WILL E-BOOKS BE THE DEATH OR SAVIOUR OF EPIC NOVELS?

The other night, I looked at the shelf above my bed and realized three books had been there a while – Dead or Alive (Tom Clancy 240,000 words), Antony and Cleopatra (Colleen McCullough, 150,000 words) and Fall of Giants (Ken Follett 210,000 words). All great books, and I love epics. But I have read many other books since buying them. It seems that every time I look at these books I get the feeling that I don’t have time to read them. I’m being put off by their thickness.

I was further intrigued when I noticed Wilbur Smith’s latest effort Those in Peril comes in at a mere 100,000 words — a normal length of a thriller, but short for a writer of epics. Is this a conscious decision on his part to write a shorter book?

On the other hand, now I have a Kindle and am buying lots of e-books, I don’t consciously think of how long a book is when I start to read it. With e-books the reader is less likely to judge price based on length, or make judgments about the thickness of a book. The cover and price and recommendations will become more important.

Novellas (20,000 – 60,000 words) are doing boom business as e-books, certainly in the romance/erotica categories anyway. In fact, Christopher Jackson argues that the e-book era is perfect for novellas. (http://www.fuelyourwriting.com/time-to-write-a-novella-why-not/)

A couple of weeks ago I heard Aussie author Nick Earls interviewed by John Birmingham, talking about the possibility of writing more novellas. Is this Nick’s personal preference? Or is it a trend?

Are we too busy to read epic novels? And will the e-book era change our perceptions about the relevance of book length in things like price and appeal?

I did a quick check of NY Times fiction best sellers and at the moment we have the following word counts:

 

Words

NY Times Top 20 Hard Cover

NY Times Top 20 Trade Paperback

Up to 80K

0

2

80 to 110K

12

12

111 – 150K

7

3

Over 150K

1

3

 

We need a bigger survey, but based on NY Times popularity, epics are few and far between (and are mostly either fantasy or from established authors). Debut authors who have written long stories might consider self-publishing as e-books where established publishers wouldn’t want to risk?

I wonder whether this will have an impact on publishers? What will the future of epic books be in an era of e-books and busy people? I have a sneaking suspicion that novellas will become more popular, and novels will decline in length, maybe to 60-80,000 words.