Breaking the Rules…. by Louise Boland

What feels like a lifetime ago (but was actually only last year), I used to work in the energy sector. We specialised in selling gas and electricity to business customers.  There!  I see you turning away already.  It’s dull, isn’t it?  

Before, at parties, when people asked what I did and I told them, this is what would happen: First, their eyes would glaze over, then they’d look down at their wine glass and discover they were in urgent need of a top-up, and then they would scurry away. 

Nowadays of course, I can tell people I’m a writer and a publisher, and that creates an entirely different reaction.  For everyone either loves reading books, thinks they can write a book, has written a book, or knows someone who has and who needs help getting it published.   (As a little side note for my old friend, Valpy – I still don’t think I have scope for publishing Pylon of the Month, but if there are any other commissioning editors out there looking for new material, then do check it out They want to put together a ‘best of’ collection.) 

But one of the biggest differences between energy and publishing is how they handle RULES.  In the energy section, you can’t move for rules, there are hundreds of documents containing them. It’s exhausting, but at least it’s all written down. 

What I have been struggling with in the book publishing sector is that there are also rules, but these are all UNWRITTEN and they’re mostly based on the logic of ‘Well… that’s how everyone does it.’ 

Over time I’ve come to understand that some of these rules are there because its easiest for everyone. Publishers send out review copies to the press in time for their deadlines, so that the papers can come out as the book is being released.  If you try to step outside these timelines, it just confuses everyone. 

But some of the rules are based on perceived commerciality.  Publishers want to sell what they know will sell.  And the safest way to do that is to publish what is already selling.  That is all very well, but the difficulty comes when writers are told that because their book isn’t what is currently selling, they should change it to something that is.  And so writers of fantastic literary fiction switch to writing crime, as their agent says it will be easier to pitch.  And people who write fiction which is less than 60,000 words get told by their agents to bump it up to 80,000 or even 90,000 before it stands a chance of being sent anywhere.  

At the moment, this bizarre WORD COUNT RULE is my biggest bug bear. 

There’s a great picture on the Bookfox blog site, called ‘Know Your Fiction Lengths’ ( where John Fox has laid out in an easy to see way, how many words your fiction must be to count as flash fiction, short story, novelette (didn’t even know there was such a thing!), novella, novel and (love it…) Russian Novel. 

This is really handy for authors who want to understand the publishing industry’s unwritten word count rules.  Crucially he warns authors to Mind the Gaps – ‘A 50k book is hard to place’ and to Mind the $$$s – only novels between 80,000 and 10,000 make money, anything else is ‘art and fun’. Great words of wisdom and super helpful for those authors who want to get an agent or publisher to consider their work. 

But I’m not having it.  Where would we be if everyone followed the rules like this? The world would be missing some fantastic fiction.  Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? 46,118 words.  Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five? 49,459. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? a severely lacking 59,900. (Ok that last one’s not a great example as I guess he could have found another 100 words without ruining it too much if called upon…) 

At Fairlight Books, we encourage writers of literary fiction to submit their work to us whatever the length. If it’s a great story and great fiction, then please don’t consign it to the bottom drawer just because you know in your heart of hearts it will ruin it to make it twice the length. 

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At the moment we have a passion for novellas.  So please spread the word.  No word limit rules at Fairlight Books.  We are open to submissions of literary fiction of ANY LENGTH!!


Anonymous said…
This is such a breath of fresh air. How ridiculous is it, to insist on certain word lengths, when as writers we are told from the start that Less Is More, that every word should count, get rid of all these adverbs and adjectives, slim down the dialogue, no scene setting, control your character's inner voice, cut to the chase etc...if after much effort and discipline, we then discover our manuscript is around 20,000 words short? This mania for genres having a standard length certainly explains a lot of padding. Delighted that Fairlight Books will have no truck with this stuff.
Fran B said…
A refreshing, encouraging post. Thank you!
Umberto Tosi said…
Unwritten rules are much more restrictive than those printed in codes - and insidious as well, because it is so difficult to appeal and change them. Most of the unwritten rules of publishing amount to little more than unexamined assumptions that originated with economies of scale that go back to pre-electronic printing. They are little better than superstition. Thanks for an enlightening look at them. I commend you for progressive and creative publishing.
Evolution said…
Brilliant post. Some of the greatest works have been lower word counts - The Great Gatsby ...
And I think Raymond Carver and Chekhov did some pretty good shorter work!?
Louise Boland said…
The Great Gatsby. Yes! I should have thought of that one!

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