I recently sent a story off for an anthology. Standard, and, like 60% of the stories I send out, destined for rejection I thought.
And, sure enough, after two weeks, back came the e-mail. But the rejection was not the normal “thanks, but you suck” email I tend to get (especially from Australian publishers), it was, and I quote: “We asked for a short story with a minimum of 2500 words. Your piece was a novelette and as such too long.”
My piece was 8000 words. So I asked myself what a short story actually was. I looked over a heap of websites and publishers and other resources and here’s what I discovered:
Paragraph / Paragraph story – less than 100 words, exactly 75 words, or exactly 50 words.
Drabble – exactly 100 words (this is the only one that remained constant). Sometimes the 100 words includes the title, sometimes it doesn’t. (A Drabble Complex is made up of chapters of exactly 100 words.)
Flash fiction – less than 1000 words, less than 500 words, or less than 250 words, or between 101 and 500 words.
Short story – 100 or 1000 words up to 5000 or 7500 or 8000 or 10,000 words, or simply up to 7500 words.
Long short – 5000 words to 7500 or 8000 or 10,000 words.
Novelette – 7500 or 8000 or 10,000 words up to 15,000 or 17,500 words.
Novella – 15,000 or 17,500 words up to 30,000 or 40,000 or 50,000 words.
Novel – anything over 30,000 or 40,000 or 50,000 words.
I should point out that Wikipedia has a much more prescriptive word count for these things.
But there are also other policies. When writing horror, many publishing houses consider a longer word count for novels. 66,000 or 72,000 or 80,000 words are the sort of minimums I’ve encountered. Fantasy I’ve found has even higher constraints, starting often at 75,000 words or even 90,000 words. But then there are some publishing houses that just stick at the 40,000 or 50,000 word minimum, no matter the genre. But some publishing houses have a maximum (90,000 is the lowest maximum I saw; 120,000 the highest; some had no maximum).
It all gets rather confusing.
However, with e-publishing the differentiation between novella and novel has become blurred. Publishing forms will go as low as 20,000 words to publish a stand-alone book as an e-book. Now you can even buy short stories as separate e-books, for want of a better term.
Then you get to the vexed question of anthologies:
Minimum 4 works or minimum 8 works; minimum 45,000 or 60,000 or 65,000 or 70,000 words, no set maximum. Self-published, of course, there is no minimum of anything. But for the publishing houses, an anthology could consist of as little as 4 novellas or novelettes, up to as many as 450 drabbles.
Fortunately, most publishing houses have pretty clear specifications as to word count in their submission guidelines. The problem is they differ. You write a great short story for an anthology, it clocks in at 5000 words, but you discover that (because it’s an Australian publication) there is a maximum word count of 3500 words, so you have to then go out and find another market that your story not only fits the theme of, but which also has a higher word count. Or you write your epic fantasy novel of 135,000 words and it gets rejected by your first choice publishing house, but the next three choices have a maximum word count of 120,000 words so it’s on to judicious editing.
Or you could ignore all of that and self-publish, but that’s not something I personally recommend for most authors. (Quick thing – a very specialised non-fiction, like a memoir, or a brief history of a specific local aspect, or a very specialised knowledge base will generally only see light of day with self-publication; a small print run that will go to the members of the author’s family, the members of the specialised local thing the history is of, or those few people interested in highly specific knowledge. Poetry can also benefit from self-publishing in that there are very few publishing houses that will publish anthologies by unknowns. But fiction writers without an established name may well be wasting their time by self-publishing. This does not include writing a story on a blog, as that is often a nice way (i.e., free) to get new readers. In My Opinion.)
Okay, so word counts. There you go. There is no hard and fast rule (no matter what Wikipedia says). It’s all the luck of the draw!
There, wasn’t that confusing?
(PS – have you bought Relick yet? It’s either a novella or a novel…)