51FUeEngFFL._SL160_AA160_.jpgI just finished reading the Kindle version of “Wireless” by Charles Stross, which I picked up at Amazon for $6.99. I wanted to read his Hugo award-winning novella “Palimpsest”. At the end of the story, as with all the stories in the book, he has an “Afterword”. It raises a question I haven’t seen discussed about the length of books and the potential for ebooks leading to longer novels. Here is what he says:

“Palimpsest” wanted to be a novel. It really, really wanted to be a novel. Maybe it will be, someday. And maybe I could have gotten away with making it a short novel, just to round out this collection with an example of every format of fiction, if it wasn’t for the imaginary voice of my editor nagging at the back of my head (“Do you know how much it costs to print a hardcover once it goes over five hundred pages?”)

Part of the reason novels are the length they are is the cost of printing and binding. Binding a fat book is disproportionately more expensive than binding two thinner ones, and there is a downward pressure on the price of hardbacks, which makes it difficult for publishers to show a profit on a fat volume. No surprise, then, that many recent big fat fantasy novels have shown up split up into two or more thinner volumes.

Perhaps once publishing moves wholesale onto the Internet, fashions in fiction length and the disappearance of printing and binding costs will lead to more and longer novels: but in the here and now, this short-story collection is pushing the limits of what I can get away with, without any need to add another hundred thousand words!

By the way, I found a typo on almost every other page – shameful. Not the quality one would expect from Penguin.


  1. Ebooks are changing the length of novels in both directions. It isn’t necessary to try to stretch a book out to the traditional 70,000 words or more if it wants to be a novella. Many epublishers charge according to the length of a book or story, and it’s not at all uncommon to find long short stories which, in the past, would have had no outlet except magazines.

  2. Readers want a length that suits them. I wouldn’t ever, and have never picked up a paper book that was over 350 pages. No matter how good. Also I wouldn’t pay full price for a short story. I suspect many readers have their preferences and are just as sensitive to price.

  3. “If there’s one publisher who stands out as not wanting ebooks to succeed, it’s Penguin.”

    I’d say that title goes to Hachette or Macmillan (or both). Penguin just gives me the impression of doing ebooks because it’s expected now (they don’t care if they succeed or fail).

    RE: Typos. I’ve gotten books from all the major publishers that are full of typos and other errors. It’s quite obvious they aren’t taking the time to put their ebooks together properly even though they claim all kinds of ebook production overhead.

  4. BTW, do you know if the typos were in the hardover version? Probably not.

    I have posted about typos in major books and written to publishers (with no response) on this. The James Clavell novels were a problem. I was informed by Amazon that TaiPan was replaced with a corrected version (and my copy replaced with my approval- I haven’t checked it.)

    I agree that ebooks allow for a greater range of length of books, with pricing accordingly. ALL to the good.

  5. Regarding page counts for print books, nothing magic happens to costs until you exceed the number of pockets on the binding line at a standard trade book bindery which happens at around 1200-1500 pages depending on other factors. Before that point the costs increase incrementally with the page count.
    In terms of typos introduced in the EPub conversion from the print optimized PDF’s that did not contain the typos, it is still early days for eBooks, and publishers are trying to work them into standardized workflows that would result in the best reading experience just as they do for print. They are still learning and still identifying the problem areas.

  6. Write to the publisher and complain about the typos. Point out to the publisher what an unprofessional job this represents on its part.

    One of the talking points of the publishers who are railing against self-publishing is that they bring professional editing to the table. I am a writer/editor with an international information company, and if our writers put out documentation containing the number of typos that you routinely find in published books these days, those writers would be fired.

    The publishers have raised prices and claim to be listening to their customers. So make your voice heard! Tell them you are not prepared to pay a premium for shoddily edited books.

  7. typos- Were these typos or OCR errors. It seems that many mid list books were not saved in digital format. Very short sighted of the publishers. Then they just scanned a book, assumed the OCR was working when it wasn’t and sent it out. I read a Mary Higgins Clark book that had 3 or more errors on every page when the original probably had less than 3 errors in the whole book. OCR errors are easy to spot, just see which two letters ran together to get the one that is listed. Llewelyn showing up as Uewelyn is an example.

  8. I have a list. I call it my Defecation Roster. People who bother me to the point of not wanting to put up with their sloppiness get added to the list. My favorite is “I loosed my head!” which although probably true is certainly not what was meant. I think I will add Penguin to my list.

  9. E hardly has a monopoly on typos. The quality of editing in print books from many houses (great & small) has been headed steadily downhill in recent years. Whether a NYT best seller or a SF oater, it’s no longer surprising to find spelling errors, homonym confusion, missing or unnecessary punctuation, mangled grammar, almost verbatim repetition on facing pages, etc. One wonders how the publishing houses aim to keep writers from skirting them to delve into self-publishing when such sloppiness passes for their vaunted “professional editing.”

  10. When you guys get over the typo-outrage 🙂 Can someone explain to me why, based only on the fact that eBooks now have no effective size limit, readers will suddenly be happy and prepared to read massively longer and possibly more expensive works ?

  11. @Howard: i don’t know about others, but i’ve thought about this quite a bit. i can say that ‘massively longer’ works have always held great appeal for me, but in print they weigh too much to carry on my commute — and because i take so long to read them, the print versions get pretty beat up from riding around in my bag. i prefer *anything* i’m actually reading to be in e-format, but especially the longer texts, because ‘how much i have left to read’ need not be such an obvious part of the experience, making it easier to just go along for the ride. i expect that would make most authors happy, but am not certain about that. anyway. with e, i know many find it difficult that they can no longer watch the right-hand part of the book grow thinner as they read. but with print it’s impossible to *blind* oneself to the diminishing thickness of the right-hand half of the book. and i really want to. also: in e, a huge book just doesn’t feel like the same kind of commitment as it does in print, and because the device always looks like the device, i don’t get sick of looking at the same cover every day for weeks. and shipping is free, and the book doesn’t sink shelf space at home.

  12. Any good e-reader shows you a progress bar (but only when requested), so you can see how far you’ve read, if you want to.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the typos, homonym errors and other textual howlers, which ruin my reading experience because they jerk me out of the story. A terrific story told shoddily is a real disappointment.

    I also think more flexible story length is a good thing. I love good short stories (e.g. O. Henry), and want more of them. Serials will also return. Ebooks give authors the room to let the story grow in its own way. Stories tend to be their own length, and jamming them into the publisher’s preferred length is a painful and frustrating process, as authors have often told us.

    Ebooks give us more flexibility, storage and accessibility. Book formats should be all about getting the story across.

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