There is no single strict, universal standard for classifying works of fiction whose content is entirely or predominantly word-based based on the length of the book, whether it be by word count or page count. With the advent and popularity of eBooks in recent years, I tend to regard word count as a more important measure of a work of fiction’s length than page count.
Terms that are commonly used to describe a work of fiction by word count, from longest to shortest, are novel, novella, novelette, and short story. Here is how I classify works of fiction based on word count:
- Novel – At least 40,000 words
- Long novel – At least 275,000 words
- Intermediate novel – At least 75,000 words, but at most 274,999 words
- Short novel – At least 40,000 words, but at most 74,999 words
- Novella – At least 17,500 words, but at most 39,999 words
- Novelette – At least 7,500 words, but at most 17,499 words
- Short story – At most 7,499 words
If the classification system looks familiar to you, the definitions of the four primary classifications of works of fiction by word count are virtually identical to the ones that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) use for the Nebula Awards. The only major addition to the word count classification that is not used by the SFWA for the Nebula Awards is my subclassifications of the novel classification.
The three sub-classifications of the novel category that I provided in the classification are not arbitrary creations of my imagination. I based my novel sub-classification on the word counts of novels in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and novels in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. All of the Harry Potter novels are in my intermediate novel sub-classification, and all of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels that have been released as of the writing of this blog post are in my long novel sub-classification. The Harry Potter novels range in length from 76,944 words to 257,045 words, whereas the shortest A Song of Ice and Fire novel that has been released so far is 292,727 words in length.
It is important to note that the classification applies to fiction works in which the exclusive or predominant method of conveying the story is through words. Works of fiction that are graphic-based, such as comic books and graphic novels, cannot reasonably be classified by word count. Even where word count would be a reasonable measure of the length of non-fiction works (examples being biographies, essays, and manifestos), I avoid using terms like novel, novella, novelette, and short story to describe non-fiction works. Word count is not the best measure of the length of many different types of non-fiction works, such as dictionaries, encyclopediae, telephone directories, cookbooks, and atlases, where a measure like number of entries, number of recipes, number of maps, etc. is a better measure of length. Additionally, word count is not the best measure of the length of a poem or a poetry collection (number of lines or verses is preferred for poems; number of poems is preferred for poetry collections).
It is also important to note that different people or entities may have different criteria for classifying works of fiction by word count. For example, the annual novel-writing event National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has a 50,000-word minimum for a valid novel entry.