Last weekend at a seminar at Emerald City Comic Con I was asked again about length, with the assumption that fantasy novels should be, or are expected to be, or somehow sell better if they are 200,000 words long or longer. Though there are some major fantasy best sellers in that range, I’ve always had a feeling that that assumption is simply false. But then I’m also willing to admit my own personal bias toward shorter books. So I thought I’d put a bit of research in. So this week, let’s break down some of the best selling books of all time, and some other fantasy best sellers, and see how this magical 200,000 word mark stands up.
According to List Challenge’s 101 Best Selling Books of All Time, the ten best selling books are, in this order:
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Dream of the Red Chamber by Tsao Hsueh-Chin
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
- She by H. Rider Haggard
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
So how long are they? Surely the six fantasy novels on the list (I’m counting The Lord of the Rings as three books) must be monstrously enormous tomes of well over 200,000 words. Right? That’s what fantasy fans want, right?
The Fellowship of the Ring is about 177,000 words, and is the longest of the three, which get shorter as you go. The Two Towers is about 143,000 words and The Return of the King about 134,000. The Hobbit is 95,000 words long.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is only 36,000 and change.
The Little Prince is a scant 16,500 words.
Yeah, I know, but there are huge fantasy novels that have sold like crazy. And indeed, there are. The eleven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series average out to about 300,000 words each, as does George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.
But only two of the Harry Potter books come close to 200,000 words (Goblet of Fire: 191,000 and Deathly Hallows: 198,000 words), and R.A. Salvatore’s mega-best selling Legend of Drizzt series averages out at just a smidge over 100,000 words each. The longest might be 130,000 words, the shortest, about 90,000 words. Even Frank Herbert’s epic Dune falls under that 200,000 word mark at 188,000 words.
In fact, of the ten best selling books of all time, only the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber passes the 200,000 word mark and might be as long as 850,000 words.
The rest of the ten best selling books of all time? A Tale of Two Cities (135,000 words), And Then There Were None (approximately 95,000 words), She (121,000 words), The Da Vinci Code (170,000 words), and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (73,000 words).
Removing the statistical outlier of Dream of the Red Chamber and counting The Lord of the Rings as three books, our top ten averages out to 108,682 words.
So based on sales, that’s your benchmark, not 200,000 words. And also keep this question in mind: Are these massive fantasy uber-epics a fad that’s on the wane? How many times have you heard complaints about Wheel of Time and other so-called “fat-fantasies” seeming padded, bloated, or otherwise just plain too long?
In the end, of course, your book should be precisely as long as it needs to be to tell your story and put forward your ideas.
If that takes you 200,000 or 300,000 words, there are people who will read that, and those “people” even include me, who would rather read shorter books but won’t refuse to read a great book just becuase it’s long. I was a bit intimidated by the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is about 310,000 words long, but not only did I read every word of it, it remains among my most favorite fantasy novels of all time.
But if you can be as monumentally brilliant in 16,000 words as Antoine de Saint-Exupery was in his amazing The Little Prince, then that’s all the book you need to write. No one could possibly read The Little Prince and think, Yeah, it was okay, but it should be twenty times longer! And the fact that it’s short didn’t keep it from out-selling all but seven books in, y’know, the history of literature.
For the record, I sourced these word counts, which are approximations rounded to the nearest thousand, from various sources including: Word Count by Genre from worddreams…, Fantasy Faction’s Word Counts of Epic Fantasy Novels, and Great Novels and Word Count from Indefeasible.
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