Sunday, January 17, 2010

How Long Is Yours?

Some of you may recall my list on Friday of blogs that got me thinking... One of them is a blog topic unto itself... possibly a rant of sorts... not that I have a goal of pissing anybody off, but it is something that has irked me since I started into this publishing morass. Rules, Rules and DAMN Rules. Of all the rules, the one that irks me most is book length. The reason it irks me so badly, is I believe strongly that the length of the book should be determined by how long it takes to tell the story—no more, no less.

And you know what? I don't CARE what genre it is! I don't CARE if romances and mysteries are supposed to come in at under 300 pages. It's crap. If the story isn't complete, then it takes more time to tell.

Predictability Peons

I get that there are some readers who are afraid of a nice fat book. And I myself am a reader that can't bring myself to pay good money for something that looks like I could finish it in a day—takes everything I have, no matter HOW highly recommended, to actually pay money for a book less than 300 pages.

And that's a damn shame. Had I not had a coworker with a copy, I never would have read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It's become one of my favorite books, but I just wouldn't have done it because I have a length bias.

I suppose it is we tarts who like 'em long...

But what I HEAR, is that the genre readers have an expectation and won't buy something that falls outside of that. Now I get how tempting a sure thing is, really I do. But what about appealing to a NEW market? There have got to be people like me who prefer our mysteries with some meat on their bones. I LOVE mysteries... when I can buy them in the mainstream section and they have a nice 400+ page count, because THEN there is character as well as plot.  (I  like them otherwise, but I LOVE them when there is more to them)

I will be honest and say I am still darned picky about my romances, but the handful of romances I've LOVED in my life have been books like The Thornbirds, or Five Smooth Stones—big books that get into deep issues.

So when I read the advice that an Urban/street/literary mix can't go long, even when it was a clean read, it made me want to cry.

We are living in a time when War & Peace or A Suitable Boy could not have been published. Are you KIDDING me? Leo Freaking Tolstoy could not publish a book? And I just have to cry foul, both because this is my favorite author ever, and because I think it means we risk losing something really important if the decisions rule out such works.

My Vision... such as it is

What I would REALLY like to see is a cooperative effort by WRITERS to get some of these worthy works 'approved' in some way that the authors could self publish without the stigma. I get it—publishers can't take the chance because readers really ARE cautious about these rule breakers. But these are the books that stand the test of time—the books that last into the next generation, and longer. There has to be SOME route to get them out there.

What I'm NOT saying, is this is an 'easy way'--self publishing's problems are endemic--the easy way allows through a lot of crap, and I don't want to give credibility to THOSE books that haven't been traditionally published because they aren't ready yet.

I believe the process of peer review is a tough road. I don't think authors should 'be easy on their friends'. I don't believe in a 'tit for tat' system. I think it should be anonymous and VERY tough, but a panel of... say 3-5 authors making a recommendation whether something is ready for publication or not--giving feedback on places it could be improved, regardless of whether any publishing house is ready to take the chance or not, seems like a nice screen so that readers can trust it enough to order a self published book.

I publish scientifically, and it works for that—only sound science, backed up by thorough review of the context, told in readable language is published. Most manuscripts take 3 or 4 rounds before they are accepted. There are actually tiers of journals, with a few only accepting 'the best'--so maybe we have a tiered process here, too. I'm not sure how it would work. I don't have masses of published writers I'm in contact with to get something like this going, but doesn't it seem like in a tightening market, when traditional publishing seems to be getting harder and harder, that something like this might be necessary?

That's my story and I'm sticking with it.


Kassy with a K said...

I must be a weirdo. I never pay attention to book length or genre or whatever. I just pick books that sound interesting to me. I find it amazing to think that someone would choose NOT to read a book based on length or genre. But then again, I never did like to color inside the lines. :p

Helen Ginger said...

Probably your best bet is to find a group of writers in your area and form a trusted reader group, then read for each other.

The deal behind word limits isn't because of writers; it's because of publishers. The longer a book is, the more it costs to print. Publishers will publish longer books for established, selling writers, but won't often do that for new writers. New writers are untested with no sales record. Unless they read it and believe it will sell big, they're not going to take it on if it's too far out of the word range for a new writer.

Straight From Hel

Jan Morrison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Morrison said...

ya know my deario, you must do what you must do - you hate rules only because you feel like you must follow them or go against them - there is a third possibility (a third to billionth degree) and that is to do what you must do and find the publisher who will believe that this is one to break the rules on. I will give you an example that should cause your heart to sing - The Booker Prize which is given to the best new novel of the year in the Commonwealth (sorry - your teaparty jinxed you on that but still) was given this year to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. It weighs in at just under 700 pages - quite large AND it is historical fiction, a - gasp - genre book!!!! It won though - even if it had made the long list or the short list it would be deemed a bloody miracle BUT IT WON! Guess Hilary Mantel doesn't care about length or genre or I guess the publishers that published her didn't care. And I guess the judges didn't care and I can tell you I'm glad on so many levels and I must not be the only reader who is! I say quit spinning your tires in the mud of supposed to and just do it! I'm cheering for ya!

M.J. Nicholls said...

One solution is to make your name with short, punchy books and then roll out the doorstoppers.

For an unknown to get a gigantic book published as their debut isn't completely mad -- there are many examples of this in contemporary lit. Genre fiction, alas, usually favours the shorter format.

Anyway, you know this. If you need cheering up, find a UK comedy called "The Book Group" on Youtube. It's a hilarious comedy about the publishing/writing/reading world. AND there's an episode based on The Alchemist!


Linda Spear said...

Geez, girl...I love your "chutzpah! If you don't know that vernacular, it means GUTS in Yiddish...and I admire you all the more!

Watery Tart said...

WOW! Lots o' comments! I love that!

Kas-I love that you love all sort of books! I avoid some genres because of that whole 'short thing (more to do with lack of character development), but that's me.

Helen, I KNEW it was the publishers as the WHY, I am just trying to work out a way around the darned thing.

Jan-that is EXCELLENT that a thick book won! I wonder if UK publishers are less picky on all those rules (I actually have a connection in India... right, Natasha?). I wonder too, whether Historic fiction gets a similar break to Fantasy--the READERS are a hardier set than mainstream, on average...

Mark-the approach you suggest is probably what I will end up with, in the end--the trilogy is only about 75K a piece and ought to be infinitely easier to sell, once polished, for that very reason.

Will look for the YouTube... always love anything that makes fun of something that frustrates me...

Linda, thank you so much! And I DO know chutzpah (and maybe a dozen other Yiddish words)--the remaining benefit of my college boyfriend... I like it better than guts because it sort of sounds like what it is, doesn't it?

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Thornbirds, I am emotionally attached to. I read it for the first time when I was in labour - my labour dragged on and on and on, so I was glad the book was as long as it was (to be honest, I did not even notice its length, and have only a couple of minutes been told it is long).

And if it is any consolation to you, there is a new edition of Suitable Boy that's just come out, and it is flying off the shelves.

A good book is a good book, and I would not think any serious reader would be put off by a book because of its length. Publishers are a different thing.