In an article in the Guardian, Richard Lea writes that books have increased in length by 25% over the past 15 years. A survey of 2,500 books from various bestseller lists reveals that average book length was 320 pages in 1999 and but grew to 400 pages by 2014.
Lea quotes several veterans of the publishing industry who give a variety of reasons for this phenomenon. The three that make most sense to me are:
- The shift to digital. e-books are more portable and readers do not have to worry about lugging heavy tomes around. Also, readers who might have been intimidated by the size of books at a booksellers do not have the same problem when they buy books from Amazon; there, the number of pages is almost a footnote.
- Perhaps in a reaction to 30 second sound bites and abbreviated text messages, people who love reading appear to prefer long, immersive narratives.
- Hefty books give readers a sense of value for money. A big book appears to be more worth the purchase price.
Of course, page counts can be misleading. It is easy to increase the number of pages by using a slightly larger font, by using big headers and a host of other tricks. They help turn a middling book into a much thicker one and by reducing the number of words per page makes a book easier to read, a real page-turner. Sometimes, authors run out of ideas late in their careers and resort to these tricks to keep churning out books. One such author, I’ve always felt , was Robert D. Parker, best known for the Spenser mysteries. His early books were normal sized, and better plotted, with normal fonts. His later books were quite the opposite … novellas pumped up to look like books. The plotting was rudimentary and most of the verbiage consisted of inane dialogue which set my teeth on edge. It enabled Parker to drastically reduce the number of words on each page, since each sentence or two of dialog was separated by a blank line. Parker also used very short chapters , each of which began half way down the page.
Another such author, in my opinion, is Stuart Woods, who writes the Stone Barrington series and other mysteries. I also got the same feeling about J. K. Rowling and the later Harry Potter mysteries which were much thicker than the early ones and yet did not contain as much action.
So what is the preferred length for a book? The answer of course, varies from reader to reader. In my own case, it is between 300 and 350 pages ( with normal sized lettering). Such a length gives the author enough space to develop the characters, and for the plot to unfold. This is for fiction books; for non fiction, my preferred length is more flexible and ranges between 200 and 400 pages.
Any more than this and I may well decide to give the book a pass. This happened to me with Robert Caro’s exhaustive( and exhausting) multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Each volume, I think, was upwards of 700 pages.While appreciating the thoroughness of his research and the level of detail in his books, I asked myself : “Do I really want to know that much about Lyndon Johnson? and ” Am I willing to devote a month of my life reading about him ? ” The answer was ” NO”. I do not plan to read these books at any point in the future.