When I wrote my very first novel, I took to heart someone's advice that a novel should be 300 manuscript pages. It turned out that wasn't good advice, but when we're starting out in this rather complicated and mysterious business, we cling to crumbs of information as we try to figure out what we're supposed to do. I wrote the 300 pages, and the first thing my prospective agent told me was that my manuscript was too short.
Somehow I stopped worrying about length for a time. I wrote three novels, each roughly 100,000 words each. My next book, THE TERRORISTS OF IRUSTAN, came in at 600 manuscript pages, or about 150,000 words. I didn't think much of it until my publisher asked me to cut 75 pages. Suddenly I became hyperaware of the issue of length in a book. (It was a better book for being tighter, by the way. I learned a lot through that process!)
Technically, a novel is anything over 40,000 words, although there is disagreement on that (naturally). A novella is 17,500 words, up to 39,999. A novelette can be 7,500 words to 17, 499 (again, depending on whose rules you follow.) A short story is generally considered to be anything under 10,000 words.
But a novel? Even a young adult novel is expected to be 60,000 words, as I learned when I received my first contract for one. There are trends in these things, I'm finding. For a time, and quite recently, publishers were looking for shorter novels, 90,000 words or 95,000 words. Such works are less expensive to print, and therefore--we hope--more profitable. I've always had a little difficulty writing to that length, although IRUSTAN's excessive length has never gotten hold of me again.
My new contract specifies 115,000 words, and this catches me by surprise. The trend has changed again. This may be in part due to the ease of publishing electronic versions of our novels, or it may be that by asking for 115,000 words a publisher can be certain of getting a "real" book into their hands. Ideally, of course, a story should be as long as it needs to be. But this is a business, albeit an artistic one. As working writers, we have to take these things into account.
For those of you under contract, do you know what your current contract specifies? Do you take that into consideration when you're writing? And what if your word count runs significantly under (or over) the requested length? Any editors out there have some insight?