Back to: PSA: I Have a New Book! | Forward to: For sale; first edition of the Necronomicon (used once)

CMAP #5: Why books are the length they are

Publishing is a whole bunch of different businesses flying in loose formation; which is by way of saying that this particular topic is specific to commercial fiction publishing and has nothing to do with text books, technical reference manuals, autobiographies, or cookbooks.

Why are novels (the prevailing form of fictional entertainment on retail sale today) generally the length that they are?

Back in the mid to late Victorian period, when books were frequently printed and sold as weekly serials, in chapter-sized magazines that could be bound together, the length of a book was really dictated by the author's (and printer's) stamina. In contrast, as I mentioned in my last blog entry, I've got a book coming out this month which is actually not a stand-alone novel, although that's what it's listed as in the publisher's catalog — it's the sixth (and final) installment in a multi-book story, six volumes long. Why isn't that story coming out in a single binding?

It looks obvious at first — novels are the length they are because, well, they're novels — but in truth, the length of a novel varies depending on the prevailing publishing industry distribution model when it's written.

Let's take SF and fantasy novels published in the USA as a case in point. Prior to the early 1920s the genre didn't really exist in its current form. From roughly 1923 and Hugo Gernsback's publication of Amazing Stories magazine, the pulps reigned supreme: monthly newsstand magazines publishing short stories and serializing novels. Newsstand magazine readers are fickle. Serial novels need to be short enough not to dominate a magazine completely, lest a reader who doesn't like this particular novel stops finding other reasons to buy the mag; and they need to be of finite length. It shouldn't be any surprise to discover that SF novels from the period 1923 to roughly 1952, when the newsstand fiction magazine industry more or less disintegrated (leaving only a tiny handful of survivors) are typically very short — 45,000 to 60,000 words.

The death of the pulps didn't take the SF novel with them; far from it. In fact, book-format novels were already being published (notably Asimov's Foundation series dates to this time — originally serialized in magazine form, they then saw success as individual books), and the mass market novel took over as the main outlet. The length of novels then began to creep up, and continued to creep up steadily through the 1980s.

Many earlier novels are still deceptively short by modern standards. A typical SF novel of the 1960s was 70,000 words long. By the 1980s, 80,000 words was the norm; by the 1990s it had bloated to 100-120,000 words. Why?

One account I've heard (from an editor who was active throughout this period) is that it was the distributors. The mass market for paperbacks prior to 1991 was dominated by wholesalers who supplied retail stores — not bookshops, but local supermarkets with wire-mesh book racks. The wholesalers knew their markets intimately, and would match mass-market titles to the supermarket customers on the basis of their clientelle — SF/F was popular near technical schools, for example. When the inflation of the 1970s and 1980s forced publishers to raise their cover prices, the distributors pushed back and demanded that if the product cost more, it had to be bigger — not taller or wider, else it wouldn't fit the racks, but fatter. (They were, after all, primarily in the grocery business rather than the book trade. You want to charge more for that lettuce? It better be bigger!)

Once a trend like that becomes established, it's hard to stop. Put yourself in the position of a bored browser in front of a supermarket wire-rack, contemplating novels by two authors you've never read. They both cost the same, and you have enough pocket money to buy one. The year is 1980; LibraryThing or other internet resources aren't available. How do you make your mind up? Well, you remember what you've heard about the authors, and you look at the cover painting, and you read the back flap blurb. Assuming all of these are equal ... you probably buy on weight, because you subconsciously anticipate a longer reading experience and, all things considered, good experiences that last longer are better than short ones. Remember that the actual cost of the paper and ink is only a small component of the retail price of a book — around 10-15%. Increasing a book block's size from 150 pages to 180 pages is cheap. And so, from the 1960s to the 1990s, publishers unconsciously trained readers to expect longer novels.

At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, a wave of consolidation swept through the wholesale sector in the US; from over 500 wholesalers nationwide, the total was reduced to a couple of dozen. Local retail lore was lost due to centralization, and the mass market wire-rack sales more or less dried up; mass market paperback print runs crashed 50%, and this was in many places decried as the death of the midlist. (A midlist author is one who, like me, has a handful or double-handful of books in print and is earning a living but doesn't get their nose in the bestseller lists.) However, the death of the wire-racks coincided with the ascent of the specialist bookstore chains, led by Borders and Barnes & Noble; these chains made up for the drop in mass market paperback sales by providing a greatly enlarged outlet for hardback sales. Losing 20,000 off the top of your paperback print run is painful, but if you can sell 5,000 hardcovers you can make up for the shortfall: and that is why folks like me are still in business.

Now, there is one big problem with making hardcovers longer: binding technology.

In the UK, all retail fiction books (paperback and hardcover alike — aside from some special high-quality editions) are perfect-bound. Pages are printed and collated, guillotined to form book blocks, then bound into the cover using thermosetting glue. There's no obvious limit to the number of pages you can bind this way other than the reader's wrists and the flexibility of the glue — some 1970s paperbacks were notorious for disintegrating on first reading, but these days perfect-bound books up to 1400 pages aren't really unusual ... although midlist authors are not encouraged to go there: production costs scale with the size of the book, and you don't get to charge twice as much money for an 800 page novel as you would for a 400 page book.

In the USA, paperbacks are perfect-bound, but hardcovers are still frequently bound as groups of signatures (blocks of 16, 24, or 32 pages), which are stitched into a cloth binding. It's a higher quality technique, but it seems to be a bit less forgiving of large bundles of pages. In particular, I am told by my editors at more than one publisher that if the page count in a US hardcover goes over roughly 424 pages, this causes no end of problems: they have to outsource the binding to a bindery that uses a more expensive technique, disproportionately raising the production cost of the book. You can work around this to some extent by typesetting with smaller margins, less leading, and a smaller typeface ... but that'll only take you so far. My personal end-run on this was "Accelerando", a 145,000 word doorstep that was typeset in only 406 pages in the US hardcover, versus nearly 470 pages in the UK. (By way of comparison, the "Merchant Princes" books mostly run to 100,000 words and fit in 300 pages.)

The rules differ somewhat for A-list titles (if you can order a big print run, economies of scale ensue) and Epic Fantasy, where bloat has been de rigeur ever since "The Lord of the Rings". But in general there's a harsh brake on the length of hardback SF, and it's imposed by the step-up in binding costs at one end, and the booksellers at the other. One of the large chains did a study in the early 2000s and determined that for every $1 increment above a cover price of $24, a book's sales volume fell by roughly 25%; price it at $26 and it would sell only around 60% as many copies as at the $24 price point. (The price elasticity of demand for hardback fiction falls off a cliff above the $24 point; alas, it doesn't work the other way!) For this reason, they issued a diktat: no hardcover novels would be bought at an SRP over $24 unless they were from a really big-name author. And so the publishers were caught between readers who for three decades had been trained to expect ever-longer books, and a bookseller-imposed guillotine on prices.

The astute reader will have noticed that these constraints don't apply to two kinds of publishing operation: small presses doing specialist editions, and ebooks. The specialists can target a very specific market with a must-have product, albeit on a small scale; and ebooks can be any length the author's willing to write and the reader's willing to pay for.

In practice, however ...

Writing is work. I can produce around 250,000 words of paying fiction per year (300,000 in a good year; 100,000 in a really bad year). That can be packaged as either a single 700 page doorstep, or as two 300 page regular novels (and maybe a novella on the side). However, due to the price elasticity of demand my publishers can't make as much money from the 700-page doorstep as from the two 300-page regular-length novels. In fact, they probably can't make more than half as much money — books are sold as units, not by volume.

Now here's a confession. I originally planned my Merchant Princes books as a four book series. Book #1, written in 2002, ran to 196,000 words — a fine 600 page doorstep. Books 2 and 3 were going to be 800 pages each, in my imagination; and book 4 would be 500-600 pages. What can I say? I was inexperienced and naive in the ways of publishing, back in early 2002 when I wrote up the proposal.

One thing that you do when you're writing a doorstep-sized work of genre fiction is: you aim to keep it moving by delivering a partial climax every 250-400 pages that's about the size of the climax you'd put at the end of a 250-400 page novel. (Otherwise you risk boring your readers.) You then deliver a series-sized climax at the end of the book, but that's another matter.

By putting in these mid-book sub-climaxes, you keep the reader following your trail of breadcrumbs ... but you present your editor with a dilemma. Should they publish the novel as submitted, or take a hacksaw to it? $24 for 600 pages, or $48 for 600 pages — what would you do?

And so, the first book of the Merchant Princes, "A Family Trade", sprouted some hasty patchwork and a sequel, "The Hidden Family", which was originally the second half of the same book. And my editor's P&E calculations worked out alright and he bought a bunch more books — but laid down the law: "you've got 300 pages to work with per volume". Imagine my joy: I was 200 pages into the 800-page sequel when I heard this. And fans have been bending my ear about the lack of action followed by an annoying cliff-hanger ending in "The Clan Corporate" ever since, not realizing that it was actually the opening sequence and setup of a much longer book.

To add to the fun, when you take an 800 page book and split it into 300 page chunks, you do not get two 300 pages bits, or even three 300 page bits; each book has around 100 pages of scene-setting, recaps, and interweaving to make it work as a self-contained module. And stuff proliferates and gets out of hand, and you have to come up with sub-climaxes to make each book work satisfyingly as a book, and, and ... At the end of the day, the 800 page sequel turned into four books averaging 310 pages each; a 50% expansion! (Okay, so I found a few unexpected extras to stuff in there. But I wasn't planning on bloating it like that — it's a side-effect of trying to refactor a story to fit a form factor it wasn't designed for.)

If we were living in the brave new world of 100% electronic book sales, or selling to a British publisher, the book coming out this month would be book two of the Merchant Princes, and it would be about 900-1000 pages long. But we're not, and so it got squeezed.

Going forward, I speculate that if we make a successful transition to ebooks — that is: if ebooks become a major sales channel and authors are still writing professional quality work for money, and readers are finding some way to pay them — we may see a revival of other formats: novellas for one (they're undergoing a renaissance in SF publishing among the smaller publishers), the Dickensian serial for another, and the gigantic shoebox-sized monster for a third. The corsetting of the modern novel to fit between the tight constraints of binding costs and price elasticity of demand will be unstrung, or replaced by bras, or some other over-stressed metaphorical construct.



Just as a data point: I once read a self-published serial ebook that turned out to be 4 million words long. It didn't seem as long as 40 paper novels would have.


Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926; Astounding was a competitor and came later.


Thanks for explaining why books are so much thicker in the UK- I thought that perhaps they were typeset for readers with worse vision than my own! This is a much more sensible explanation.


I read 'Accelerando' as an ebook on my Palm TE. Before I started it, I had no idea how long it was going to be, apart from a vague understanding based on the file size. It was well worth it of course.


I wonder if that's why I didn't buy book 2 of Merchant Princes. I remember not loving it, but I don't know if that's why or not.


I read Accelerando as an ebook too and had no idea it was so long. :-) That's probably a compliment.


I had to give up on the last Gene Wolfe because my wrists and finger joints did start hurting. I am waiting for Neal Stephenson to get serialised in a popular magazine, I can stitch the binding easily.


I'd also like to offer a Brazil-like explanation for the difference between US and UK binding practices:

{plug falls through hole drilled in Jill's floor}
CENTRAL SERVICES TECHNICIAN #1: They've gone back to metric without telling us!
That's right: part of the problem is the continued use of English-system measurements in US publishing, and in particular in US PPB equipment. We still order paper at 22" x 35" instead of A-size; we still use 6" x 9" as the default page size; and, most important here, we still use binding equipment that clamps to a default 1.5" or less instead of to 40mm. You really, really don't want to know what that does for textbook production, or sit in any preproduction meetings arguing about whether the savings in printing costs in Hong Kong will be eaten alive by the shipping costs to the US... or vice versa.

I also have one minor quibble with Our Gracious Host's comparison of binding techniques for casebound books between the US and the UK. An increasing minority of the US market in commercial fiction has gone to perfect-bound; the notorious example of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which tended to burst its binding upon being actually read, is just the tip of the iceberg.*

Sewn bindings also have multiple levels of quality; there's a huge difference between a true Smyth-sewn binding (essentially required for a compressed block of over 55mm or so in depth) and a mechanical multisignature binding (valid at any depth up to about 55mm at present, although even that is 15mm thicker than a decade ago) in cost, durability, and appearance.

Similarly, glue bindings are subdifferentiating; it's no longer accurate to call them "perfect bound" as if that's the method always used. For example, cookbooks and other "lay flat" books that do not have a sewn binding frequently use the Otabind system** or one of its competitors, and that's not the only filip. Even within commercial trade fiction, some of the smaller US commercial publishers have started transitioning away from the "classic" perfect binding as part of an attempt to differentiate themselves from POD (which remains imperfect perfect binding, and won't change for a loooooong time due to the relationship between glue and paper chemistry that is unique to current POD technology).

And now that I've not only beaten the dead horse, but transformed it into glue...

  • Interesting bit of trivia: It shouldn't have surprised anyone, as it was printed by the same company that was the dominant printer of telephone directories over here in a plant that had never done a trade casebound edition before.

** The enabling patents expire in 2012 in Europe, if I'm reading the EPO's records correctly, and in 2013 in the US.


On the matter of perceived value in books. Let's leave the matter of author and title recognition alone, since we're talking about the trade in general.

Yes, ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL, the customer is more likely to buy a longer book. But if you print a shorter book, then you can add value to it in other ways, while keeping the production costs the same. You can add illustrations, you can print in color, you can print on art paper. Thus, not all things would be equal anymore.


There are fashions, as well as technical and cost-constraints on these things as well. Towards the end of the Victorian period, the longer, multi-part novel/novel series fell out of fashion (also because of costs, I suspect). It was even commented upon, by a very prolific and inventive writer/novelist/poet of the time in verse, and entitled The Three-Decker You might be interested, especially as said writer wrote some very inventive SF, amongst his other prodigious output.


(and maybe a novella on the side)

If you ever have the time and inclination, I'd be very interested in your thoughts about the current market for novellas. They seem (to this uneducated reader) to be unwanted step-children: too long for many short fiction markets, and too short to regularly appear on bookstore shelves -- but possibly ripe for rescue as electronic books?


I would totally want to read a "gigantic shoebox-sized monster" of 10k pages on my ebook reader. I'd even put up with slightly dodgy writing if the world and characters and background elements were interesting - I've read some really freaking long online fiction things that have held my interest for that long, even in archive-binge mode as opposed to one instalment every few days.

I would be far happier to see shorter novellas make a major comeback, though, if I had to pick one or the other. Thankfully, I don't.


John, novellas have clung on in print for years -- in the surviving digest-format magazines (one novella per issue, or a third or a quarter of a serial novel: that's about a third of the digest's page count), or in book form; for example the Ace Doubles, a line of short novels/long novellas printed back-to-back and opposite way up, so you flip the book over to read the other half.

There's a small press renaissance in the novella format these days, because it has become economically possible to print short runs of around 1000 hardcovers and the internet lets them reach the core audience -- the "1000 true fans" -- who will buy them.

They'd also work well as ebooks. A 20,000 word novella (at the short end) takes around 45-90 minutes to read; as such, it's an ideal size read for a regular commuter. The problem, of course, is publication and distribution. Obviously the $24/hardcover/SRP price model for a novel is inappropriate for a novella -- unless it's a special collector's edition! -- so how do you price them?

(I have some ideas on this subject that I'm discussing with my agent, but given my existing time commitments it'll be a couple of years before you see the results of these ideas.)

15: 12: I think novellas can be sold in print if the shorter length is compensated for by illustrations and a finer edition.

I have a copy of Mary Gentle's Ash, which was when printed the longest single-volume fantasy novel ever (I don't know if it still is).

UK edition: 1120 pages.

The US edition was split into four, count 'em, four volumes. Ash: A Secret History: 432 pages. Ash: Carthage Ascendant: 432 pages. Ash: The Wild Machines: 400 pages. Ash: Lost Burgandy, 496 pages. Which is almost spot-on your magic limiting factor.

Of course, these are paperbacks, not hardbacks, so they should be perfect bound. But the reason for the split has always been described to me as due to limitations in the binding process used in the US, so perhaps there's something about paperbacks too.

(Good book, go read it. Get a wrist rest.)


Apropos shoe-boxes, I bought Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle twice -- first, optimistically, in hardcover, and then, 200 pages in, in ebook format so I could actually read the thing. (Took me 18 months, on and off, but I got there in the end, despite spending the last 450 pages shouting "I've read 'The Road to Tyburn', dammit, get to the bleeding point!")


Since I got my iPhone in 2007, I've tried reading only ebooks. This habit really started with the release of Accelerando as an ebook, which I believe pre-dated my iPhone by a bit. I read the first bits of Accelerando in serialized form (Asimov's? Astounding?) and recall printing out chapters on our inkjet printer in order to share with my wife. (That was silly and expensive so I purchased at least two print copies.)

I find that I read more, and purchase more books - ebook or otherwise - since getting used to the iPhone. And I have no idea how long something is: I'm amazed when I "zoom out" or shrink a web page to see a long column of text: was it really so long?

(So I caved, Charlie, on my Amazon boycott: I purchased your Wireless collection via Kindle last week, and last night it was Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books. Tor/MacMillan had offered the ebooks from thier web site, but relied upon Sony for their ebook provisioning, and I simply can't believe that Sony would do anything other than take my money in exchange for a heap of format-incompatible, Windows-only malware. But that's not the point. The point is: ebooks that work well for the purchaser - and Kindle in my experience - promote more sales overall, and encourage longer works. I've stayed away from the $1.99 e-published short story or novella, but have purchased a number of comics at that price on the iPhone App store. I believe that graphical works will really shine on a larger-format color readers that are coming this year.)

((and so much for clarity or brevity: while the iPhone is a great reader, it's a rather constrained writer. Hence word salad. Here's hoping I'm somewhat on-topic...))

19: 14: Charlie, a novella-sized book can be printed in a finer format even if it is not a special limited edition. That's because, as I said earlier, it's possible to add value to such a book in other ways than by making it hard to find.

"you can add value to it in other ways, while keeping the production costs the same. You can add illustrations, you can print in color, you can print on art paper."

All of those things would increase your production costs, potentially very substantially. Is your illustrator paid a per-image fee, or getting a royalty? Similarly, if you have a system designed for mass-producing black-and-white printing, inserting a couple of colour pages is actually a real nuisance, and thus expensive. And art papers cost more than normal book paper, and can require entirely different printing processes.

21: 20: OK, let's say "high quality paper," not "art paper."

Printing books in color in China or India is cheap. For a 192-page novella's run of 3000 in color (mostly, four-color black-and-white, by the way), with spot UV gloss in text (for illustrations), UV matte-gloss and pearlescent for the dust jacket, Smythe-sewn hardcover with foil stamping in two colors on the spine, and printed endpapers: $3.75 a book. For a run of 5000: $3.25 a book.

The illustrator gets a fixed fee and a small royalty.


I suspect ebooks may be even more length constraining. If you pick up a Stephensonesque tome in a bookstore, you're obviously getting quite a lot of words/dollar. If you look at it on, it doesn't immediately look any bigger than a standard novel.


By the way, 80# coated, silk finish throughout the entire book. No inserts.


I can remember exactly one book I bought for length - in the summer if 1986 or so, prior to going on vacation while I was in high school, I bought CS Friedman's 'In Conquest Born', strictly because it was a behemoth that I thought might get me through more of a trip. I remember enjoying it at the time, but a few years ago on a reread I ended up thinking 'man this thing needs to be about 250 pages shorter'.


I've heard the distributors-and-wire-racks explanation for longer novels before, and it's never really convinced. Perhaps because my mental image of 'paperback' is not a US SF novel, but English literary fiction - not books I associate with wire-racks, but they've grown longer at about the same rate. But I don't have any alternate explanations to offer...


@ #16 - I have a copy of the UK Ash too. I don't think it would have appealed to me half as much if it had come in four volumes, and it certainly wouldn't have demanded to be seen as a literary whole....


Took me a year+ to get through the first volume of the baroque cycle, the next two books were easier going.

I never realized Accelerando was particularly long, and I've read it twice. I guess I underestimate the length of digital texts pretty severely.


On ebook length, I notice that Fictionwise have wordcount and typical reading time as part of the info for each listing. Also, I've seen people give as a reason why they won't use ebooks that they can't tell at a glance how far through a book they are. However many readers have this as easily available info (a progress bar on Stanza for instance, with % through figure a single tap away).



Thank you for the continuing enlightenment.

There was one publisher who was prepared to dump the 'make books fit' in favour of 'telling the story'; CJ Cherryh has expressed her gratitude to DAW not only for increasing the page count in 'Downbelow Station' but also for putting out the second arc of the Chanur story in 3 volumes, without creating the artificial trilogy climaxes you've mentioned.

As for the Merchant Princes, perhaps you could persuade Macmillan to put it out here as a six book box set once the hardcover has run its course...


Different genres are of course very different.

That said, when I did my PhD thesis it needed to be printed in a small run (300 copies or so), and I encountered a fairly hard 160 page limit, even though it of course was softcover. Up to 160 pages and printing and binding it was cheap. Get over 160 and the unit cost suddenly (for this small run at the lowest possible quality and price) rose a lot, more than covered in the printing budget for the thing.


Lots of things are cheap in China and India and that's not necessarily good.


Not sure how the Peter Hamilton doorstops get into paperback in the UK, but over here a trilogy of monster hardbacks ended up as six paperbacks.

I'm impressed you got through the latest Stephenson epic, I gave up half way through the first one :)

Maybe I'm naive, but I always thought the length should let the story be told, within certain limits. How much buggering about with font sizes, white space etc can you as an author influence?



I have the four-part US version of Ash and really preferred that. I have the two books of the same universe, too, although all six are loaned out at the moment.


I'm currently reading a book from NESFA that has 700 pages and I've had to put the knee pillow next to me to do most of the holding of the book.


I've been wondering about a different aspect of publishing. You see, I work in a specialty bookshop. If I order three copies of Classic 1, five copies of New Title 2, and one copy of New Stross Title 3 which I buy from the shop at cheaper than the RRP, do you still get the same in royalties as if I'd bought it for full price in another shop? I don't want to be hurting my favourite authors just because I'm cheap.

Yeah, sorry about the run on sentence.


When I was in the army I almost always chose thicker books over thinner books when I was heading to the field. Tank crewman spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for things to happen so I had a lot of reading time on my hands, but I always preferred to have a few big books to keep track of than many small books. My prized possession was a two volume set of the collected works of Mark Twain, each book weighed in at a solid 5 pounds and stood up to several years of rattling around inside an M1 driver's compartment surprisingly well. These days I prefer buying e-books(I have a nook)the only paper books I buy new are the rare ones that I can't find as e-books or at my local library.


ebooks by the word are fine by me. I suspect there may be a market for "as written" editions of ebooks where you drop the 100 pages of filler at the start of each serialised chunk and just go "here's 250,000 words of my series X" (and I promise that I've finished). I prefer to read the first book in a series then wait until the end and read the whole thing in one go. Half-stories annoy me (don't talk to me about life).

Books by the kilogramme is a bit of a fact of life, I still recall reading Battlefield Earth on a ferry trip (3 hours) and being disgruntled that there was so much book for so little content. Put me right off that particular author. But anyway, despite my "buy by the word" above, for decent authors I suspect the punk album approach would also work: continue until you get to the end, then stop. Yes, I've paid full price for 15 songs ranging from just under a minute to 2:45 long, and felt I got good value.

Could I just mention at this point that Oxford have droppped the ball on this one with theoir ongoing refusal to merge dictionaries. Yes, actually, I do see value in buying the complete english plus science, physics, medicine and NZ english in a single e-volume, why do you ask?


Chris, Pete Hamilton's doorsteps don't get chopped up in the UK -- they come out in 1100-1200 page monsters.

As an author, I have zero control over book design issues such as font size and margins, unless I choose to start making word art on the pages (like Alfred Bester) -- something which seems to have gone out of fashion in the 1970s.


Out of interest Charlie, what format would you have liked to see the Merchant Princes books come out in? One monster paperback, or half a dozen nicely printed hardbacks, or somewhere in between?


phuzz: what format would you have liked to see the Merchant Princes books come out in?

Ideally, the first two as a single volume (as they were originally written). Thereafter ... well, I think it'd be kinda cool at some point to see them reissued in omnibus form as three books -- books 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6. Books 1 and 2 tell a complete story. Books 3 and 4 don't, but the main reader complaint about #3 -- that it doesn't go anywhere, and the action is just starting as it ends -- would go away with the added context supplied by #4. And five and six are the series wrap.

Each of these books would be around 600 pages, except the middle one (650-700 pages). A reasonably traditional trilogy, in other words.

And five and six are the series wrap.

Hey, by your own adminission, those aren't the series' wrap; they're merely the mid-point climax!

Let's see... you said book 1 (600 pages) got turned into 1 & 2, book 2 (800 pages) got turned into 3, 4, 5 and 6...

When can we expect the last 6? (/em starts running away as fast as he can)

Ok, just kidding. But the clarification explains a lot about the rythm of the series. Now to wait for delivery...


In the small press, once you break roughly the 1000 page mark while still using a decent paper, the binding costs get completely out of control. We recently published a limited of Peter Hamilton's THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION, which was just over 900 pages, and have THE NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST forthcoming at 930 pages.

The worst case scenario, from 2003, was when we sent GRRM: a RRETROSPECTIVE by George R. R. Martin to the printer. Intended to be 800 pages, it had grown to just shy of 1300 pages. I received a call the day the files arrived at the printer telling me it was actually about 100 pages too long to bind, given our usual paper choice. Our solution was to find a more expensive paper, and pay MUCH larger binding costs than if the book had come in at 1000 pages. 1400 copies of that book cost over $30k to print alone.

I'll never make that mistake again.

Bill SubPress


"Printing books in color in China or India is cheap."

Yes. And even cheaper in basic one-colour black and white than four colour colour, funnily enough. I suggest you go looking for print costs for comparable runs of 250pp text-only on normal book paper. Consider that your illustrator is probably adding half a dollar to a dollar or so per book to your costs on top of this for a short run, or else cutting into the author's royalties. Remember that every dollar spent by the publisher turns into around two dollars on the SRP.

Then circle and compare with our host's comments about wholesalers and chains not buying books with with SRPs even a couple of dollars above the standard because they don't sell. Yes, you can add value to books in all the ways you mention, but it costs money and people buy those books in smaller numbers.


Certainly, it would have been even cheaper in black and white, on uncoated paper, and without illustrations. But then it would have been just the same kind of book, only thinner. These don't sell.


Actually, the color print quality in China and India is very good. I would even say, excellent. Top-notch equipment and good operator skills. In the States, the print industry's strength is in the honed mass production process (mainly, black and white), which, however, does not permit much (if anything) in terms of customization. But in Asia, they can do the latest techniques in print, highly customizable.

Of course, you have to be careful who you work with ( comes handy). But Asia is the place to print books in color these days. Most of the American printers don't even bother spending time to quote, saying that are not competitive for the orders like this. And those that do quote actually print in China.


I've sometimes wondered if the rise in word count was also driven by the rise of the word processor -- the fact that the author no longer had to budget the time to actually type out the entire manuscript at least 2-3 times in the course of getting to a final revision, but could just keep going back through the existing file and making changes.


I've sometimes wondered if the rise in word count was also driven by the rise of the word processor ...

Yes, that's definitely driven word counts up; an editor of my acquaintance says submitted manuscripts bloated by around 20% during the 1980s, and it was very visibly associated with manuscripts that came off a word processor (which can be distinguished from ones off an electric typewriter -- margins and headers/footers are more consistent, for one thing).


20%, sure. But I don't think that the use of word processors would have accounted for much more than that. The length is constrained by the story itself. It is very obvious when the book was purposely bloated over what the story would support (Wheel of Time, for example). And it's usually not because of word processors, either.


The old 60-70k books have an advantage in that one can get the whole story in a brief period. If you want more, you buy another book. I also always liked how they fit in your pocket.

I wonder if ebook stories will get shorter in general. Freed from the 'container' of paper book form, the economic impetus of the publisher and the writer is to provide fewer words for more money. At the same time, people might not spend as long on a screen book as they would with paper, especially if the device they are using is multi-function and they choose to move on with it after shorter periods of time.

Mainstream reading habits might be changing anyway, with or without ebooks, as people use their time differently. The incredibly popular James Patterson books are pretty slim and the chapters look to be between five hundred and a thousand words.


I'm afraid Mr Korogodski's advocacy of foreign printers tells only a misleading part of the story. Here's where my experience on the Dark Side of the Editorial Desk doing textbooks and academic works comes in handy. In no particular order:

(1) It's all well and good to advocate for overseas printing, now that ยง 15 of the 1909 Copyright Act would no longer forfeit the US copyright of those books. But when you make cost comparisons, you must factor in shipping costs... and they're not inconsiderable.

(2) Then, too, there are delay problems. Doing a short- to mid- run (that is, from 2000 to about 15,000 copies) across the Pacific adds from four to six weeks to delivery time. If the novella in question has a release date tied to an author tour, the uncertainty is a killer; it can be just as difficult with a textbook that must be available for the beginning of the academic year.

(3) The printers over there do a pretty good job. They don't do a very good job with on-press corrections, no matter what the cause for the corrections is.

(4) Ever tried proofing a multicolor work? It's not easy. It's not fast. It adds at least 25% in costs and ten business days to the production cycle.

(5) Ever tried reading a 20,000-word-plus piece printed on the coated papers required for decent color reproduction? Bad, bad idea. Even though it's now technically possible to have full-color reproductions on every page, there's a reason that the most-honored, least-cost-constrained textbooks, reference works, and even some types of art books continue to use full-color inserts instead of just laying everything out inline: The coated pages don't stand up as well to certain kinds of handling, and the blacks for the text are neither as black nor as durable.

(6) Ever tried actually working with the business end of those printers, especially if you don't have a decade-or-longer track record as a publisher (can't do business until you prove you can do business)?

(7) I don't think there's really any need to point out that a color design costs more (time and money); that proper color layout costs more (time and money; you can't just dump the text into InDesign!); that advertising materials, such as catalog entries, had better be of equally high "wow factor," or they'll be undermining the product with shoddy packaging (as I'm in in the process of discussing myself, from a different perspective); etc.

(8) Then there are increased handling costs for fulfillment. Those coated papers require climate-controlled storage under narrower tolerances than do uncoated papers. Hmm, with that much color and coated paper, maybe we should get them shrink-wrapped. Spoilage is going to be higher, so we have to increase the print run. Returned copies are far less likely to be in saleable condition, so we have to increase the print run.

In short, I'm afraid that extolling Chinese and Indian printers for color-illustrated novellas without putting them in the complete context of the production cycle — which, it seems to me, is part of the point of CMAP — resembles the US government's budgetary process far more than I'm comfortable with.

All of that said, I've recommended and actually used overseas printers for specific projects that justified them. They are not, however, the panacaea that they would seem just by comparing the per-copy unextended printing cost. And as a general rule, they are not going to be an economical choice for a print run of 3500 novellas... unless the author is going to sign every copy and sell the bloody things for $45 and up.


I know you are, in some ways, more switched on to the US market, and SF in general is driven by the US, but I think that you have forgotten one factor which was probably more important in UK than in US: paper shortages. Paper supply was government controlled in WWII (not sure about WWI) - I believe that affect what got published, i.e. short was more likely to find a publisher, probably up to around 1960 or so.


I'm not claiming anything is a panacea. But:

(1) The cost I gave was CIF Boston. All included.

(2) Scheduling can be dealt with.

(4) Yes, I did.

(5) Yes, I did. Saw no problems.

(6) Yes, I did.

(7) As much is assumed unspoken.


Admittedly, though, my color situation on the text pages is fairly simple. Black, rich black, and magenta.


As far as textbooks using inserts for color, I thought it mainly had to do with their length. It would have cost too much to do everything that way. But a shorter book may be able to afford it.


In the USA, paperbacks are perfect-bound, but hardcovers are still frequently bound as groups of signatures (blocks of 16, 24, or 32 pages), which are stitched into a cloth binding.

You've said this a couple of times recently, but this hasn't been my experience at all. None of the major-publisher fiction hardcovers I've bought in the US or Canada in the last 15 years have been sewn. In fact, aside from those published by Subterranean (thank you!) the only recent books I have with sewn bindings are the large Gollancz trade/hardback editions of Alastair Reynolds, printed in Great Britain. (Absolution Gap (hardcover) 2003; The Prefect (paper, but same layout) 2007.)

That goes for novel-size fiction and non-fiction generally; art and children's books are still generally sewn.

A number of them aren't 'perfect bound' as I understand the term (although the Tor books I have all are). If there are visible signatures, they're cut and held together with glue only. There's no thread and no easy way to resew them if they fall apart.

I think, based on what C.E. Petit and William Schafer said above, the issue must be the maximum width of standard binding machines is different, rather than a limitation of the general method used.


You know, you might consider taking a look at some of the fiction writing circles that exist on-line. Some of them go all the way back into the 1980s. I did a series of columns on some of them in fact:

The lack of minimum or maximum length limitations led to a good deal of experimentation and different forms. There are some serialized stories where the writers post episodes as they write them; there are some collaborative shared universes where people write stories set in an on-going shared space. Interesting stuff.


Novellas are doing quite nicely in the erotic romance ebook sector, thank you. Both for the readers and for the writers, as far as I can tell from the anecdata. Some readers don't like them, but other readers say that being able to buy reasonably priced novellas for a quick read that has more depth than a short story is one of the biggest boons of ebooks.

One major reason why I keep sending my manuscripts to my current publisher is that my natural length appears to be 25-60 kwords, and there simply aren't many print markets for that length.

Now, if only ebooks made up more than 3% of the market, I'd be a happy writer...


During the first Iraq war, the husband of my water aerobics teacher said he had some donated books that couldn't be sent to the troops and would I like to take them. I said sure and when I got the box, it was all SF and Gor. I can see not sending Gor books, but SF? (And as it happened, I already had all the SF and gave them to the Friends of the Library so they could sell them.)


I know, I'm a horrible liberal who thinks books should be made by people who have good workplaces, are treated well, and get paid well. That doesn't happen often in China or India.


I read Accelerando printed 16-up on a mediocre laser printer, and snuck readings of it when I could at work, like Soviet-style samizdat. I had no idea it was so long.

Good writing can overcome the very worst "binding" issues the fevered mind of man can devise...


You know, you wouldn't help their livelihood by not giving them business.


There's more than one kind of sewn binding. The "high end" sewn binding — often referred to as "Smyth-sewn," although that's one particular type — has a little bit of glue to help hold the threads in place (it's not "stitching"; that's what you call the staple-thingies on certain thin publications like Time or The Economist), but the glue is not a structural feature. However, these types of fully sewn bindings are very labor intensive.

Next down the scale is a compromise, and the most common type of "sewn" binding in a general trade book. There are more different trade names for this type of binding than I can count conveniently. The real distinction is that the thread weave is much less dense, and is substantially reinforced by a relatively thin glue line. What you can't really see without tearing the boards and spine off is that the actual edges of the signatures are notched in several places, with thicker layers of glue in the notches. This is what Our Gracious Host is referring to, in all probability.

Finally, there's the board-over-glue binding, which has little or no threadwork to it. Some cheap binders are now even doing away with the pretense of that little flap of cloth at the top and bottom (whose technical name is escaping me at the moment), so one can see clearly that the binding itself is glue only. One of the Big Six is now shifting exclusively to this process for trade fiction (not a publisher of Our Gracious Host's works... at least not at present!).

Thus, I suspect that what you're referring to as a "sewn" binding means only the fully sewn binding (the top level described above), while Our Gracious Host is including any binding that uses thread and signatures as a structural element as a "sewn" binding. What was that about the English and the Americans being two peoples separated by a common tongue?


FYI, that flap of cloth at the top and bottom: headbands and footbands.


Heard a little piece on "You and Yours" on Radio 4 this morning. Highlighting ebooks because some charities are getting scared a huge part of their stock is going to disappear as the second hand ebook is not easy to sell. The piece started about 12.30, within a minute and available on iplayer.


And perhaps that will make the companies treat them better.


Connie Willis' new book, Blackout, is actually half of a book. The second half, All-Clear is out in October. The first half is 491 pages, so I can see why they'd divide it.

Excellent, knowledgable review by Michael Dirda.


As far as color addition goes, I recall being on the yearbook team one year. One of the very first choices we had to make was whether to have the yearbook in color (as I recall, it was a rather new offering at the time) or to have it be longer, as we had more cash than the previous year for some reason or another. Anyway, the color printing was worth about 50 or so extra pages--about 1/3-1/2 again as long as what we finally came out with (we decided on color). So, color is expensive in my experience.

And that is probably why the only textbooks I have that have color printing are the introductory ones. The more upper-level ones, even ones that would benefit from color printing (such as my introductory astrophysics text) don't have it, presumably because the market isn't large enough to bear the extra cost.


I happen to have here two hardcovers, one is Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in the UK edition, and the other is The Gathering Storm in the US edition. Neither of these probably count as typical -- the US one is a doorstop slightly over the 55 mm mentioned earlier, and the UK one is no doubt made for printing numbers in the bestseller range -- and yet, on the US one I can see signatures in the book block, which are held together by what appears to be glue, and which have the little loincloths, and on the UK one it appears to be separate pages held together by glue, without those cloth bits. It seems to me from reading the blog and the comments here that the defining characteristic according to OGH of a sewn binding is constituent signatures, and not so much how those signatures are held together.


My point exactly. Length versus quality. One can print a shorter book in color at about the same price. They take less shelf space either. And, in the competition with ebooks, it won't be the cheaply printed ones that will survive.


@18: Actually, you're probably better off with the Sony edition than the Kindle edition. Sony these days is distributing EPub files with Adobe DRM, and these can also be read with Adobe Digital Editions software on Windows and Mac, the Sony Readers, and devices from about a dozen other companies. Adobe's DRM really looks set to become the standard that everybody but Amazon and Apple will use.

Don't take that as any kind of endorsement of DRM from me, of course. Despite owning two Sony Readers, as a Linux user I'm apparently not worthy of being allowed to read DRM-protected material.


This is highly unlikely -- it is, indeed, far more likely that if business starts to tank their immediate response will be to try to cut down costs by paying their workers less.


Great article! Thanks for the insights.

Two points: you mention "It shouldn't be any surprise to discover that SF novels from the period 1923 to roughly 1952, when the newsstand fiction magazine industry more or less disintegrated". In fact, for SF & Fantasy titles, the peak year was 1953 (the "Boom" often referred to by Del Rey and others) and really didn't drop off dramatically until 1960 (ironic, given the space race). In 1953 there were 37 titles in print; by 1959 this had dropped to 12 - but for most of the decade there were in excess of 20 titles being regularly published. There's a pretty garish graph here - (scroll down to the bottom of the page to view it.)

The other thing I wanted to mention is that many paperback novels these days actually seem to be stretched to a larger page count. If printed with the same margins, font size, spacing and etc, many of those 120-136 page SF novels of the 60's and 70's would be coming in at almost double the page count today.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on March 9, 2010 2:42 PM.

PSA: I Have a New Book! was the previous entry in this blog.

For sale; first edition of the Necronomicon (used once) is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog