaxy, or S&SF. Mote was far too long to serialize, and while S&S put it out as "midlist" it was the only SF novel for a couple of months. Tom Doherty was the sales director at S&S then, and Gleason was the editor who bought the book. They had a good PR department too; they got me on a hundred coffee pot radio stations, the Long John Knebel show in NYC, and just a bunch of other show no one ever heard of. The New York Post liked Mote enough to do a Book and Author page on me (it helps to have done something other than write a novel) and Mote sold an outrageous number of copies.

But Spaceship for the King came first, and that was serialized in Analog. The Mercenary had been sent back to me by Campbell because it was too long at 24,000 words, but then John died. I was offered the job as Analog editor but it would have meant moving to NYC on less money than I could live on. (Anderson had been offered it first, and he turned it down for the same reason.) Ben Bova already lived in Connecticut and he could afford to take it, and he was better qualified than me for the job anyway. He bought The Mercenary at the full length.

Mote was very long. Mr. Heinlein made us cut about 50,000 words from the beginning, and on his advice I went through the ms with the goal of cutting 10% of what remained. I managed the goal by using a spread sheet (pen and engineering paper; didn't have those programs then) so that's one reason the book reads fast. It took 2 weeks but I get rid of every needless word (as the junior author with Niven it was my job...)

But until Hammer hit the best seller list, magazine income was very important back in the early 70's. And of course I had the science column in Galaxy; I started because I needed the money, and after Hammer I kept it because Jim and I worked well together and I liked being Willy Ley's successor. I started doing the Galaxy column about the time Robert did Fear No Evil, which he tailored to be serialized; he needed the money.

Hammer changed a lot of priorities.

Jerry Pournelle
Chaos Manor


Sounds spot on to me. I've even caught myself wondering why I should pay $25 for a new hardback when it looked a little too short.

I've just recently started reading through the Nero Wolfe novels, and was surprised to find that it was taking me nearly as long to read those comparatively bite-sized books as it was the fatter SF/F novels I'd been reading previously. I think I'm sub-consciously skipping or skimming the fluff (read: descriptions of places/people/music/magic spells/just about anything else) in those books. As you said, there isn't much of that to be found in a mystery. Especially not in a Hard Boiled mystery, unless you swap out "overwrought descriptions" with "overwrought metaphors" though I'd argue "That's why you pick up a hard boiled novel in the first place".


Just in case it's unclear and anyone cared, "Those books" that I was skipping or skimming bits of were the SF/F (leaning hard twords Fantasy) novels. Not the mysteries.


Thank you, Charlie. Good luck with the chest bug; my own infestation has lasted for a month, now, and it makes for damnably difficult thesis writing. Rest now.


Charlie @ 12: I'm not sure that the incremental costs of printing an 800 page book are that much higher than a 500 page one. I would think that the most expensive part of printing a book is setting up the press. With computerization, even that has gone in price. The only real increase would be the cost of paper. It would be interesting to determine what proportion paper represents of a book's total cost.

You probably don't remember it, but when you were here in Portland at Powell's, I asked you what happens to fantasy writers, i.e. the length of their books (you were on a tour for both Merchants' War and Halting State. And, Merchant Princes seemed to be growing.). Your response was, in effect, that the proliferation of characters increase the potential for growth in POV's. And thus, length.

As a retired geezer geek, I love the long ones by Banks, Hamilton and Stephenson. They allow me to immerse myself in their universes.

Rick York


Charlie (at #55), Analog is still publishing at least one serial, usually two, every year. (At least for a while longer - I wouldn't bet that they'll be around in five years.)


Flub @45, I want real plots all through the books. I just read Timothy Zahn's third book in the Quadrail series and it advances the overall series plot by about three pages. The rest of it is a side adventure. I'm going to be much more careful about buying the next one.

JamesPadraicR @46, I don't know about the returns, but I had some old books that were too old to keep (I'm allergic to dust) and nobody wanted, so they went into the city's mixed paper recycling dumpster where they'll go on to become new paper things.

Jerry @52, Motie Engineers are my very favorite SF aliens.

Charlie @55, I was thinking Allen Steele had three serials in Asimov's this decade, but only one is an actual serial. The other two were serial sections that were only lightly changed in the book.


There are a couple problems with your apparently sensible exposition. The first is this notion that books are or were distributed (as paperbacks) by "grocery distributors." I have no idea where you (or your editor) got this, but it isn't true and never was. Most pbs were distributed to the mass markets (grocery chains, drugstore chains, etc.) by each area's *single* magazine distributor, who has had a monopoly on distribution since 1958 when American News left that business. In many, if not most areas, that distributor is ARA, a vast mob-owned conglomerate which also controls food services as well. Now, book stores use more and other distributors, as well as dealing directly with publishers. But you were talking mass market. (Wal-Mart is probably unique; it makes end runs around all distributors by being its own distributor and selling at a 30% discount on cover price...but handles only "best sellers" for the most part.)

Your second misconception is that mysteries haven't suffered the same bloat: "There's just one outstanding problem with this Just So tale of publishing folk. We who read SF/F may have been trained to expect longer books by the grocery distributors, but why haven't mysteries grown the same way? It turns out that the average mystery is much the same length that it ever was. There are exceptions, but they're obvious as such — you don't regularly see 400 or 500 page mysteries on the shelves." You are flat wrong. I buy mysteries regularly, and look at the others which get mass-marketed. 400+ pages is *typical*. The one I'm reading right now, by Stephen White, is 480 pages. So are those by the Kellermans (both Faye and Jonathan, and now their son), James Patterson, Stuart Woods (once a good writer; he wrote THE CHIEFS long ago), etc. and et al. Westlake's are still "shorter," but Block's have gotten bigger. And you don't see Westlake's new titles in the drugstores any more. Block's still crop up.

So it goes.


@ 41
The "Three-Voluime Novel" sometimes called the 3-decker.

Was declared dead, once before, and a man who refused the Laureateship, and ANY honour (except a Nobel Prize) wrote a poem about it.
[ Which reminds me - 3 cheers for uncle (sir) T. Pratchett ... ]

I's a bit long, but I hope you don't mind .....

The Three-Decker

"The three-volume novel is extinct._"

Full thirty foot she towered from waterline to rail.
It cost a watch to steer her, and a week to shorten sail;
But, spite all modern notions, I found her first and best --
The only certain packet for the Islands of the Blest.

Fair held the breeze behind us -- 'twas warm with lovers' prayers.
We'd stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs.
They shipped as Able Bastards till the Wicked Nurse confessed,
And they worked the old three-decker to the Islands of the Blest.

By ways no gaze could follow, a course unspoiled of Cook,
Per Fancy, fleetest in man, our titled berths we took
With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed,
And a Church of England parson for the Islands of the Blest.

We asked no social questions -- we pumped no hidden shame --
We never talked obstetrics when the Little Stranger came:
We left the Lord in Heaven, we left the fiends in Hell.
We weren't exactly Yussufs, but -- Zuleika didn't tell.

No moral doubt assailed us, so when the port we neared,
The villain had his flogging at the gangway, and we cheered.
'Twas fiddle in the forc's'le -- 'twas garlands on the mast,
For every one got married, and I went ashore at last.

I left 'em all in couples a-kissing on the decks.
I left the lovers loving and the parents signing cheques.
In endless English comfort by county-folk caressed,
I left the old three-decker at the Islands of the Blest!

That route is barred to steamers: you'll never lift again
Our purple-painted headlands or the lordly keeps of Spain.
They're just beyond your skyline, howe'er so far you cruise
In a ram-you-damn-you liner with a brace of bucking screws.

Swing round your aching search-light -- 'twill show no haven's peace.
Ay, blow your shrieking sirens to the deaf, gray-bearded seas!
Boom out the dripping oil-bags to skin the deep's unrest --
And you aren't one knot the nearer to the Islands of the Blest!

But when you're threshing, crippled, with broken bridge and rail,
At a drogue of dead convictions to hold you head to gale,
Calm as the Flying Dutchman, from truck to taffrail dressed,
You'll see the old three-decker for the Islands of the Blest.

You'll see her tiering canvas in sheeted silver spread;
You'll hear the long-drawn thunder 'neath her leaping figure-head;
While far, so far above you, her tall poop-lanterns shine
Unvexed by wind or weather like the candles round a shrine!

Hull down -- hull down and under -- she dwindles to a speck,
With noise of pleasant music and dancing on her deck.
All's well -- all's well aboard her -- she's left you far behind,
With a scent of old-world roses through the fog that ties you blind.

Her crew are babes or madmen? Her port is all to make?
You're manned by Truth and Science, and you steam for steaming's sake?
Well, tinker up your engines -- you know your business best --
She's taking tired people to the Islands of the Blest!

Rudyard Kipling


Charlie @ 55 and others

The chest bug is vile - it's been going round London for a fortnight now, and everyone's getting it.
We had to postpone our Yule goose until the 27th, since we were in no state to either cook, eat or enjoy it on the 25th!

Good luck with the prophylactics - I recommend EITHER:
Mulled, spiced Cider,
Good single-malt, lightly watered .....


Before responding to the post, I'm going to respond to something in the thread above:

33: The "quotation" of Johnson is a complete bit of herbivore dung. Read the whole passage, or even just the whole paragraph, or Boswell's Life of Johnson... and you'll find, within touching distance on the page, several examples of Johnson himself writing for reasons other than money. Admittedly, this particular misuse is a pet peeve of mine; the difference is that I've trained my peeves to bite, and they haven't been through a six-month quarantine (so who knows what diseases they're bringing into/back into the UK).

On the main topic, I think there are three other reasons that novel sizes have increased.

* The increasing noneditorial demands on editors make it less possible to take the time to cut the fat. Huge blockbuster-sized novels have been around for a long time (Michener, anyone? How about Uris?)... but the manuscripts were even longer. Just the greater number of sales meetings that editors must now attend, compared to (say) the 1970s — combined with "leaner" administrative staffs and a somewhat larger pile of manuscripts awaiting licensing decisions — means that there's less time available for editing. Too, publishers are now a lot more focused on meeting preannounced availability dates for novels that have not yet been turned in (there's a Famous Author Near Edinburgh whose last four novels are poster wizards for this), which puts another time constraint on editing.

The flip side of this is that it takes more authorial skill to write concisely than it does to misunderstand the lessons of Ulysses (and other longer Modernist works) and just throw in more detail. When what literature students get exposed to includes more Dickens and Joyce (without enough instructor guidance and willingness to say "this part is bad") than Voltaire and Orwell, the ultimate result is... inevitable. And bad, especially when combined with the lack-of-editorial-time problem.

* At least in the US, the demise of the manufacturing clause in the Copyright Act has enabled printers and binders to more effectively compete on price. Back in the 1960s, virtually all major publishers owned and operated their own printing plants, which seldom ran at full capacity and tended to be updated rarely. That era is long gone; virtually no major publisher owns its own printing plant any longer, and even for those that do true "blockbusters" are usually outsourced. Even the typesetting and proofreading are often outsourced in this day of electronic typesetting and so-called "desktop publishing." The irony that authors still get charged for correcting the typesetting as if the corrections required recasting hot metal doesn't help!

* Finally, I have to put a word in for chemistry — specifically glue formulation. We're now three generations of glues away from the Ace Doubles that cracked in half on the first reading in the 1960s... and each generation of glues (excepting those for POD, which will eventually catch up) has been cheaper, faster, and more flexible and durable than its predecessor, allowing standard machines to bind larger and larger books with less and less (expensive and slow) human intervention. If you look at many "hardbacks" these days, you'll see that even they are glue-bound with boards slapped on instead of sewns in signatures (the US editions of the fourth through sixth Harry Potter novels are notorious for their poor glue bindings).


All this talk about the length of novels and word counts makes me wonder exactly what the current word count stands at for the science fiction series Perry Rhodan...

It boggles the imagination.


First, the experiment has been done for speaking, but not yet for writing science fiction novels. Precisely what parts of the brain are involved in the process of choosing appropriate words? Clearly this matters in the issue of how fast one can write.

"a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081224111644.htm">Area Of Brain Key To Choosing Words Identified

"... researchers found that while two parts of the brain, the LIFG and the left temporal cortex, respond to increased conflict among words competing for selection during speech, only the LIFG is necessary to resolve the competition for successful word production."

Second, I agree about C.E. Petit's caveats on the quote by Sam Johnson, which is why I gave several less familar quotations.

Third, Jerry Pournelle is too modest. He doesn't mention how good a Mystery author he is, as well as science fiction, Westerns, computers, politics, and other genres. In particular, "Red Snow" is outstanding.

Finally, I like the glue comment by C.E. Petit. The smell of glue, the smell of paper, the smell of ink, how familiar and joyful -- and how unavailable in eBooks. I never hand one of my collectable paperbacks to someone whom I can't trust not to immediately open them wide and crack their backs.

The story of the origin of paperbacks, which is indeed related to the question of science fiction novel length, is tangled. There were the pocket-sized ones for the troops in WW II, and then the civilian ones just after WW II. Of those, both trade books and mass market books, my father Samuel H. Post was a leading editor, both before and after the "MB" books he ran, including a string of 11 consecutive best-sellers, the first book with a Pop Art cover, the first book with an Op Art cover, the first "bookazine"... and paperbacks by, among others: Margery Allingham, Poul Anderson, Taylor Caldwell, Curtis W. Casewit, Mark Clifton, Philip K. Dick, Gordon R. Dickson, R. C. W. Ettinger, J. Hunter Holly, Damon Knight, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Murray Leinster, John Lymington, George B. Mair, S. Michael, Sam Moskowitz, Eric North [B. C. Cronin], Alan E. Nourse, Dorothy Sayers, Clifford Simak, Edward E. "Doc" Smith, J. Stearn, William F. Temple, and A. E. van Vogt.

He had a fairly elaborate theory of optimal lengths of books, in science fiction and mystery genres in particular, which I am unable to provide as, on the last day of the year as I look Janus-like forwards and backwards, I find myself missing the deceased, including him and my mother (also having edited books) more than ever.

Happy New Year.


On a slightly tangential note, while we are on publishing, what's with trade paperbacks?

Maybe I'm just being a Grumpy Old Woman(tm), but when I was a young book-buyer in the 60s and 70s most of what I read, in all genres, seemed to came out as original mass market paperbacks, or maybe released in hardcover, if it was a best-selling author (at least that's how it was in Australia). There was nary a trade paperback to be seen on the shelves.

Then, somewhere along the road, more and more trade paperbacks started showing up on the shelves, originally mainly replacing hardcovers, but increasingly as an extra release between HCs and MMPBs.

I hate them.

They completely dominate the shelves in the chain bookstores. Try finding anything in a hardcover when it is first released. No, you have to wait months for the TPB, or request the HC as a 'special order'.

If I've already started reading a series in MMPB, it's a damned long wait between books, unless I want mismatched volumes. Plus TPBs take up so much room on my shelves.

They are less sturdy than a HC, yet are of similar size, which makes them harder to read comfortably on public transport than either a HC or MMPB.

And they are hideously expensive. Aust$30+ is too much to pay for a TPB, when I can often get the HC imported by my favourite non-chain book dealer for $30-40, anyway.

Can someone enlighten me on why this change in publishing happened? Was it just a cynical money-making exercise by publishers, or was it a way to sell the publication rights to three different publishers for the benefit of the author?

PS: Happy New Year, all.


Larger books like Anathem are getting me to look closer and closer at getting a Kindle, my arms just don't like to hold that weight anymore. Especially when I'm reading in bed. Aging sucks


Jonathan vos Post @ 68

Your history of paperbacks is US-parochial.

Ever heard of "Penguin Books" ??
Or Penguin paperbacks?

They are now Allen Lane Press (I think) - named sfater their founder.

He virtually invented the modern paperback, here, in 1935.
Later imprints included Pelican - harder, usually non-fiction stuff, and classics. And other labels.
I've still got several pre-war copies that my father bought.
They also COMISSIONED stuff.

The classic translation of that 13th Century SF work "The Divine Comedey" by Dorothy L. Sayers was published by them.

And they are still going strong.


G. Tingey: you are correct.

My father was "a pioneer" -- not "THE pioneer" in paperbacks. He was an anglophile, to be sure. After all, he was (to the best of my parochial knowledge) the first to publish Winston Churchill in paperback. He had a huge bronze bust of Winston Churchill, and chose to live in New York City in a building near the United Nations and the structure featured in The Bourne Ultimatum "Tudor City" -- called "The Churchill." His widow, a librarian, did not yield to me request to inherit the bust, which to me (and my father) was strongly similar to his father (my grandfather). The last tangible gift that I gave my father was a first edition of the then-secret speeches to the war cabinet of Winston Churchill.


Just a sec..haven't mysteries also gotten bigger? J.A. Jance, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, lots of folks seem to be writing fairly hefty mysteries these days.


With respect, Charles, I think you are missing several points.

First, science fiction novels written between the 1950s and 1980s tended to get serialized in science fiction magazines first. There's a sharp limit to the size of the prose block you can drop into a science fiction magazine without crowding out the rest of the content. In fact, prior to the late 1960s, it was standard practice for all science fiction novels to be built out of novelettes which had previously been published in the science fictio magazines. Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy was built this way and originally published entirely in the science fiction magazines; Edgar Pangborn's Davy was originally serialized in the magazines; most of Heinlein's adult novels got serialized in the magazines: Dune was originally serialized in the magazines...most of Roger Zelazny's early novels were serialized in magazines. The list goes on. These well-known examples, including The Puppet Masters by Heinlein and This Immortal by Zelazny, represent the merest sampling of a much larger case study.

Second, science fiction writers in earlier eras had to work much harder and produce much more. You may think your productivity impressive, but compare yourself to Robert Silverberg, who regularly churned out, what? 6 or 7 novels per year? During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Silverberg's productivity could only be described as "superhuman." And given the low advances in those days, that kind of output was necessary if a writer was to make a decent living as a science fiction writer. Otherwise, the writer typically had to jump ship from novels into screenwriting. Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont and Harlan Ellison and quite few other talented science fiction discovered this during the 1950s and 1960s. Writing your guts out got you a couple of thousand per novel, if you were lucky, and as inflation skyrocketed in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, it became harder and harder to live on the proceeds of two or three novels per year. If memory serves, Samuel R. Delaney got 1200 dollars for Babel-17. You couldn't live on that for a year even in 1965. In fact, you couldn't live even on 3 times that. Tragic examples like Phillip K. Dick, who was pretty living on soup and spaghetti by the late 70s with the paltry three thousand he got per novel, offered a cautionary tale to other writers. So the monsters of productivity tended to leave the field for the greener pastures of TV and Hollywood, leaving relatively less productive writers. Someone who writes fewer books per year will probably tend to write longer books, so that's another explanation.

Yet another explanation involves the way novels get marketed. Today, novels represent standalone items, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, peculiar innovations like the Ace Double would typically combine a reprint of an earlier novella or long novelette from the Golden Age of science fiction (often the 1930s or 1940s, but sometimes the 1950s) together with a new novel by a then-relatively-unknown writer. Both novels got bound together in an oddball upside-down configuration in which you flipped the book other and read the second novel from the other side. It worked. Many writers who were not yet established in the 1950s and 1960s sold a great many novels to Ace for the Ace Doubles series, which got packaged with established classics, and represented a win-win. Ace got to recycle older fiction, like A. E. Van Vogt's The War With The Rull (itself built out of short stories published in the science fiction magazines of the 1940s) and newer fiction like Robert Silverberg's novels got picked up an inevitably read by science fiction fans who bought the Ace Double for the Van Vogt, but went on to become fans of Silverberg et al.
Of course this required relatively low word counts for the newer writers like Piers Anthony and Robert Silverberg because an Ace Double by definition had to pack two novels into the size of a regular paperback. So that also limited the word count.

A fourth possible explanation involves United States tax code changes. Everyone knows that during the early 1980s, tax codes got changed so that publishers found themselves forced to pay ruinous tax on books stored in warehouses. As a result, U.S. publishers adopted a system whereby books not immediately sold got pulped. Warehouse storage of additional copies of unsold books basically stopped dead after the early 1980s. This, however, meant that the books could be as large as desired, since publishers no longer stored unsold back stock in warehouses. Back when publishers did store unsold back stock, the thickness and page count of a book clearly limited the number of unsold copies that could be stored, so publishers had a clear incentive to cut page count and reduce book thickness prior to that change in the U.S. tax code in the early 80s.

A fifth explanation simply posits that ambitious masterpieces like Frank Herbert's Dune and Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Roger Zelazny's Lord Of Light, along with earlier lengthier masterworks like Asimov's Foundation series, inspired science fiction writers from the 70s onward to produce more ambitious, sprawling, multifacted books -- particularly linked series of books, most notably the Amber novels by Zelazny, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy by Stephen R. Donaldson, and the 5 novels so far writen in the Song Of Fire and Ice series by George R. R. Martin would tend to support this thesis. We have no record of earlier science fiction or fantasy novels anywhere near as ambitious as these -- all of which appeared in the 1970s or later.

The astute reader will note that many of the greatest science fiction novels remain remarkably short. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man clocks in under 35,000 words, ditto The Stars My Destination. While Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun barely breaks 40,000 words, if memory serves. The writers who penned these classics, however, had an indepedent income: Bester wound up taking a job as editor of Redbook magazine in New York at a handsome annual salary plus perks, while Asimov had a teaching job to fall back on. In large part this was because, prior to the mid-to-late 1960s, it was virtually impossible to make a living writing science fiction novels. You either had to have a regular day job (Asimov, Bester) or you had to write screenplays for TV or the movies (Beaumont, Matheson, Ellison, Bradbury) or you had to be monster of productivity (Robert Silverberg). People with day jobs or who spent most of the year writing screenplays had to write novels in their spare time, so those novels tended to be short.


Maybe that's why I read far fewer modern SF novels. I prefer the rush of a 200 page book. Many of my friends claim they love novels that never end, and I can understand that, but I'm not like that. I liked to be dazzled. It's hard to sustain a dazzling high for 500 pages. Charlie, tell your publishers that there are readers who love 200 page novels. And I'd much rather explore 2-3 science fictional worlds than 1.


I hate series too.


I don't class Anathem as a mystery. It is a First Contact SF, with additional elements...

A bit short, but very entertaining.

Is First Contact one of those areas that each SF novelist sooner or later tackles, or should?


@9: After the New Wave put more emphasis on writing and characterization, the field, during the 80's and 90's became dominated by the mindset that "I can write a better SF story than that." And the authors did. The prose was better. Fleshed out characters were set in meticulously built worlds. But that wasn't the reason I read SF as a child. I read SF to have my mind blown.

But that's the reason I read SF now. Sensawondah stories... lost their sense-a-wondah.


Jim Harris mentioned he prefers "the rush of a 200-page read." 200 pages strikes me as unusually long for almost all the classic science fiction novels written prior to 1980. In fact, hardly any science fiction novels published prior to 1980 get within shouting distance of 200 pages.

But so far we've been tossing around speculations, recollections, and vague guesses. Time for some hard facts.

Here are some typical classic science fiction novels pulled off the shelf. Chosen for their age, and also for fame, and lastly because they seem representative for the period (1950s to 1970s). Check out these page counts:

ROBERT A. HEINLEIN - Starship Troopers (1959) - 208 pages
ROBERT A. HEINLEIN - The Puppet Masters (1951) - 175 pages
ISAAC ASIMOV - THE NAKED SUN (1956) - 175 pages
SAMUEL R. DELANEY - BABEL-17 (1966) - 174 pages
ARTHUR C. CLARKE - THE DEEP RANGE (1957) - 175 pages
POUL ANDERSON - THE REBEL WORLDS (1969) - 141 pages (!)
ARTHUR C. CLARKE - CHILDHOOD'S END (1953) - 218 pages
A. E. VAN VOGT - THE WAR AGAINST THE RULL (1959) - 216 pages
KEITH LAUMER - DINOSAUR BEACH (1971) - 151 pages
HAL CLEMENT - ICEWORLD (1953) - 203 pages
ROGER ZELAZNY - JACK OF SHADOWS (1971) - 142 pages
LARRY NIVEN - WORLD OF PTAVVS (1966) - 188 pages
POUL ANDERSON - VIRGIN PLANET (1959) - 159 pages

Now for some Ace Doubles:

SHOCK WAVE - Walt & Leigh Richmond: 127 pages / ENVOY TO THE DOG STAR - Frederick L. Shaw Jr.: 127 pages
PLANETARY AGENT X - Mack Reynolds: 133 pages / BEHOLD THE STARS - Kenneth Bulmer: 120 pages
THE DRAGON MASTERS - Jack Vance (a Hugo award winner!): 120 pages / THE FIVE GOLD BANDS - Jack Vance: 140 pages
NIGHT MONSTERS - Fritz Leiber (a short story collection): 80 pages / THE GREEN MILLENIUM - Fritz Leiber: 173 pages

Arithmetic average length for all 15 novels: 179.7 pages
Median length: 175 pages

Compare with:

LORD OF LIGHT - ROGER ZELAZNY (1967) - 318 pages

Considered monstrously huge when it first came out in the 1960s. If memory serves, F&SF serialized this novel in 4 parts, an unusually large number of segments. Most novels got serialized in 2 or at most 3
consecutive issues.

Several interesting facts here. First, Ace Doubles gave you roughly 50% more pages than buying a typical standalone novel. Ace Doubles appear to have averaged 255 pages, while a standard science fiction novel from the 1950s up through the 1970s would run between 140 pages on the low side to 200 pages on the absolute upper end of the range, but more typically 175 pages.

Only 5 of the 15 famous novels above even broke 200 pages, and those just barely. 208 pages, 216 pages, 218 pages, 220 pages and 203 pages.

4 of the novels on the above list were either in the 145-pages range, or within 10 pages of 140 pages long. You couldn't even think about getting a 145-page science fiction novel published today. That's almost exactly half of a typical early-2000's science fiction novel, and in quite a few cases, a third of a modern science fiction novel - or even one quarter of one of today's science fiction novels. Like, say, Vernor Vinge's A FIRE UPON THE DEEP (1993) - 611 pages. You could just about fit 4 Jack of Shadows (1971) into the page count of one A Fire Upon The Deep (1993).


Page-count depends also on book size/format.

See my earlier post re. Lord of Light & Creatures of Light & Darkness.
My copies are a UK pbk (Panther) @ 251 pages, and an imported US pbk (Avon) @ 190 pages ...


Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov, gives a solution to the book-are-getting-longer problem. A dictator simply decress that every new book must have a different number of pages than any previously published book. Soon, all the short numbers of pages are taken. Novelists are forced to write longer and longer.

The very long book that Cincinnatus C. reads while in the Kafka-esque prison is 'Quercus'. Cincinnatus reads one third of the book, or 1,000 pages, making this a very long work. The book within the book is about the entire life of an oak tree. Not much happens, but it is described at a vegetable love pace.

Nabokov, always a writer's writer, has a wonderful passage early in his novel, about how the reader feels sooner with a short novel, but inevitably in any novel:

"So we are nearing the end. The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and–O horrible!"

I took a day off, to take my son, his girlfriend, and a fomer dot-com partner of mine to the Rose Bowl, where a good (American) football game was played in temperatures of roughly 73 degrees F., with attendance of 93,293. The next day I wrote a 5,750 word chapter of AXIOMATIC MAGIC, explicitly as a chapter that could stand on its own as a short story, by its homage nature, being modeled on, but noninfriging on, and openly quoting at one point, the first story, “The Unlucky Winner,” from the collection “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” by Max Shulman, first published by Doubleday in the month that I was born: September 1951, which has, at its heart, a brilliant piece of faux-mannered bombast, that being the part that I quote, with minor changes to fit the novel’s background. Plus the occasional appropriate phrase from “Love is a Fallacy”, op cit.

For the TV-challenged, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" first inspired the 1953 film The Affairs of Dobie Gillis with Debbie Reynolds, Bob Fosse, and Bobby Van as Dobie Gillis. A follow-up novel, I Was a Teen-Age Dwarf, appeared in 1959. The stories (now Historical Fiction) were adapted to a situation comedy that ran on CBS in the USA from 1959–1963. It starred Dwayne Hickman as teenager Dobie Gillis, who (as Wikipedia reminds me) "aspired to have popularity, money, and the attention of beautiful and unattainable girls. His partner-in-crime was American television's first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver). Maynard was convinced life is for enjoying and Dobie's father, Herbert T. Gillis (Frank Faylen), who owned a grocery store, was only happy when Dobie was behind a broom. Dobie's father was often caught up in various elaborate get-rich-quick schemes, or situational bail-outs ala Ralph Cramden, with Dobie getting ensared along with him; by the end both came around grudgingly to Maynard's point of view."

Maybe Maynard G. Krebs was more akin to Jughead in Archie Comics than to Jack Kerouac. But this, along with Mad Magazine, helped to popularize the counterculture before Hippies. To me, it is no coincidence that beatniks (including Maynard G. Krebs) played bongo drums, and so did my mentor, Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman.

During the first season, many of the episodes would begin and end with Dobie sitting on a Central City park bench posed à la Auguste Rodin's statue, "The Thinker", a reproduction of which stood behind him. Speaking directly to the audience [i.e. "breaking the 4th wall"], he would explain to the viewing audience his problem of the week (usually girls or money). The use of the statue was phased out in later episodes.

Robert Osbourne "Bob" Denver [9 January 1935 – 2 September 2005] was an American comedic actor best known for his role as Gilligan on the television series Gilligan's Island. Prior to Gilligan's Island, he took on the role of Maynard G. Krebs, a beatnik on the 1959-1963 TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. This character had a strong resemblance to the character of Gilligan he would later play.

Oh, and in one episode, Maynard G. Krebs is asked what the "G" stands for. He answers: "Howard."

I await the works of Charles Stross being adapted to a sitcom. Do beatniks wear black leather kilts?


As I recall, UK SF authors with predominantly UK distribution, e.g. Aldiss, alsol started creating longer works. It seems doubtful that these authors and their publishers were being forced to follow the forces driving book length in the US. Other countries in EU should also be relatively insulated. Nevertheless, the increasing length was notable in the UK (I have no idea what happened in other EU countries).

I had assumed, as others have noted, that the changing style of SF writing - adding characterization to make the genre more like mainstream literature was the driver, which was reinforced by writers workshops emphasizing style and technique.

I actually quite like the shorter books, where characters are more sketched than illustrated, where the science scenario and plot were the key elements, rather than characterization.

I've just started your "Merchants" series while waiting for the next new Stross offering, and I definitely felt that some of the characterization could have been happily removed to progress the story faster. Maybe I'll change my mind when I get to the last of the ones you've already written.


The average word count per page on those olders novels turns out to be 374. The average word count per page in A Fire Upon the Deep clocks in at slightly over 375. But I don't think there's any real difference -- I only took 6 pages from the Vinge novel and averaged them, and only took 2 pages from each of the 15 earlier novels to get an average. That's too small a sample to avoid statistical outliers, so to a first approximation we can probably say that the number of words per page hasn't changed in 50 years, and runs somewhere in the ballpark of 375.

How many words per page in your English edition of Lord Of Light?

Another possible explanation: the influence of TV and movies. TV shows like Hill Street Blues and The Wire featuring huge casts and complex storylines didn't exist in the 50s and 60s and 70s but have grown wildly popular over the last 30 years. The Wire constantly gets mentioned as "the best TV show ever made." Along with movies like Nashville (1975) and Crash (2006), this may explain the sprawling length and large casts of characters and intercessant plotlines in modern science fiction novels. Popular media tend to influence writers, and the recent proliferation of TV shows with large plot "arcs" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, et al.) and extended casts (Lost, Heroes, et al.) may help explain extravagant narrative efflorescences like Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which within the first 54 pages features no less than 11 different viewpoint characters -- only 3 of whom continue into the rest of the book.

Too, many modern science fiction novels feature a hefty amount of padding. The entire middle 100 pages of William Gibson's Nueromancer would have benefited greatly from the editorial microtome. Ditto the section in Singularity Sky in which the space task force drops out of hyperdrive and prepares to attack the planet, likewise whole blocks of the central section of Bruce Sterling's Distractions. An awful lot of modern science fiction novels feel like 1950s science fiction books with a huge blob of dithering and dallying inserted in the center to pad things out. As a general rule of thumb...between about pages 100 and 200, very little tends to happen, and characters typically never undergo any sort of peripeteia within that page range in modern science fiction novels.

In absolute honesty, I regularly encounter a plethora of modern science fiction novels in which I regularly red-ink out huge swaths of prose in the process of reading. (A desultory habit; some of my pb copies of modern science fiction novels abound with so much red after reading that, if dipped in the ocean, they would the multitudinous seas incarnadine.) In many cases, I red-pencil entire viewpoint characters out of the book to render the novel readable. William Gibson remains a particular offender. I found Idoru all but unreadable; two of the three viewpoint characters had to be excised entirely to restore that book to readability.

This suggests gross incompetence on the part of modern editors. When readers do these kinds of things out of sheer frustration, the editors simply aren't doing their jobs.


Another thought. The lengthening of SF novels has been over the last 40-50 years. More recently, the internet has arrived and the reading behavior for online material is for shorter, more concise, pieces. (see Nick Carr's" Iss Google making us Stoopid?" http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google ). Is there any chance that this might drive the readership to demand more concise novels in the future, or are the reading demands entirely different for these different forms?


It's great that glue technology was mentioned in this discussion. If publishers ever ran into a serious glue shortage, the bloated paperback would come to an end...


At the high end of length, is there reader fatigue? I note that Stephenson's latest, Anathem, released in September was already on sale at 50% off at B&N in December. Reviewers frequently complained that this house anchor was too long and even dull in places. Similar complaints were voiced about his earlier Cryptonomicon and the 3 novels in the "Baroque Cycle". I have to admit that I didn't read Cryptonomicon simply because I was put off by its length, even though the subject matter was of interest to me.


Alex: as Anathem is a top-ten NYTimes bestseller, with official figures quoting 150,000 hardcovers in print by October -- even if that's the usual 250% overstatement it's still a huge print run for a hardcover -- the 50% discount and B&N will be more a reflection of the discount structure available for a bestseller to keep the volume shifting than a symptom of it not selling.

Cryptonomicon is actually rather good, as is the Baroque Cycle (three times the length!) -- but Stephenson is an exception, and I'll grant you that reader fatigue is a significant issue. (I bought Anathem as an ebook because I know I wouldn't be able to physically get comfortable with the hardback or paperback.)


I did buy Anathem during the sale, so I will find out if reader fatigue hits me or not - got to finish your Merchant series first... :) Sales of Anathem may have been very large (it was a much awaited book) but I think that the reviews speak for themselves concerning its length.

Looking through my accessible library, only 2 other works are of comparable size:

"The Collected Works of Arthur C Clarke" and,
Gibbon's "The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire" (abridged). [still have to read it...]

The best comparison to literature that I know of is Tolstoy's "War and Peace". How many people actually get through that behemoth of a novel? Michener's sprawling novels also seem to exhaust some readers. OTOH, I don't see any evidence of fatigue with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, suggesting that the quality of the writing has to be high to sustain the reader.


Charlie @ 86
What ebook reader do you use?

I've been waiting for the Kindle 2.0 to appear before I make a decision on one. (And then load it up with the Merchants' War)



WP was a major factor with me. My first novel (1983) was written on a manual typewriter while I was in law school (started in 1979).

It took me 4 years, admittedly very part-time, and it was 80,000 words long; 85,000 after revisions to editorial request.

"Cut and paste" really meant -cut and paste- then. The sheer mechanical difficulty of rewrite and revision was a limiting factor.

Admittedly(2) I also deliberately kept the book to 2 viewpoint characters and about 6 days of action because it -was- my first and I wanted a framework I knew I could handle.

I bought an early Word Processor with the advance from the first book, and my lengths escalated to 200,000 words over the next decade. Then I cut back to about 150,000 words since, usually.


BTW, I've gotten a Kindle and it has been a major convenience. Among other things, it lets me cart my manuscripts around, so the appallingly boring 2 hours a day on the exercycle is finally getting some productive use.

It's also very helpful while traveling, especially by air; I can take say half a dozen new books, and several hundred of my favorites and references and so forth.

I've noticed that it has also altered my book-buying habits. I'm much more likely to read a review in, say, the NYT (also on the Kindle) and then zip right over and buy it, or immediately buy a sequel if I liked the first book in a series.

I don't think I've bought a new fiction book in hardcopy since I got the Kindle. Unless it wasn't available in Kindle format, of course.


I've had a Sony PRS-505 since shortly after they came out, in the US (they only showed up in the UK a couple of months ago). I don't buy commercial content for it due to the walled garden of the Sony ebook store only running on Windows -- I don't have a Windows machine -- but it's good for manuscripts, stuff editors send me for blurb, and so on. I'd like a Kindle -- or Kindle 2.0 -- for the uses S M Stirling mentions, but it ain't available outside the US yet.

I also use a PDA and an iPhone; the PDA is an iPaq 214 with Mobipocket (if there's something I desperately need that's only available in a DRM'd edition I buy it and use Mobi to read it), and the iPhone -- with Stanza -- would be quite usable in the Sony Reader niche if I didn't already have the Sony Reader.

The incident where the Sony proved to be worth its price? An odyssey last summer, from Edinburgh to San Diego; it was meant to be three sectors and an overnight in a hotel room in Dublin, but it ended up as four sectors, three cancelled flights, the night in Dublin, and a night in Brooklyn. I did a lot of sitting around airports over the course of three days, and I arrived 35 hours and three books late, and the Reader's battery indicator was still showing 75%.


Cryptonomicon proves eminently readable. Just red-pencil out the non-Waterhouse narrative thread, and it zips right along.

Alas, that approach fails with the Baroque Cycle. Leibniz and Newton and Daniel Waterhouse and Eliza come across as by far the most fascinating characters...but Jack Shaftoe? Unutterably wearisome. Sadly, Shaftoe pops up so often his narrative thread can't easily be cut, so I abandoned that trilogy midway into the first book.


Given two novels priced about the same by two new authors, do you buy the 200 page or the 800 page?

Another trend in the last 25 years is the rise of Franchised Shite (you know the section, it's wasting space in your favourite bookshop, Star [Trek|Wars], Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms etc). I can't help feeling that's had an affect on the way books are marketed.

Perhaps brands (uh, series) limited to one author need to have fatter books to convince people to invest in them. It's a safe investment buying into a Franchise series, you know you've got a new book a month (at least), you know the milieu, possibly the characters, it's Safe & Comforting. Whereas a non-franchise series (eg original and hopefully more imaginative) is a Risk -- no new book for at least a year, and perhaps I won't like it, but phew! at least it's a Fat Book, that'll take a while to read.

You may have noticed I despise franchised series. Escapism without the escape.


Steveg 93: You may have noticed I despise franchised series.

"There are nine and ninety ways"... as the poet said.

All SF was, and in some circles still is, viewed with just as much contempt as you feel for DragonRealms franchise books. Or I feel for "Twilight", hard though I tried not to.

I don't read the franchise stuff myself, but I also try not to mistake my own preferences for Genuine True Art, No Really It Is.


@94 SM Stirling
Sure, sci-fi + fantasy isn't "literature" for many (most?) people -- but in the past when I have lent books to avowed literary readers they've been impressed (you have to choose carefully for the person).

I weep for the lost shelf-space that could hold more books from more authors, or more back-catalogue books. Probably hopelessly naiive; the market dictates. I weep that fringe sci-fi/fantasy readers may only ever read the least imaginative of the most imaginative genre (hmmm did I just say that? That's a challenge to a duel in some circles).

I also don't think less of an author for having written a Franchise novel -- pays well, seems to sell well sometimes. Good on 'em, really.

I extend this same thinking to other genres and media; in that way sci-fi is nothing special, it's just one instance of the way marketing and branding has changed, and will continue to change humanity.


Steveg95: I weep for the lost shelf-space that could hold more books from more authors, or more back-catalogue books. Probably hopelessly naiive; the market dictates.

-- and a good thing, too. Look at what's happened to other genres which "escaped" from the market.

Eg., poetry.

Back when Tennyson and Browning were writing, first-rate poetry had a mass audience and both those authors were best-sellers. They got rich, or at least earned a good living, writing poetry.

More people read poetry than read novels in that period. Some was very good, some was very bad; most people read both the good and the bad.

Rather like SF/F, eh?

Then between them the Modernists(*) and the academics -- often the same people -- turned it into a recondite cult, whose practitioners wrote for each other.

The same people would have done the same thing to prose fiction, if it weren't for the market.

These guys are like Midas in reverse; everything they touch turns to lead.

(*) someone once remarked that the Bloomsbury group were guilty of "snobbery with violence". The whole notion that anything accessible to the ordinary reader had to be inferior gained traction in that period.


Moorcock began writing super thin, super quick pulp, but round the nineties, didn't they get bound together in "Fat books" and linked into a spurious series. I still really enjoy a 60's size moorcock novel over a Tome'o'Doom...


Regarding franchised stuff:

Many years ago, I bought all of James Blish's Star Trek output (where he turned each episode of TOS into a short story). I thought they were just great. I also bought a lot of Dr. Who novelizations. In my defense, I was 8-10 years old at the time. Eventually, I went on to buy and read books by people like Stross, Stirling, Pournelle, etc.

So wasted space on the bookstore shelf? I'm not sure. Franchise books like those set me on the road to good SF.


Alright, so a bunch of people dare contradict me about my mystery + Anathem post.

1) I didn't say it was NOT something else as well. Philosophical? First Contact?, whatever, sure!

2) There are *many* detective story elements in Anathem, and whoddunnits were a pretty big part of some sections of the book.


@shah8 99: I feel your pain. The big trend in science fiction over the last couple of years has been to do non-sci fi science fiction, or, as Bruce Sterling calls it, "slipstream" fiction.

Spook Country by William Gibson. The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling. The Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon and Anathem (probably, arguably...maybe) by Neal Stephenson. Almost anything by Tom Clancy. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

The list goes on. And these are only the science fiction writers who've penned slipstream fiction. Most slipstream authors don't label themselves as science fiction writers and don't act as part of, or reside within, the self-described science fiction community. Guys like Nicholson Baker and Julian Barnes just don't belong to the conventional pantheon of "science fiction authors."

Yeah, the genre, she is a-changin'...


There are a lot of causes. The decline of the short story market is surely a major one, along with distribution, manufacturing improvements, tax laws in influential markets, exploitative franchising, etc.

Add them all up and for a lot of writers it comes down to 'because I can.' Massive tomes are far easier to publish than in decades past and petite, straight to the point stories harder put to find a market, although e-books could be a big help there.

I recall when David Brin's first novel, 'Sundiver,' came out. It was on the large side and more remarkably, from a new name. That was the first time I gave much thought to how these things work.

Mysteries have gotten bigger but it is far easier to publish a 150 page mystery than a short SF/F novel. SF/F audiences tend to desire epics while the phrase 'epic mystery' doesn't feel right. We love our SF/F epics but when they're done right. Peter Hamilton is really good at this. The ending of the 'Night's Dawn' doorstop was unsatisfying but it was a great trip getting there.

OTOH, some stuff could really stand to be cut down considerably. I just read 'Sister Time' by John Ringo and Julie Cochrane. It was easily too long by a third. Unlike earlier books in this universe, there wasn't a war for the very survival of the species (well, actually there was but it is a slow, cold war) involving hordes of monstrous aliens and huge battles. The book spent nearly 350 pages dawdling around to set up the climax that played out in in about 70 pages. The climax lacked impact due to the long slog to get there.

Was this overinflated to pass it off as a deeper story or was there just a lack of effort to tighten up the story? I could have been a far better book coming in at under 300 pages.