eBook success: short and sweet?

Shorter is sweeter in the digital world

As featured in Carnival of the Indies, Issue #36 September 13
As featured in Carnival of the Indies, Issue #36 September 13
eBook success
Is the length of your eBook all that stands between your success or failure?

Over the last twelve months or so, eBooks have been getting shorter. It could in part be attributed to the ‘series’ mentality that has come about since the worldwide success of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. These weren’t short books, mind you (at times I wondered if they’d ever end, but that’s another post!)

In the self-publishing world, you can now regularly see the first book in a series priced for free or a best-selling eBook author selling a series of novellas. Even traditionally published authors are hopping on the bandwagon. One of my favourite historical mystery/romance authors, Deanna Raybourn, released a prequel to her major release in May this year. How much did she charge for the eBook version of the prequel? Nothing! That certainly says something when the publishers are getting on board too. Even they recognise the industry is changing.

The long and short of eBook length: what does the industry say?

Both of my novels to date have been 100k+, so the marketer in me decided to find out if I was missing the mark. Should I be spending less time on each book? Should I be releasing eBooks more often? Here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • On average, epic tales perform better. I was surprised when Smashword’s founder, Mark Coker, revealed that on average, as word count decreases, so do sales. In fact this positively baffled me! He claims that 121,000 is the average successful eBook length. In the traditional publishing world, it’s a length that publishers would avoid due to increased printing costs. In the eBook world, the sky’s the limit (or the readers attention span is anyway).
  • Get your genre right, then research it. I was less surprised to discover that in the romance genre, eBooks are substantially shorter. Romance readers prefer books between 65,000 and 80,000 words in length, according to Coker. Nine of the top ten romance bestsellers at Smashwords were less than 80,000 words. In terms of genre, the most successful genre of ebooks are currently thriller, mystery and romance.
  • Author success = reader loyalty. And how do you create reader loyalty? Write and publish a lot of books. The first wave self-published success stories such as Amanda Hocking, Stephen Leather and John Locke are great examples of this. If you’ve only written and published one book it’s hard for readers to become loyal, because quite simply, what do they read next?
  • Get serial. This is why many authors write series. They establish strong, interesting characters and then drip feed it to the readers every six to twelve months. This breeds loyalty because once a reader becomes attached to the characters, they’re always interested in hearing about the latest release. In January 2012, John Locke earned around $100,000 for the month from his Amazon sales. While you get over that figure, I’ll put some perspective on it for you – this was from the sales of 15 books. Yep, I’ve got a long way to go before I get to fifteen, how about you?
  • We have short attention spans. Blame it on the recent change to society and communication thanks to social media, but the fact is, the way we consume information is changing. We are serial television station hoppers – and this usually occurs WHILE we are simultaneously on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – you get the idea. Short fiction satisfies, according to some. It allows us to get a quick hit of fiction amidst the bustle of our day-to-day life. It fits in with us, whether you’re on the bus or train, or sitting in front of the television (I won’t say watching television, because I’m not actually sure that’s what we do anymore…)

There is no substitute for good quality writing

I think it goes without saying that anything you write needs to be good quality, well-edited and professional. There’s enough novellas out there that lack structural and grammatical editing and they’re not going to be earning the dollars in the long term that a professionally minded self-published or traditionally published author could.

It’s nice to know that I shouldn’t throw out my 2 novels of 100,000+ each. But the research has definitely got me considering the length of my future works.

How about you? Have you had more success with shorter fiction than longer works? Or do you think a good story is a good story, no matter how long it is?


16 Replies to “eBook success: short and sweet?”

  1. I’ve had more success with my short stories and novella’s than my longer form fiction. But I have no way of knowing if it’s due to the format or the content. Readers do not tell me these things. And there is a huge difference in the style of content between long and short form fiction, at least there is with mine. So I don’t know the answer to this.

    I’m not convinced about short attention spans being a current thing. I am certain there is more choice out there today then there was 10 years ago. I’d love to see a study into this short attention span problem I hear so much about.

    As always another interesting article.

    1. Hi Rob, that’s very interesting about your long v short fiction. As you say, it’s very difficult to pinpoint whether it’s purely the length or other factors at play. I’d like to think that a good story is a good story no matter the length!

      I know what you mean about attention span. Is this just the latest fad the media have grabbed hold of? I do think our media choices are more and more fragmented these days, though. I agree about there being more choice, particularly in the digital eBook space – it’s become very saturated and it’s harder to get noticed just because of the sheer numbers of books available.

  2. I’ve found I tend to prefer shorter stories on the kindle and have actually been reading (and writing) lots of short stories, which I was never interested in before. I think it’s something to do with the format of an ebook versus a print novel.

    1. Yes, shorter stories do seem to be more popular lately. I agree that the ebook has probably had some impact too. I also wonder if the price plays a role too? If a novel is only a few dollars, does it make more sense to keep the word count down in pure return on investment terms? Thanks for reading.

  3. This is a really thought provoking post. Certainly it must be easier for readers to stay with a few authors that they enjoy rather than always testing new Waters. I can think of authors I have read for the last decade or more long after their peak has passed. So publishing more quality books will help develop a following.

    I suppose that authors might be taking advantage of the freedom to publish shorter works that might be finished more quickly, but so long as the quality is right and the story is good then keeping it at its natural length seems like the best approach.

    1. Hi Paul. I know in the past I’ve certainly fallen into the routine of following a few authors instead of testing new authors. I find with digital it’s easier to take a risk on new authors.

      Your comment about the natural length of a story hits home with me too. As both an author and reader, I’m not too worried about word count so long as the story delivers. I know in traditional publishing this can be trickier as authors often are constrained by printing costs etc. Perhaps this is why with digital authors are now experimenting with both longer works of 100,000+ as well as shorter works? Thanks for commenting.

  4. I think it’s all right (if not necessary) for fiction books to be long because the more the reader invests in a story, the more she’ll be satisfied when she finally finishes the book.

    Regarding non-fiction, unless the topic is really extensive or the author is an expert, I’ve noticed that a lot of non-fiction books contain mostly filler information.

    That said, the proliferation of short non-fiction books is a blessing. Readers can learn what they need to in a book, then move on with their lives (or is free to read good fiction books).

    1. Hi Michael. I think you’re right about the non-fiction books being a blessing. Anything that gives us more time for fiction has to be good!

      With the shorter fiction works, I know I have made a deliberate choice not to purchase a book based on too short a word count. If it’s less than 50,000 words I feel like I can’t be bothered to read it because it will be over too quickly! Not sure if I’m reflective of the general population though…

  5. The conclusion that longer eBooks do better than shorter eBooks needs careful assessment of the data. What if the “Top Ten” eBook sales were written by popular authors with long market expertise in the 120k range? And the rest of the eBook authors who are less known and early entrants (within 5 years) to the writers markets fill the rest of the portfolio? It would skew the data and misinterpret the conclusion. It’s like saying the music business favors digital album bans than indie solo artists. Although there are many Indie bands doing albums the bulk of sales will be going to the big artists – its the nature of the entertainment business: very few make very large revenues while the vast majority share much smaller revenue.

    And there is the question of eBook publishing. If you were an eBook publisher would you prefer to setup a distribution with fewer name brand or experienced writers at 120k each hit or diversify your writers portfolio with anyone who submits an eBook?

    No matter if you are in digital or legacy publishing you will find it less costly to focus on a few experienced e/Book writers that bring home the bacon (profits) than hire or outsource and pay to accommodate a large stable of diversified writers – very very few winners and the vast majority of novices and recent entrants to the market.

    The question of fiction and non-fiction was not introduced into the story so that brings another question as to the length of non-fiction v fiction and whether there should be a separate category for non-fiction eBooks so that we can remove these eBooks from the general population for data assessment purposes – or simply provide another set of data particular to non-fiction eBooks.

    1. Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. I agree, there are a lot of factors at play here and my blog post only looks at a few of the statistics. I focused on fiction so agree that it would be interesting to compare non-fiction figures. There is definitely a trend at the moment in the fiction world towards shorter, serialised novels (with the hope of breeding reader loyalty), yet 120k novels continue to do well. At the end of the day, any author’s aim should be to write the best novel they can, whatever the length.

  6. Reblogged this on YOURS IN STORYTELLING… and commented:
    What do you author-types out there think of this?

    I tend to agree, thinking that short and sweet sometimes fills the bill nicely. On the other hand – my best seller is also my longest book – TATTERDEMON.

    I’d love to hear some other opinions.

    While you are at it – you might also want to take a look at Sabrina Ricci’s latest blog entry – INDIE AUTHORS AND E-SINGLES.
    yours in storytelling,
    Steve Vernon

    1. Hi Steve, thanks for reading and for re-blogging, and for sharing your experiences. While I can see the sense behind the recent trend of shorter ‘bite size’ books, my books are over 100,000 words each! As you have indicated, writing a longer book doesn’t mean it’s going to be any less successful though. We just have to try and write the best book we can (long or short) and see what the market thinks of it.

  7. Growing up, I was always a big fan of what I used to call the “potato chip book”.

    I am talking about Doc Savage, Mack Bolan, Travis Magee, or even books like Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. There was something peculiarly satisfying about a novel that you could finish in an afternoon sitting on a big old Adirondack chair on your front porch with a beer in one hand and a bowl of pretzels at the ready.

    I love me a good novella as well. It’s like an icy-cold bottle of Coca-Cola on a hot summer day. You want to tip that sucker back and let it slide on down your throat, washing the dust down into your gullet in one strong glacial power-guzzle.

    Speaking as an author – I prefer writing short lengths. I’m a natural-born sprinter – (me and Gimli) – rather than a marathon man. My latest project is a romance paranormal series. I’ve got one book cooking and a second in the planning stage and I am aiming at about 50K per book, which suits me fine.

    Still, my bestselling novel, TATTERDEMON, sits at a big fat 90,000+ words – which goes to show you that you can figure a situation as much as possible and you are still not going to understand the long and short of it. Sometimes a fellow just has to roll them dice. But I would tend to agree with the theory that folks nowadays are awfully impatient. They have an awful lot of spending their electronic-diddling time – so a writer, if they want to be successful, needs to be ready to make the whole e-reading experience a quick and painless event.

    Thanks for this blog. I’ve re-blogged on my own page because the subject-matter is both pertinent and timely!
    yours in storytelling,
    Steve Vernon

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