So I was perusing a typically wry and colorful Jack Vance novel from the 60s, when I noticed that the whole book was only 170 pages. A lot of them were in those days. It was only half the thickness of a typical recent paperback. I did a quick check of the word count on a page and that has gone down a bit, but it’s still around 400 words per page. The pages themselves seem to be the same thickness, so it looks like the word count of a typical novel has gone up a lot in the last 40 years. Like stars at the end of their lives, are SF novels turning into bloated red giants as the genre exhausts its primary themes?
The size increase is hardly a new observation, but Charlie Stross may have found the reason. An editor friend of his said it was a function of where paperbacks were sold – in the 60s and 70s they were sold in wire racks in supermarkets, which wanted to pack as many copies as they could into a limited volume. That kept the novels at about 60,000 words, or 170 pages. As book retailing expanded, that constraint was lifted, and authors took advantage. It could also be that people wanted more reading material for their money – book prices have risen faster than inflation.
Well, that’s a story, but is it true? I happen to have an SF library that extends back to the 50s, and so decided to check. I didn’t know what a typical book was for each year, and so picked one that was likely to be a good seller – the novel that won the Hugo Award for that year. Of the 57 novels that have won Hugos, I happen to have 35, or 60%. Here’s how their page count has changed over time:
It’s a mix of paperbacks and hardbacks, but the word count per page seems to keep fairly constant.
That’s a pretty scattered plot. There does appear to be an upward trend, but it’s all over the place. The overall winner is “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” in 2005 at 846 pages, and maybe 330,000 words.
It also doesn’t appear as if books really were held to rigid limits in the 60s and 70s. Most were in the 300 page range, and some, like “Stranger In a Strange Land” in ’62 and “Stand on Zanzibar” in ’69 spiked way up. Perhaps the mid-list authors of that time were held by their editors to strict limits, but the leading authors were able to do what they wanted.