Hi, everyone! I’m pleased to be joining Magical Words for my monthly mouthing off. First, let me introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Lucienne. I’m a Taurus.” I.e. stubborn, straightforward, creative, persistent…in short, a literary agent. Specifically for The Knight Agency. I represent over forty authors of fantasy, mystery, romance and young adult fiction, including two of Magical Words’ founders, David B. Coe and Faith Hunter, and past guest bloggers Diana Pharaoh Francis and Rachel Caine (hey, guys!).
The question of appropriate word count for various genres has come up time and again in my recent talks and on my blog, so I thought I’d use it to start off my very first post here at Magical Words. First of all, if you’re J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin, you can get away with the kind of books that keep chiropractors in business, the big fat fantasies. If not, here are some things to think about:
1) Simple economics: it costs more to print big, thick books than it does for thinner volumes. Shocker, right? This means more economic outlay for the publisher without a guarantee of returns on their investment. (And yes, I’m primarily talking about print publishing here, because while the audience for e-books is growing, their sales still only account for between 2% and 4% of the market and don’t yet pay a living wage.) Before acquiring anything, publishers run a PNL (profit and loss statement). The numbers they run are based on an author’s previous sales history, if any (or if not, an approximation of expected sales based on similar books on the market), the cost of printing the books (not just the advance to the author, but payments to editors, copy editors, cover artists, etc.), average returns, etc. Based on this, the publisher decides whether it will be financially advantageous to acquire a book or series. If the publisher doesn’t expect to earn enough money above their costs to make acquisition worthwhile, no offer will be forthcoming.
2) Publishers can’t charge the same price for a new writer as they can for an established author with a following, one whose audience is already hooked and will automatically pick up the next title from favored authors, sometimes even waiting in lines the day before a coveted release. Publishers want to charge a more attractive (read lower) price to entice readers to take a chance on someone new, someone whose market appeal is not a guarantee. A free market society is built on the laws of supply and demand. Houses must first build up demand for a product before they can increase the price on their supply. (Note: there are always, of course, exceptions, but they are really exceptional, for example Susanna Clarke’s debut Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.)
3) Bookstores have limited shelf space. This means that if you’ve got a big fat tome, booksellers can’t shelve as many in the allotted space and consequently might order fewer copies.
4) So far we’ve been talking about maximum word counts, but there are minimums as well. Agents and editors don’t bring these up because we want to impose artificial boundaries on your artistic creations. We do it because we know that readers feel shortchanged by a book that’s too short. Bigger fonts and wider margins don’t fool fans when they finish a book in a matter of hours. It only makes them wonder why the book that entertained them for a week cost the same (or nearly so) as a book they finished in an afternoon. Readers want to spend some quality time living in your world with your characters. Publishing is more than just a creative endeavor, it is, like any artistic achievement meant for public consumption, a contract between the artist and observer. If you provide satisfaction, your readers will come back for more. Otherwise, they tend to complain rather loudly in on-line reviews. In fact, a lot of authors who’ve been told to trim by their publishers for economic reasons 1-3 have had to explain to readers why their books are getting shorter. (Note to readers: authors often have as much input into the font and trim size, etc. of their books as they have to whether or not their brunette heroine is a blond on their cover. Sometimes we get to haggle. Sometimes we see artwork, etc. too late for changes.)
More economics? I’m sure you’ve been hearing a lot lately about loss leaders and price wars. Let’s start with print books, because that’s what we’ve been discussing thus far. There was a huge kerfluffle last fall because Walmart and Amazon got into a price war, taking losses on hot hardcovers and other books in order to drive traffic to their venues. (See Wall Street Journal article of October 2009.) They were willing to sell these books at such a price that they not only didn’t turn a profit, but lost money in order to lure consumers.
The same kind of loss leading has gone on with e-books, particularly with Amazon.com’s insistence on a $9.99 price tag for all books. When Macmillan negotiated with them recently to change things so that some e-books would be more expensive and some less (in both cases closer to the prices of their print counterparts), Amazon tried to convince consumers that Macmillan was being unreasonable, harping on the higher prices being discussed and giving no play to the lower. What most readers weren’t aware of was that Amazon had been losing money on a lot of their e-books to build a loyal consumer base for their readers and e-book offerings. While it is true that publishers don’t have to pay warehousing and shipping costs for e-books (the latter of which are not generally paid by the publisher in any case), they do have other associated costs, like formatting. Also, publishers still have to pay authors, editors, copyeditors, designers, artists, etc. and the salaries of all those other people who make the publishing world go around, like contracts administrators, sales and marketing, publicity, subrights managers…. The economics of e-books really aren’t so vastly different from their print counterparts.
Well, there you have it. My two cents on the economics of publishing. No calculator required.
For more on the subject:
Romantic Reads on the Economics of Word Count
Getting Published (for academics) on Book Length and Word Count
Wall Street Journal article mentioned above on the Walmart/Amazon price war
Shelf Awareness with a take on the Amazon vs. Macmillan issue