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.”