Word Count Matters

One of the first manuscripts I turned in as a freelance editor caused a minor panic at the publishing house. “This novel is too long,” the managing editor said in an email. “It’s 90K words. We contracted 75K.”

(Let me tell you just how many fifteen thousand words are, kids, in case you have to cut that many someday: it’s fifty to sixty double-spaced manuscript pages.)

I’d gotten the manuscript from the managing editor, of course, but apparently she didn’t check it before she passed it on to me. Assuming the publisher was aware of the general contents of the manuscript was my first mistake; the second was assuming the author had adhered to the terms of his contract. Now I always ask. You’d be surprised how often the author’s answer is a version of I don’t know. (Hint: check your contract.)

The reason word count is important in a situation like this is page count determines retail price. When the acquisitions editor makes an offer for the manuscript, he or she has already run a gauntlet of approval-seeking inside the publishing house, which includes figuring out how much a book will cost to produce. While you’re still writing, your publisher is already marketing your book to book retailers, and this marketing information includes the price. Thus if you turn in a significantly longer manuscript, page count increases, hard costs increase, and no one is happy about it.

Word count should matter to you even if you don’t have a book deal, though. Why? Because there are rules of thumb regarding average word counts for various types of books, and it will be a lot easier to sell a manuscript that meets those expectations. Furthermore, the number one mistake made by first-time authors is writing too much; they fail to polish and tighten up the writing. So a manuscript that exceeds industry expectations is a red flag; it will make it harder for you to get an agent, and harder for an agent to sell the book. (Perhaps an editor can help.) Sure, there are always exceptions, but don’t count on being one.

To get you started, then, here’s a short list of approximate word counts. Land right in the middle and you should be in the sweet spot.

• Picture books / 500 – 1,000 words

• Early (or easy) readers / 500 – 1,500 words

• Chapter books / 5K – 15K words

• Middle grade / 25K – 50K words

• Young adult / 50K – 80K words (but there’s flexibility in this category)

• Adult fiction / 80K – 100K words (this includes literary, commercial, romance, women’s, horror, mystery, thriller, paranormal, historical)

• Category romance / 55K words

• Science fiction & fantasy / 90K – 110K words

Yes, I’m aware of Donna Tartt. That 784-page book of hers (The Goldfinch) is probably 250K words (though I’m guessing). But she’s the exception.

Tweet: There are generally accepted average word counts & it will be easier to sell a MS that meets those expectations.
Tweet: The #1 mistake of 1st-time authors is too many words; they fail to polish & tighten  the writing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , , , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. Ellen says:

    Points well taken.

    Brilliant as it was (I just finished it), The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) would have been much, much better trimmed down quite a bit. Maybe it’s the fast pace of modern-day life, but I’m beginning to find even Dickens’ and Patrick O’Brien’s lengthy digressions tiresome. (I never thought I would say that about Dickens–one of my first loves–but there it is). And I don’t think I really need to know about each and every piece of wood and canvas on a sailing ship, Mr. O’Brien–legal British pirates or no.

    • Jamie says:

      That’s been a common refrain about The Goldfinch, sad to say. One reason why I doubt I’ll read it. I love Dickens, too, but don’t plan on rereading any 19th-century lit either. I like contemporary so much more. :)

  2. I submitted my second novel, a 105K word thriller, to a publisher. Their acquisitions editor accepted it conditionally — I had to shorten the timeline, drop 2 POV characters, and resubmit a 65K word manuscript. The rewrite was brutal. It took 2 months to do the work, but the novel releases next month, Feb 28th. It’s crucial to learn what your publisher is looking for and don’t stray far from what they specify.

  3. I fully understand the word count issue. My first novel weighed in at 82,000 words. I had pitched it as an 80,000 word book when I landed the contract. But with changes in economy, etc., my publisher had me cut 22,000 words! Apparently, this is the magic number for Print on Demand (POD). So many people buy books for their e-reader. Those who want a hard copy, pay for it.

    • Jamie says:

      It sometimes seems impossible to do, doesn’t it! (As Harry says above: brutal.) I hope you’re pleased with the results. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Jan Thompson says:

    Thank you, Jamie, for the word count summary.

    I’m seeing that some indie adult fiction are hovering in the 70-75K range but priced a bit lower than traditionally published 80-90K novels. Indie science fiction is still 100K or more either way.

    BTW what do you think are acceptable word counts for serialized or episodic novels that sometimes require 3-12 books to tell the whole story arc (with each episodes covering smaller sub-stories) a la TV shows?

    Thanks!

    • Jamie says:

      Oh, gosh, I don’t know! I wonder if anyone’s addressed that. I’ll poke around a little and see what’s being said elsewhere.

  5. […] Either way, excessive length is the most common problem seen by editors. We’ve talked about word count; watch […]

  6. Dennis says:

    Hi Jamie, Long time. Worked with April a touch and learned alot. Questions I know you can field; What are some reasons an agent will sign you/take you on? Will an Agent take you on for any reason other than they know it could get published?What do they know that you don’t? How can one learn of these workings of an Agent without calling them thinking your the one their waiting to hear from?

  7. Dennis says:

    My post was inadvertently placed here versus your latest blog on Agents. My apologies .

  8. […] as you said you would? Have you written too many? Too few? If you’ve written on spec, know what word count publishers expect to see in your genre; it will be easier to sell this manuscript if you’re within the norms. More than likely it’s […]

  9. […] already. Probably the number-one problem agents and editors see is the manuscript is too long. And word count really, really matters to publishers—again, page count determines retail price—and to consumers too. Your publisher […]

  10. […] Dragon Tattoo, The (Stieg Larson) Girl Who Fell From the Sky, The (Heidi W. Durrow) Goldfinch, The (Donna Tartt) Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown) Great Gatsby, The (F. Scott […]

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes on 24 February, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    […] Either way, excessive length is the most common problem seen by editors. We’ve talked about word count; watch […]

  2. […] as you said you would? Have you written too many? Too few? If you’ve written on spec, know what word count publishers expect to see in your genre; it will be easier to sell this manuscript if you’re within the norms. More than likely it’s […]

  3. […] already. Probably the number-one problem agents and editors see is the manuscript is too long. And word count really, really matters to publishers—again, page count determines retail price—and to consumers too. Your publisher […]

  4. By The Bonus Round (2014 Edition) on 5 February, 2015 at 8:30 am

    […] Dragon Tattoo, The (Stieg Larson) Girl Who Fell From the Sky, The (Heidi W. Durrow) Goldfinch, The (Donna Tartt) Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown) Great Gatsby, The (F. Scott […]