Does Size Matter?

I’ve read some pretty long books in the course of my life. Tolstoy’s War and Peace with the original French quotes included – 1,296 pages. The Far Pavillions by M. M. Kay which comes in at a mere 960 pages.  Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, another light book coming in at only 600 pages. The Twilight Saga books by Stephanie Meyer’s always surprise me because I tend to think of them as light reads but the books clock in at over five hundred pages each. Which brings me to an important point – size does not mean substance. I don’t think many would argue that the thick novels mentioned above are somehow better than John Steinbeck’s The Pearl or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  The simple truth is that in terms of quality it comes down to skill, not size.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve noticed a definite trend toward longer books. Last year I read a little over 150 books.  Of those books, a good chunk were 400 or more pages. Here are just a few in no particular order:

  1. Flame Tree Road 400 pages B+/A-
  2. Dark Horse 468 pages A
  3. Vintage Tea Cup Club 407 B
  4. Blueprints 416 pages B
  5. Wildfire in His Arms 400 C+
  6. The Talon of the Hawk 438 B-
  7. Cress 550 pages C/C-
  8. Tiffany Girl 512 pages B+
  9. Be Afraid 416 C
  10. Circumstantial Evidence  475 A-
  11. The Sound of Glass 432 pages A-
  12. A Desperate Fortune 519 pages B-
  13. Obsession in Death 404 pages B-
  14. Exquisite Captive 480 pages C+/B-
  15. Closer Than You Think 544 C+
  16. Beyond Limits 400 pages B+
  17. Cold, Cold Heart 400 pages B
  18. Firefight 416 A
  19. Obsession 520 pages B
  20. A Week in Paris 464 pages B+
  21. Uprooted 465 pages A-

What fascinates me about the growing size of recent novels is that when I first started reading romance, long books were definitely “in”.  The Flame and the Flower by Woodiwiss is 512 pages long and is credited with starting the current, more explicit, romance genre. The winner of the 1998 Top 100 Poll was A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Devereux. It is 480 pages long. In contrast, the winner of the 2013 Poll, Lord of Scoundrels, clocks in at 100 pages less. Amanda Quick, sometimes credited with the start of the Regency craze, typically comes in at around 354 pages. I’m not sure when it happened but certainly in the last few decades, the books have grown shorter.

Part of that change in size might be accounted for by the fact that for a while there romance had carved a clear niche for itself, away from the long epics of the women’s fiction market and historical fiction markets. There were cross over books of course – Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander and The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simmons come to mind– but for the most part they were distinct genres sold in different parts of bookstores and shelved in different parts of the library. Now I am seeing more and more of that cross over. Harlequin’s Mira label publishes epics like Shona Patel’s Flame Tree Road, which often get housed with romance. E-published authors like Lisa Clark O’Neil, R. Lee Smith and Michelle Diener, romance writers all, don’t feel constrained by page count or printing costs and write however long a story they want.  Slowly, books upwards of 400 pages are making it back on to the romance market “shelves”.

I don’t know how I feel about that. In terms of personal enjoyment, size doesn’t matter to me. Again, it comes down to skill and quality.  For example, my two favorite reads last year had close to a 200 page difference. Radiance by Grace Draven doesn’t appear on the list above. That’s because it clocked in at a mere 296 pages. The much longer Dark Horse by Michelle Diener, my other favorite, is a whopping 468 pages.  So a good book can capture my love no matter what the size.

But in terms of picking a book, size definitely plays a role. I might take a chance on a short book I’ve heard nothing about but a long book has to have one of several things going for it:

An author I know, such as Susanna Kearsley, is more likely to get me to read a thick book. My first novel by her, Named of the Dragon, was a mere 295 pages. I loved it so gave her longer novels a try and I have been hooked ever since.

If it’s not by an author I know, the subject matter must be one that will have me picking up a book regardless of trepidation about its length. That was the case with Exquisite Captive and Dark Horse. Both of those books had covers which let me know they were about a subject I would enjoy. Each of them had a back blurb strong enough to overcome any hesitation I might have felt caused by size.

Continuation of a series plays a role as well. Both Cress and Obsession in Death are part of a series. I read them specifically for that reason.

It’s not that I don’t like long books. Obviously, I read quite a few of them. It’s just that I appreciate the fact that in the time it takes me to read a 400 page book, I could be done with a shorter novel and started on a new one already. From an addicts readers perspective that’s a powerful motive.

So how about for you – does a longer, fatter book capture your interest? Or does a small package, with excellent delivery, please you more? Or does size not matter to you at all?

AAR’s Maggie


oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
03/09/2016 4:20 pm

The illustration with _Cress_ amused me, because that is one book I thought was far longer than it should have been. My reluctance to read _Winter_ also has to do with its length… less because I don’t want to read something so long than because I fear I will also find it bloated.

My husband is currently reading the Harry Potter series to my and my son and we both kept asking for one more chapter when he started, because it just took so long for anything to actually *happen*. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but it was very different from the previous, much tighter books.

I do generally prefer to listen to long books (my current audiobook is _The Goblin Emperor_. I listened to _Cress_ and the previous books in the series, but my attempt at the audiobook of _Winter_ was stymied by the horrible little girl voice given to the title character.)

maggie b.
maggie b.
Reply to  willaful
03/09/2016 7:58 pm

Cress was a C/C- for me and I have yet to read Winter. I really liked the hero/heroine duo of Cress but the book needed some serious editing.

Sonya Heaney
Sonya Heaney
03/09/2016 9:12 am

Do people pay as much attention to length these days – if they’re buying ebooks? I know I often don’t bother checking the length before I start and am often taken by surprise.

I own paper copies of the entire Twilight series (NOT favourites!). I’m always astonished when I notice them on the shelf, because for something bigger than a decade’s worth of phonebooks put together, the stories really are very simple and straightforward. Meyer could have done with an editor.

03/09/2016 4:44 am

I sure don’t care if it’s a long or a short book, whatever it takes to tell the story. It’s the author who decides the length of the book not the reader.

One of my pet hates on Goodreads is when readers leave reviews that say a book should have been 100 pages less, when I’ve read the book and can’t for the life of me figure out where you could possibly lose 100 pages unless you didn’t want to know part of the story. I’ve got to say it makes me see red when readers say that.

When you get an author such as Pamela Clare who, when she got her rights back, gratefully added back in 100 pages into a book she had been forced to remove to meet a page number requirements by the publisher, it makes me realise how great self-publishing can be. I also love some of Kristen Ashley’s books who is known for long self-pubbed books, but she has had some books professionally edited and I felt at the end that the editor, whilst for sure fixing up some technically poor writing, had edited out some of her charm. I prefer her unedited, lovely, long and rambling self-pubbed books.

Sonya Heaney
Sonya Heaney
Reply to  Vickie
03/09/2016 9:13 am

Ooh, I LOVED what Pamela Clare did. I only read the extended versions, and I’m SO glad that was my first experience.

Dabney Grinnan
Dabney Grinnan
Reply to  Vickie
03/09/2016 12:53 pm

What book is the Clare?

maggie b.
maggie b.
Reply to  Vickie
03/09/2016 3:31 pm

I can’t speak to the Clare but I could easily edit out 100 pages of a Karen Rose novel and never know they are missing. In fact, a lot of times her story gets lost in its length.

It really does depend on the author. One of my favorite reads this year was the 640 page Villa Triste. I wouldn’t have cut a thing. But Rose’s 746 page Alone in the Dark detailed every darn bit of the investigation. What could have been covered in paragraphs took pages and that was frankly ridiculous.

Reply to  maggie b.
03/09/2016 6:33 pm

Haha, I love that detail in the Karen Rose’s books, to me it adds to the richness of it. I like knowing all that stuff, it’s fascinating. It must be hard for an author to please everyone.

The Pamela Clare book was Ride the Fire. It was published some time ago and she was forced to drop 100 pages, but when she got the rights back she self-pubbed them again, but with the missing pages.

03/08/2016 11:23 pm

Since I strongly prefer to finish reading a new-to-me book the same day I start it, size affects what I read. If I wrap up other activities and am ready to start reading 4 hours before bedtime I will pick something shorter than if I have 6 hours. Due to this, the shorter items in my tbr lists tend to get read sooner than the longer items.
I keep a spreadsheet of all ebooks I download (purchased or free). One column is an estimated reading time based on a page count and my typical reading speed (one minute per page with typical mass-market paperback pages).
Looking at that spreadsheet, here are a few averages of estimated reading hours (I won’t quote page counts because there are several different page standards in the spreadsheet to cover ebooks from several sources over several years):
Copyright years ebooks average hours
1800s 28 7.54
1900-1929 67 4.57
1930-1949 26 5.99
1950-1969 52 4.49
1970-1989 107 5.39
1990-1999 238 6.83
2000-2005 597 6.03
2006 233 6.53
2007 523 6.14
2008 601 6.03
2009 677 5.87
2010 760 5.97
2011 865 6.09
2012 875 6.58
2013 745 6.35
2014 663 5.75
2015 437 6.51
2016 45 6.46
Most of my ebooks are either F&SF or romance, though there are a few others.
By main genre instead of copyright:
Romances 4,568 5.30
F&SF 2,415 7.55
I have a column for which ebooks I’ve read, but I don’t maintain that column as reliably as the data I fill in when I download.
Marked as read 1,999 5.62
Not marked 5,826 6.34
The full range of estimated reading times goes from 0.1 hour to 528.8 hours (for a complete works of Dickens ebook).

Leslie Lemon
Leslie Lemon
03/08/2016 9:47 pm

It isn’t the length of the book, its the plot and the characters. I want to be drawn in and I want characters who are real and that the writer makes me care about and I want a story that ends and I miss the characters when it is done. I don’t want a rushed ending that makes you feel like the writer couldn’t figure out the proper way to end the story.

03/08/2016 8:59 pm

I agree that books of any length can be good. But if an author has a story that takes many pages to write, and it’s really really good, I’m totally in.

03/08/2016 8:14 pm

Once I start a book, length of book does not really matter provided it is a “”good read””. I really hate it when a book that starts out well meanders off course or has pages and pages of descriptions of scenery or not very interesting love scenes. I then tend to ‘skip read’ past the excruciatingly tedious description even if it is a sex scene. This has happened a few times with authors whose previous work I’ve enjoyed. I think Maggie makes a good point. If an author is one whose books I have enjoyed in the past, I am much more likely not to balk at a long book. If it is a new (to me) author and the book is very long I am more cautious about committing to it.
My favourite feeling, as a reader, is to finish the book and feel that the story is complete (or as complete as it can be at this time). I hate plot points to be left dangling or for the end to be rushed or chopped off so there is no sense of having come to a natural end. For this reason some shorter books would benefit from an epilogue to tie up loose ends. I am not advocating authors always including an epilogue with the obligatory ‘baby scene’ but it is satisfying to say goodbye to characters one has grown to care about. Two examples of epilogues that tied up loose ends and left the reader smiling are Jennifer Crusie’s ‘Bet Me’ and Mary Balogh’s ‘Slightly Dangerous’. (Maybe that could be the basis of another discussion: books with endings that left the reader satisfied versus those that left the reader high and dry).
I am wondering if the trend towards longer books is part of an overall trend in entertainment. Movies used to be 90 minutes long , now many are 2 to 2 and a half hours long. Many TV shows spin out the story over a season or more.
I agree with you Maggie that it is personal enjoyment, not size, that matters.

03/08/2016 6:16 pm

No, book size does not matter to me at all, nor how many books I read in a year. Only how much I enjoy a book counts–the way it has always been with me.

03/08/2016 5:18 pm

I don’t equate length with quality, as there are just too many examples of great literary works of varying size. The Victorian age though is my area of specialization and the leisurely, sprawling novel was definitely favored, and I truly love sinking into these books and absorbing the world the authors represent. The Modernists that were soon-to-follow rejected so much of that world, including what they felt was the bloated length, and hence, we had for a decade of a minimalist style, such as Hemingway or e.e. cummings.

I’m surprised at the idea that long romances are a trend right because for quite a while it has seemed the opposite to me. I think what I’ve noticed even more important is the lack of detail and world-building in far too many romances. When I look at the romances in my TBR shelf as well as ones I’ve recently finished, most don’t crack more than 300-350 pages, which is not really very long at all. I guess too I would just say too that if I’m enjoying a long novel, it doesn’t make me wish for shorter ones so that I can read more books – again, a quality versus quantity difference.