It’s Not How Long You Make It, Is It?

A tangential question that came up when we were discussing digital review copies made me pull out my calculator. How much longer are books getting?

I compared fiction for ages 12 and up reviewed in the Magazine in the September issues of 2009, 1999, 1989 and 1979 (October issue; we were on a different schedule then).

Average number of pages in books for teens reviewed in 1979: 151
1989: 157
1999: 233
2009: 337

Now, part of this is the current preponderance of fantasy, which has always tended to run longer–the longest book reviewed in the ’79 issue was Robert Westall’s (fabulous) Devil on the Road, at 245pp. But when I took fantasy and sf out of the 2009 sample, I still came up with 280 pp. average for realistic YA fiction, almost twice as long as it was thirty years ago.

The success of Harry Potter must take some of the heat for this; another factor could be that YA has gotten older: there is much more published for older high school students than there was even ten years ago. Plus, realistic YA seems more character-driven than it used to be in the old problem novel days, and while this has given the genre undeniable depths, it may also have encouraged a certain amount of yammering on. And people are also blaming the nexus of word-processing, larger lists, and smaller editorial staffs combining to mean less pruning. What else? I suppose we have to consider the possibility that the current crop of Horn Book editors and reviewers likes longer books, but surely you know us better than that.

share save 171 16 Its Not How Long You Make It, Is It?
Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. >Novels for younger kids, however, are getting much shorter. It seems that series books are replacing longer novels for kids. Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, for instance, reads like a slightly stretched out chapter in a Ramona book.

  2. kristin cashore says:

    >Also, doesn't the length of a book depend partly on the publisher's design decision? If a publisher wants a book to look like a big, meaty fantasy (and, post-Harry, some do, don't they?), they might go with a higher page number — skewing your results slightly. Comparing word counts might be more scientific :o)

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >I feel like print has in general gotten smaller, but that could certainly be my eyes!

  4. >I've also noticed more and more parents who refuse to buy short books. If a child approaches with a short book (especially a short hardcover) in hand, typically parents say it's not "worth it" because they will finish it too quickly. Often I find myself working harder to sell the book to Mom than to the kid.

  5. >Does it seem to you that books explain things more than they used to? You don't have to think as you read– the book tells you everything you need to know. Nothing happens without an explanation of why it happened. No one is angry, or sad, or upset without an explanation — "Patty was sad because her mother had left her and because her foot hurt and because she wasn't going to be going to the prom after all." If the reader already knows that Patty is an orphan with a broken leg on the night of the big dance, isn't "Patty was sad" enough? There are no allusions or hints–or if there are hints– they are always fully spelled out before the end. Maybe all those explanations make for higher page counts.

    Maybe it's just me.

    But I've seen children who are "good readers" read books 20-30 years old and they tell me, not that they don't like the books, but that they can't understand them. I wonder if they are just conditioned to having explanations and are uncomfortable without them.

  6. Christine TB says:

    >It isn't your eyes. I wish publishers would also consider that the smaller print is harder for young readers to "scan."

    However, given the US literacy rate is pretty low, the fact that more children are willing to read a long book is encouraging. (remember the days when kids selected books at school based on how thin it was?)

    But bloated is a problem. My kids were enamored with a certain "black book" series which could have been equally compelling with half the words. If I remember correctly, 50% of the word count comprised the words "dazzling" and "ice cold." :-) The fourth book in the series turned them off completely – not because of word count, but because of utter stupidity and a meandering text that sank in its own quicksand.

    Seriously – longer doesn't mean better, and I do feel for book reviewers who have to wade through it all.

  7. >I've found that many of the kids I know like thicker books. The thicker, the better. When they borrow books from me, they are drawn to the bigger ones.

    I'm the opposite: if it's thicker, it sure as heck better be written so well that I won't care.

  8. sanctimommy says:

    >I’d say the biggest difference now is the sheer number of guilty pleasure series novels specifically targeted at teens and tweens.

    It would be interesting to compare the page count of the modern YA series (The A List or whatever’s trendy these days) with something like Sweet Valley High. True, it’s been a very long time since I saw a SVH book, but I remember them being fairly long. Particularly the specials and spinoff books. Meanwhile, I’ve paged through a few of the current crop of teen series books, and it seems like most of them barely make it into triple digit page counts.

    The popularity of these series books has to be influencing the publishers in how they market their other offerings. Ensuring a really long page count is probably one of the easiest ways to do this (not quite as easy as the artistic black and white slightly fuzzy photo on the cover, but close). I think readers are conditioned to think of longer books as being “better.”

    And so the length of the novel is appealing to parents, as an above commenter says, because they’re tired of paying $10 for a book that will be read in 3 hours and never touched again. Spending $20 on the 500 page “literary” YA novel is much more appealing. The teenagers with literary pretensions probably also appreciate this marker: I distinctly remember lugging The Mists of Avalon into every restaurant, museum, and historic site on a vacation my family took in 7th grade just to make it clear that I read “real” books, and not little kid books. Schools are happy to encourage longer books, hoping that it will encourage more fluent reading and that more SAT words will pop up. I believe that it’s fairly common for schools and libraries who do reading tracking count the pages read and not the books read, or have some sort of points system that takes length of book into account.

    Either way, I think it’s really cool that there’s so much out there for teenagers. There was so little when I was a teen, and I think it really turned a lot of kids off reading.

  9. >How nice to know that someone else besides me reads and appreciates Robert Westall!

  10. >Either way, I think it’s really cool that there’s so much out there for teenagers. There was so little when I was a teen, and I think it really turned a lot of kids off reading.

    Sanctimommy, please tell me you are seventy years old. If you say you are thirty and stand by that statement, I will weep.

    I am forty and have fond memories of a wealth of great YA lit from my teen years. But I hear this "there was no YA when I was a teen," so often lately and it frustrates me.

  11. >Interesting. I recently read a blog post that argued that romance novels were getting shorter in the last ten years or so: Does Size Matter?

  12. Christine TB says:

    >I agree with Santimommy,

    I"Great wealth" of YA depends on perspective. I was bored by what was available and the sameness of it all. And the lack of diversity was inexcusable. I defaulted to adult books by the end of elementary school out of self defense.

    I've noted that my daughters have access to a much broader range of titles than were available when I was their age. I envy them for it.

  13. Beth Kephart says:

    >I've been told by editors that kids really do seek out the longer books; it's a bigger challenge and a greater achievement and hence a marketing advantage. I should learn from this; I should.

    (maybe in the next writerly life)

  14. >Kristin Cashore is right about design, though–I'd be really interested to see a comparison of word counts. Maybe my opinion is skewed because I work in fantasy, but I really think that since the mid-90s we've been giving texts more leading between lines and slightly bigger font sizes (not to mention nicer fonts that may take up more kerning space than your old standards). This is something we actually studied at Simmons in my publishing class–we looked at a number of books and measured font size, kerning, and evaluated the design, and from that (very small sample size) I found that most newer books have much more generous design parameters.

    Word count may have increased as well, on average–I can't be sure. But I think that would be a more accurate test than page count.

    Regarding "great wealth" of YA available, I'm 35 and we only had one YA shelf in our tiny Carnegie library in my hometown library. It all depends on where you grew up and how much access you had. Even if I could have afforded to buy books back then, the nearest bookstore was 1/2 hour drive away, and I didn't have a car. So yeah, back then, I didn't have access to a "great wealth" of YA, and the renaissance we're now experiencing in YA didn't really start until the mid-90s–several years after I'd graduated high school. I didn't discover The Giver until about 1999 or 2000. So I think it depends on where you live and how aware your parents/teachers/librarians are of YA, as well.

  15. kristin cashore says:

    >For what it's worth, the Graceling published by Harcourt Children's Books in the USA/Canada is 471 pages long. The Graceling published by Gollancz in the UK/Australia/NZ (for the adult market) is 340 pages long. Same word count. Big page number difference!

  16. sanctimommy says:

    >Sorry Gina, but I am actually 30! And I still stand by my statement. Yes, there was YA but as Roger said and I agree, it was for younger kids. I'm Googling right now for the kinds of books that are considered YA novels, and basically if they were around when I was a teenager, I had read them by 6th grade. And that's not because I was particularly advanced: it was the age range they were written for, really. And once I was done with those, there was nowhere to go but to adult books. And most adult books just don't grab the interest of the average 13 year old: when I was 13, how was I supposed to relate to the themes of love and life and class and death that are written for adults? Yes, I wasn't the most mature 13 year old, I admit, but still: I didn't know about any of those things. For about 10 years I read only non-fiction.

    The current crop of YA novels, I think, are far more likely to appeal to older teenagers. That's all I'm saying.

    What books do you remember enjoying as a teen? There were obviously some out there, but I really do think they were mostly for younger kids, and there weren't nearly enough to keep a voracious reader in books.

  17. >Ditto on the Robert Westall comment. Devil on the Road is forgotten but superb, and still scares and saddens me.

  18. >Great YA books for older readers published before 1990:

    The Pigman (1968)
    The Chocolate War (1974)
    Annie On My Mind (1982)
    Forever (1975)
    The President's Daughter (1984)–the first book in Ellen Emerson White's recently revived and now highly lauded Meg Powers series
    Don't Look and It Won't Hurt (1972)
    Are You In The House Alone (1976)
    Hoops (1983)
    Stotan (1986)
    The Executioner (1982)
    See Dave Run (1978)
    Night Kites (1986)
    The Moves Make the Man (1985)
    The Changeover (1984)
    Beauty (1978)
    The Ruby in the Smoke (1987)
    Killing Mr. Griffin (1978)

    Norma Fox Mazer has been publishing YA fiction since the early seventies, too much to list.
    Richard Peck, M. E. Kerr, Chris Crutcher, Walter Dean Myers, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Robin McKinley, etc. etc., all publishing for older teens before 1990.

  19. >I think the definition of who counts as the YA audience is part of the question (though not part of Rodger's initial question). The books you mention, Gina, are ones I read in middle school. Is middle school YA? Hmm. It's a tough one. A lot that's labeled YA has some content I wouldn't give a 6th grader (unless I knew them well and knew they could handle it). I think in my youth, I turned to adult books after middle school because I always read "up". Thus, I missed some books like Forever because I was too young for the content when I was in middle school (at least my mother thought so), but by the time I reached high school, I thought of Judy Blume and other authors deemed "children's authors" beneath me. I read VC Andrews in high school instead (far more scandalous, unbeknownst to my poor, sheltering mother)!

  20. sanctimommy says:

    >Gina: of those that I read, I read in junior high school. Add to that VC Andrews who was a summer camp staple between seventh and ninth grades (do they REALLY count as adult books?). Maybe I was just a book snob (it wouldn't surprise me), but also as ttelloow said I wouldn't have been caught dead with a Judy Blume by high school: those were kids books.

    And you're right, that is sad. There are lots of wonderful YA novels, and who knows what I missed by reading them at 12 instead of at fifteen. But I may as well have been seen reading Dick and Jane in public (actually, Dick and Jane would have had some ironic value: a kids book would have just been lame).

    Maybe a lasting effect of Harry Potter is that it made it okay for kids (albeit older, teenage kids) to read kids books.

  21. Roger Sutton says:

    >I agree that an analysis of word count would be a better way to make a comparison, but I don't know where to find that information. SVH books (except for the "Specials") were short but it's hard to compare them to GG because the trim sizes are so different.

    Traditionally, it has been received wisdom that a) kids don't like long books and b) kids don't want to read about characters younger than themselves, and I'm glad to see both prejudices being challenged by kid readers. But I wonder if Anon above is onto something with his/her query about books overexplaining themselves, a characteristic that is as responsible as anything else for the length of Rowling's books.

  22. >I wonder if the seeming lack of YA material in the past isn't augmented somewhat by the superabundance of it today, when it has become a much more targeted market. The books might have been there, but that doesn't mean they were necessarily being readily pressed upon the consciousness of teens.

    I'm about thirty, and because today I'm interested in literature for young people I'm going back and finding tons that I missed as a teen. When I actually was a teen, however, I was reading adult books. I read those books largely in secret at first, because I was reading the famous "dirty" books like 'Tropic of Cancer' and 'Lolita.' I didn't even think of how "challenging" they were. (I don't claim this to be the norm, but we shouldn't forget that teens are often secretive, after all, and are perhaps reading things we don't see.)

    Which leads me to wonder at the idea of what makes a book "challenging" at all. I'm not sure the endurance of reading 500 or 700 pages is really the kind of challenge we ought to laud. Our culture has historically been all too impressed by "largeness." Largeness isn't inherently bad, but of course it isn't inherently good either. (A teen who reads "Moby Dick" might impress me because its content is difficult, not simply because they "made it through.") Obviously a short story of a few pages might be far more complex and present far greater rewards than a huge novel.

    I think saying, "At least they're reading a lot!" just because our literacy rate is poor is a rather pessimistic attitude. I wonder if our very notion of what "literacy" means isn't also impoverished.

    It seems there are types of "challenging" that are appropriate for young readers and types that are inappropriate. For example, reading a big book is good (it's viscerally impressive). Reading an emotionally challenging book is a mixed bag (they win awards–and get banned!). Meanwhile, a brief experimental work (I know, I know–what does that even mean any more?) wouldn't really work on any level, because aside from being difficult to market it's challenging on a more fundamentally cerebral level (or that's the supposition, at least).

    I'm reminded of the French adult authors who emerged in the 1980s, such as Marie Redonnet and Jean-Philippe Toussaint. In 100 pages they create these brilliant little worlds. These worlds largely come from a use of language and imagery that is often baffling and difficult (no, they don't explain things). Why not such books for young readers? Moreover, why not such books for the writers of books for young people (meaning, the writers ought to challenge themselves in other ways also).

    Didn't Borges say something about pretending you already had the big book and writing about it briefly? I'm not going to argue with the man.

  23. >Jason M.

    You wouldn't be able to source that Borges comment, would you? I could really use it.

    Anon 1:22

  24. >It's in the prologue to "The Garden of Forking Paths." Round about page 15 in "Ficcones." I don't have the book in front of me, so I can't cite it properly.

    I guess while I'm writing I'd also like to ask, couldn't a similar conversation be held about films for young people? I mean, whatever happened to "White Mane," "The Red Balloon," "Paddle to the Sea?" Short, masterful, magical films that just kind of showed you a story and was done? No pandering, ironic references, or flashiness. Sigh!

  25. >Jason,
    Ponyo!
    Not so heavy handed with the environmentalism, thank goodness.

    Thank you for the Borges info. I've got it on the library list.

    Roger,
    As you said, traditionally kids don't like long books, but then again, traditionally long books were harder to read than short ones. Now we have the literary equivalent of the mile deep bag of potato chips.

    Anon 1:22

  26. >Christine TB, and "liquid amber"/ "liquid onyx" added to that word count too!!

  27. >I agree with the comments on book design. I have noticed that often reissues of books such as Howl's Moving Castle are given bigger fonts and wider page margins than before to produce nice fat volumes.

    I don't know why, but I get the creeping sensation that there's a Master's thesis lurking somwhere in all this . . .

  28. >I've been reading The Dark is Rising with my son and am struck by how small the print and leading, and how narrow the margins are. I think that it's not so much that publishers want to pump up the page counts artificially, as that publishers see the value of longer books in the marketplace and are more aware that spending money on the higher paper costs for longer books can result in considerable profit.

    I'm so happy that there is room in the market now to publish these longer books. With that said, however, I do think this allows for a good deal of flabby writing. I'm always struck, when rereading backlist, by how much some authors could do with relatively few words. Treasure Island, for instance, is a masterpiece of economy. Cormier, Katherine Paterson at her best….

  29. >Gina, even if "Sanctimommy" was 70 years old, there were quite a lot of books for teens published in the 1950s. While many of them are quite dated when read today, they were popular at the time and included serious issues as well as light romance. See, for example, Janet Lambert.

  30. >Do you wonder if twenty years from now, someone will be lauding some book and wishing there had been –a book about a kind of dorky kid that goes on a road trip with his Muslim friend and thinks over his obssession with girls named Katherine– when SHE was a teen?

    Sometimes I think there has to be a better way to connect books and readers.

  31. kristin cashore says:

    >In some cases, the reason books aren't reaching readers is very simple. I'm 33, so there should have been a huge pile of great YA books for me to read when I was a teen — and I was looking for them. But I grew up in the middle of nowhere, Abandoned Coal Country, PA. My local librarian was fantastic — I will always remember her fondly — but the library didn't have money and therefore didn't have the books. I still read voraciously, but mostly the classics or mysteries from the adult section. I doubt this is a unique story!

  32. Rosanne Parry says:

    >I'd like to think the trend toward larger fonts and extra space between lines of text is due to a growing awareness of the needs of learning disabled readers. For many of them the problem is not decoding but tracking print. A little attention to detail from the publisher can make a huge difference in how welcoming the page is to a struggling reader. Roomier layout of the text also makes it easier to read a book aloud.

  33. Jennifer Lawson says:

    >I could be wrong, but I don't remember having the same quality of teen literature available when I was a teen. I remember having access mostly to things like SVH, Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine. I know someone earlier listed some quality titles, but were there many more than this available? BTW – I'm 35, so I was reading teen lit in the 80s.

  34. Jennifer Lawson says:

    >Sorry – meant to also say that I think that the lit I was reading was mostly light reading. There are so many fabulous books out there these days that just might need more pages to express themselves. I wish I had them when I was a teen (or that I had found the higher quality ones).

  35. >I was just looking up the novel The Last of Eden (mentioned by Liz Burns here http://yzocaet.blogspot.com/2009/08/shelf-discovery.html), which I have never read and would like to read. Teen novel, 1980, and I was startled to see that it's 153 pages long. The description sounds like it would have to be more. A lot of teen and juvenile novels I've read lately seemed bloated.
    "During her sophomore and junior years at boarding school, Michelle must confront several painful situations which make her realize the place is not the "Eden" she once thought it was."

  36. >I have been reading a lot of *flabby* YA books lately. I don't want to read 150 pages before the plot begins. Why aren't editors tightening things up more?

  37. Anonymous says:

    >But there's something in Roger's suggestion that smaller editorial teams could be driving longer books…there's a difference between reading Graceling and not wanting the book to end, and reading Rage: A Love Story, and wondering where in the heck the editor was. Or if there even was one.

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