The Long and/or Short of It

As many of you know who read my blogs, I’m trying to get a science-fiction novel published by the traditional method, namely, by getting an agent who will sell it to a publisher and the rest will be history.  But I’ve run up against a small hurdle.  Or maybe it’s a big hurdle.

Everyone tells me that a novel by a new author, that is, one who’s never published in fiction, should be in the range of 70,000 to 90,000 words.  A hundred thousand at the most.  Over a hundred thousand and your chances of getting published are close to zero.  What I can’t figure out is why this should be.  I’ve seen lots of books in the stores and libraries that vastly exceed that limit.  Longer books are getting published by well-known houses.  So how come I can’t get an agent if they keep telling me that my book is too long?  (It’s around 123,000 words.)

This is a concept I’ve never been able to figure out.  I’ve heard several explanations, such as the books over 100,000 words are by well-established authors, and a new author should stay below the magic hundred thousand mark for his first.  Look at J.K. Rowling, they say.  Her first Harry Potter books were relatively short.  Only the later ones were larger.  But I say, so what?  What value does it do to a new writer to have to write a short book first?  What part of learning to write does that enhance?

Another reason I’ve heard for writing a shorter book first has to do with the increasing cost of paper.  Write a short book, and it will cost the publisher less.  If that’s true, then someone should tell all the writers who pen large books, because that’s not an admonition to a new writer, it’s a warning to all writers.

Another reason that has been suggested is that the booksellers have limited space in their stores, and if an author writes a large book they won’t have the room to put it on their shelves, leading them to purchase fewer of those books in favor of narrower books.  But that, like the criticism above, applies to all large books.  Yet George R.R. Martin still sells lots of books even though his are several inches thick.

I’ve also heard that a new author should write within a set limit to prove he can do it.  To that I say, so what?  Why do I have to prove I can do it if I intend to write longer books in the future, as many authors do?  I offers me no learning value at all.

In short, I’ve never heard a good reason why a beginning author has to stay within an arbitrarily defined set of word limits.  I’ve been working on my novel for several years and I’ve cut it and cut it and cut it.  It’s beginning to look really good now, suitable for publication.  Yet it’s still considered too big.  More cuts are necessary, they say, especially by people who’ve never read it.  I’m close to cutting as much as I can without sacrificing the integrity of the plot.  Does anyone have any good reason why I can’t publish a book of 123,000 words?

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