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What Is A Novel? And Why Does It Matter? And To Whom?

Originally published on MotiveMeansOpportunity.

According to Cambridge Dictionaries Online, a novel is “a long, printed story about imaginary characters and events.” I find that definition, while technically accurate, woefully vague. Dictionary.com, thankfully, has a more precise definition: “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Formal language aside, this is much better. Far more specific and comprehensive. However, neither definition concretely addresses what is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a novel: length. So allow me to synthesize parts of the above definitions with one of my own.   A novel is a piece of fiction that is 60,000 words or more.

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But what’s more relevant than the definition itself are the reasons why readers and writers alike should care.  So let’s discuss, briefly, what some of those reasons are, why they matter, and to whom they matter. First off, I’ve yet to come across a literary agent or a publisher that will even consider a manuscript that is less than 60,000 words, so length is paramount.  My guess is that’s to do with marketing.  Agents must sell manuscripts in order to make any money, and publishers big and small are not willing to spend the time, energy, and resources on any manuscript, regardless of quality, that cannot be labeled a novel, which is, by leaps and bounds, the most popular form of fiction read today.  It’s supply and demand. Simple as that.  That said, I love short stories and novellas, but generally speaking, people don’t read them. Truth be told, I don’t read them much, unless it is for a literature or creative writing class I happen to be teaching.  In short, readers read novels. Period.

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Money is another reason writers should be keenly aware of the definition of a novel.  Everything, in the end, gets back to money. Sad, but true.  And if publishers are going to go to the trouble of publishing a book, it needs to be of substance and of a certain length, i.e. novel-length. Quick hypothetical: imagine you’re a Kindle reader, and you purchase a “novel” that looks good, but then soon discover the book is less than a hundred pages.  You feel cheated, right? Betrayed, maybe even enough to not bother with the rest of the book.  And if you do read on, that sense of betrayal can and will color your opinion of the book in question, especially since you paid good money for it.  Now consider the cost of printing a hardback or paperback.  After paying editors and proofreaders and book cover designers, a publisher has to then send a typeset manuscript to a printer, and that costs even more money.  Publishers must be selective in what they publish. Highly selective.  It’s not just a question of money, but time as well. For all the time a publisher spends on one book, that same publisher is missing out on a whole slew of other books, all potential bestsellers. For you business types out there, you’ll know there is a name for this: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.

Bottom line, writers need to be aware of what publishers and agents mean when they ask for novels, and act accordingly. Because if writers don’t, they’ll get something even worse than a boilerplate rejection notice in their inbox: they’ll get no response at all.

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So what’s your definition of a novel? Why do you think readers prefer novels over other forms of fiction such as novellas and short stories? I’d love to hear what you think.

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