Few genres outside of Speculative Fiction see such a consistent dearth of doorstopper novels. The average novel outside of SF averages about 90k words whereas inside SF it would probably clock nearer to 120k. Charles Stross, a well regarded author of Science Fiction, explains how this trend originated and where those choppy, fast paced SF novels of the 60’s have gone.

It’s a question that comes up quite often — back in the 1960s a typical SF novel ran to 60,000 words (130-150 pages); one that topped 80,000 words was considered lengthy. But today, I’m more or less required by contract to hand in 100,000 word novels; and some of them are considerably longer. (At 145,000 words, “Accelerando” would have been considered a whopper back in the 1970s.) So what happened?

Until the early 1990s, mass market SF/F paperbacks in the US were primarily sold via grocery store racks, supplied by local distributors (400+ of them). The standard wire rack held books face-out, either against a wall or on a rotating stand. And that’s where the short form factor novel became established. Thinner books meant you could shove more of them into a rack that was, say, three inches deep. Go over half an inch thick, and you could no longer fit six paperbacks in a 3″ rack. And there was only so much rack space to go around.

During the inflationary 1970s and early 1980s, prices of just about everything soared. The publishers needed to increase their cover prices to compensate. But the grocery wholesalers who sold the books insisted “the product’s gotta weigh more if you want to charge more”. They weren’t in the book business, after all, so just as buffalo tomatoes got bigger, so did paperbacks. (Even though this meant there was less room to go round in the wire racks.) You can only get so much milage by using thicker paper and a bigger typeface; so they began looking for longer novels.

Anyway. I began selling novels (in 2001-02) just as the trend for longer novels peaked. I’m actually writing shorter books than my earlier ones — my last two finished manuscripts ran to 102,000 and 107,000 words respectively, whereas my first three SF novels ran to 118,000, 138,000 and 145,000 words each. (On the other hand, I’m not necessarily writing less. Two bloated 150,000 word behemoths take nearly as long to write as three relatively slim 100,000 word novels, if you’ve got your future projects planned out well in advance.)

You can check out the whole article, with more details about how companies like Walmart and Borders have a direct effect on the length of novels being published, HERE.