Books are getting longer, their spines thicker and, as far as I’m concerned, this is in part due to the growing popularity of epic fantasy trilogies in the Young Adult genre. The growing market for books requiring a greater time commitment seems to have affected the average length of other books written in various genres.
Val McDermid, a judge for the 2018 Man Booker Award, believes longer books are a sign of bad editing resulting from inexperienced young editors, a statement which couldn’t be more ‘kids these days’ if it tried. Regardless of whether this is true, in this instance, it might not be entirely accurate to put all the blame on the editor alone without acknowledging the roles that authors and the publishing market play.
At the other extreme, if it is over 80,000 words, the reader won’t want to pick it up
The fault seems to lie between the three. Every budding author would have undoubtedly researched publishing advice and come upon countless websites and books with a suggested word length based on genre – too short and it is a short story, which some might say is not a big enough market so not worth selling. The only ones seeming to make money from short stories in the modern market are the John Steinbeck Estate and Stephen King.
At the other extreme, if it is over 80,000 words, the reader won’t want to pick it up. Editors and writers are then put in a peculiar position of having to shorten books which could have more world exploration or padding out a plot that benefits from being streamlined. This is all in service of making the book marketable or eligible to literary awards, which, in many cases such as the Man Booker, do not accept short story entries.
I don’t believe editors are as helpless in the writer-editor relationship as has been suggested. The decision of whether or not a book is publishable is made equally between the writer and the editor: the editor has to sign off on a book going to publication, as their job is to be the gatekeeper between the writer and the reader, to remind the author that theirs is not the opinion that matters. As much as an editor gains their acclaim from a writer, a writer is only as good as his or her editor. Therefore suggesting an editor does not share a part of a book’s inadequacy fails to acknowledge the power that editors have within publishing and over less established or household names.
It seems to me that the best way to resolve the blame issue is for every book to end with a series of editorial letters
There are countless things judges (and readers) can and will complain about. Today it is book word count, tomorrow it will be something else: font, book covers, themes (although I could do with fewer books with unreliable narrators). It is not clear whether or not this was an issue for any of the other judges or in previous years, but they did still manage to decide on a short list- which is all that matters in the end.
It seems to me that the best way to resolve the blame issue is for every book to end with a series of editorial letters, one from everyone who had any part in the making of the book – the author, the editor, publisher, literary agent – all stating their grievances with each other, something along the lines of ‘The pun in the title of the book is not as smart as the author thinks it is, but she refused to change it’, so that the judges will know exactly what to blame on whom next time.