Thursday, April 23, 2015

WordCount Van Helsing: Part One.

Or, more correctly, Word Professor Van Helsing.

How Long the Mystery Novel?

Jennifer Laughran, a senior agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, wrote an entertaining and authoritative piece dealing with the annoyance provoked by questions she received regarding word counts. She titled her post "WordCount Dracula." I use the term "annoyance" because, as she states, prospective clients ask her about this with a bothersome regularity. It is the amateur writer's equivalent of "Are we there yet?" with "there" being the length of the manuscript. While Laughran's post focuses on children's and young adult books, other agents share her frustration on the tiresomeness of the question.

With all due respect for Ms. Laughran, for every Count Dracula there must be a Van Helsing. I would like to drive a stake through the heart of common assumptions of word length for novels, in particular, for mystery/thriller/suspense novels. My goal is not to attack common sense (I've got a 300,000 word debut novel - now love me!) but, rather, to determine how long mystery books actually are and how the length has changed over time. In the course of doing this, I will address the mysterious death of the short mystery.

I examined the lengths of the most celebrated mystery novels, both historical and contemporary. I began with the lists of the top mystery novels assembled by the British Crime Writers' Association (CWA) and by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Since these presented classic mysteries spanning all but the most recent history, I decided to also examine more recent books. I chose the last 55 years of Edgar Award winners (as determined by the MWA). Why the Edgars? Unlike the British counterpart, the Dagger Awards, the Edgars recognize both first-time novelists and the best novels of the year. They provide a sense of both up-and-coming and established authors. In the case of best novel, I was concerned established authors might be awarded for name recognition or secondary to internal politics. In contrast, the literary effort is the calling card of the novice.

I tried looking at the New York Times bestsellers list but, after compiling a set of what were the best-selling mystery novels during the last ten years, I realized I would mostly be counting the length of James Patterson books. Seriously, during 2005-2006, Patterson had six different novels with at least three weeks at the number one position on the adult NYT list and another that lasted only two weeks. He produced sixteen books in 2014.

A Hack That Allowed Me To Estimate Word Counts.

I set out to examine the length of mystery novels. The gold standard measurement of length is word count. Word counts can be found for a limited number of books. I came across the figures for about one quarter of those novels on the MWA/CWA lists. The method for digging up actual word counts is described below, under Sources and Methodology.

In contrast to word count, page count is a much poorer determinant of book length. Sometimes very short novels are puffed up in their page counts; sometimes very long novels are squeezed down. The same novel can be found with hair-pulling variations in the page counts between editions.

Page count doesn't mean much -- but it does mean something. A book with 190 pages is very likely briefer in content than a book with 300 pages. The main advantage to page count is that it can be found for most every book.

There is a third measure of length which is often available: the listening time of audio presentations of the unabridged recordings. Through Amazon, often links up a reading of the book that synchs to the electronic edition of the book being sold. The length of audio recordings could be found for over 90% of the books on the CWA/MWA list.

In instances where I could find both audio length and word count for novels, I could calculate the average words/minute. This has a reasonably limited range so that it allowed me to estimate word counts in instances where I had audio length alone.

The CWA/MWA List.

I first began by examining a list which combined the choices of top 100 mystery novels as presented by the CWA and MWA. Short story collections were omitted from my analysis. Selections which appeared on both lists were counted once. This left 149 novels. The full list is presented below at the end of this post.

General Profile of the CWA/MWA List.

  • 149 novels. Page counts were found for each of these.
  • Unabridged (non-dramatized) audiobook lengths were found for 137 (91.9%). Those 12 novels for which only page count was available were not included in the analyses.
  • Actual word counts were found for 36.
  • All 36 with word counts had an audio recording.
  • Average words per minute (wpm) determined from the database of actual word counts and audio recordings: 151.9 wpm (±15.8 SDEV). 70,000 words/151.9=461 minutes. (7 hours 41 minutes)

Book length.

Back in the 19th century, when books were used as substitutes for boulders in the family trebuchet to fight back the marauding Huns, novels were expected to be humongous. There are five pre-20th century works on the list and four of these ranked 1st, 3rd, 5th and 13th longest. The fifth book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was never finished. The average pre-20th century book length was 184,948 words. The average for the 132 books thereafter was 87,527 words.

Page counts were highly variable and showed a broad range between editions. The average length in pages came out to be 311.6. The average number of words per page in those books with actual word counts was 295.8. Including those with estimated word counts, the number was 292.2.

Several trends could be noted regarding word count/page. First, books that are in the public domain crammed in a lot of words per page, 347.8 on the average. This is probably because the publisher has a low profit margin on such works. Secondly, the shortest works tended to puff up their page count. The seventeen works with less than 55,000 words had 252.8 words per page.

The Short Novel

There was a substantial number of shorter mystery novels. Seven of the "novels" clocked in at under 50,000 words. Fifty-two of the novels, that is, 38%, were less than 70,000 words. The median book length was 86,572 words.

There is a lot more to say, but this is starting to run on like a 19th century novel. So I'll leave some for the upcoming posts, including examinations of more recent works.

Coming next: Word Count Van Helsing, Part Two. Who killed the short mystery novel?

Sources and methodology
Actual word counts:  limited number available at
Actual word counts (books in public domain): Downloaded and counted.
In several cases I estimated word count from my own copy of the novels to confirm word counts. In particular, The Postman Always Rings Twice was presented at 35,000 words, the round number seemed disconcerting. I counted word total from six pages and extrapolated and came out to 34,660.

Page counts: Amazon was my first choice. (I chose the one that linked up to unabridged versions), Goodreads if not listed on Amazon. If not linked to an audio file then, with the many editions of classics, I chose the page count that came up first. (Note. If I were to repeat this analysis, I would take a more systematic approach and look for the page count of the first or earliest edition at WorldCat.)

Listening length. This included only unabridged, non-dramatized recordings. Most commonly these were found via through Amazon link and then t
hrough if not available through Amazon. 

In all cases, if page counts, listening length or word counts greatly diverged from one another, I cross-checked against additional sources ( usually has several editions) and I caught a couple of errors at Amazon that I suspect were typos.

The Combined CWA/MWA list. 

(Combined ranking was performed as discussed here. This list differs slightly in that short story collections were removed.)


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