Word count by genre: How long should my book really be?

Publishers and agents are typically inundated with manuscript submissions from authors seeking publication. And as a result, ‘the authorities’ (as I shall hereby refer to them as) are looking for reasons to reject your book. The standouts are standouts, and speak for themselves. But for every standout manuscript there are hundreds of manuscripts that are hard to place – could they be best sellers if they found the right audience? More often than not they are looking for reasons why these manuscripts shouldn’t make their lists. And scrutinising the word count is one such method of reducing their ‘slush pile’.

‘The authorities’ ask for a list of details in your cover (query) letter for a reason, it is their way of determining your understanding of your own work, the market, your competition etc. They want you to make their jobs as easy as possible – not because they are lazy, but simply overwhelmed. They need reasons to throw your manuscript in the bin and move onto the next one – and it’s not because they are horrible people who want to force people to ‘fail’, it comes down to time pressures really.

They also are looking for ammunition to take into ‘the pitch’ meetings, where they know if they are not prepared, then it will be a bloodbath. The truth is that, even if they love your manuscript and believe in it, they still need to convince ‘the suits’ (aka the sales and marketing department). ‘The authorities’ know that by pitching a manuscript that comfortably fits into a saleable category they have a much better chance of ‘selling’ your book to ‘the suits’.

Word count comes into this overall equation. Most literary genres have expected word lengths, which have been driven by audiences – in terms of their own expectations of the genre, as well as our (the professionals) expectations of them (an obvious example for this: children’s books need to be shorter than science-fiction for adults, simply because children don’t have the attention span that adults possess).

Adhering to the expected word count demonstrates that you understand your market. It also shows that you have the ability to pace your narrative and make every word count (that you are disciplined at self-editing).

Publishing realities such as ‘production costs’ are another reason that ‘the authorities’ need you to respect word count expectations. The greater the word count = the larger the book = more sections and pages that are required to be printed = upping the price of your book once it hits the shelves. And why would a publisher want to spend more on producing a book and then taking the risk of selling it at a higher price point than they have to? Ultimately, if they have five other books in your genre that are ‘as good as’ your book then what would persuade them to publish yours? It would have to be pretty darn good to demand a higher sales price point and the chance of losing sales to a cheaper book in the same genre.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to compromise your manuscript and make it homogeneous, however by trying to tick a few boxes it might well help you find publication. And keep in mind that although there are always exceptions to the rule…don’t count on it that you are that exception.

So, with the above in mind, here is a rough guide for expected word lengths for adult fiction. (You can read more about Children’s Fiction HERE.)

Here are the general figures that you’ll want to know:

  • SHORT STORY:
    • Under 500 words can be described as ‘Flash Fiction’
    • Between 1000 and 8000 words is a short story (also, most short story competitions will stipulate their required word length for entry)
    • Between 5000 and 10,000 words is a long short story
  • NOVELLA: This is a story that is between 10,000 and 40,000 words.
  • NOVEL: A manuscript over 40,000 words is considered to be a novel. However, very few novels these days are as short as that. Generally a 50,000-word novel would be the minimum word count. Most novels are between 60,000 and 100,000 words. A single novel can be longer, but once the length is above 110,000 words publishers may look at cutting it back, unless it is a particular kind of book – books over the 110K word count are usually considered ‘epics’. Here are some of the genres in a little more detail:
    • Adult fiction (commercial and literary): usually fall between 80,000-100,000 words. Dropping below this figure is passable, however not by too much. Exceeding the 100K word count by too much could make the book more expensive to produce – the story would have to be really worth it for a publisher to want to fork out more money than necessary on production!
    • Science and fantasy fiction: are the exceptions to the ‘word-limit’ rule, but even so they don’t usually exceed 150,000 words (and usually fall within the 90,000-120,000 range). The reason they are the exception? Audiences of this genre are happy to read epic novels, they expect it to take time to build the fantasy world around them and want to immerse themselves into that world for some time. Publishers and agents know this and as a result they are willing to show more leniency when it comes to word limits, so you are less likely to lose out on a deal due to word count for this genre.
    • Romance novels: 50,000-100,000…this is a fairly vast bracket thanks to all the sub-genres that can be found in this category (think Regency, contemporary, historical, paranormal, erotic…even chick lit). Aim for somewhere in the middle and you should be pretty safe – when writing your romance novel, consider your reader: where and how will they be reading your book? On the plane, by the pool, on the commute to work? What do you think they want out of the book – is it that they want a quick, light-hearted read, or an epic love story? This will have an impact on where you take your word count. This can be applied across all the genres really.
    • Historical fiction: Similar to sci-fi and fantasy-fiction, you are creating a world for your contemporary audience – you need to make this real and believable for them…but not dull and lifeless. Too much information and your novel could be at risk of being boring, too little information and you will find it difficult to place your audience in the time period. Aim for the 100,000-word mark in order to offer up something that is rich in detail, but not tedious to read.
    • Crime/Mysteries/Thrillers/Horror fiction: All these categories have one major thing in common: suspense. Any book that falls into this category needs to be a real page-turner. Too many words and you risk losing your audience, too few and they might feel like they missed something. So it is advisable to follow the guidelines on word length for this category. Generally speaking a 70,000-90,000-word count is a comfortable range. Publishers and agents expect that authors in this genre will understand how to be ruthless with their words in order to keep their narrative on-track and moving at an engaging pace – lengthy descriptions tend to be like a needle to a balloon…it pops the crucial tension that you have spent so long ‘blowing up’.
    • Young adult fiction: Although we covered this to some degree in our Publishing: Children’s Books Explained article, there is a little more to YA than meets the eye. This category has an ‘expected’ word count of around 50,000-80,000…however there is a little flexibility here, due to the sub-genres found in YA. For instance a sci-fi YA title could be expected to be a little longer due to the world-building requirements and also the expectations of the reader for this genre. But general YA titles should always keep in mind the age of their targeted audience and realistically consider their attention-span to an ‘epic’ versus something they can read comfortably before moving onto their next book ‘conquest’.
    • Children’s fiction: see more in my Publishing: Children’s Books Explained article.
    • Non-fiction: I really should break this category down into sub-heads such as: memoir, history, photography, reference, design, novelty… the list goes on. And for this reason, it is almost impossible to place a word restriction on non-fiction titles. Many books in the non-fiction category are also ‘acquired’ on concept alone, rather than a completed manuscript. If you have written a non-fiction book and want to know if you are hitting the word-count ‘sweet spot’, I suggest reading widely in your area to see what others are doing – this will give you a better sense of what publishers (and readers) expect/want.

 

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

Always keep in mind that each story has its own natural length, which may fall outside these guidelines. If this is the case, just be prepared to ‘justify’ your reasons for falling outside the ‘norm’…always keep in mind, you are selling this to the agent/publisher/commissioning editor in the first instance, but then they have to sell it to the sales and marketing team (which can be a particularly hard sell! You can emotionally trap the creative team more than you can ‘the suits’…they want numbers and figures and hard facts. And at the end of the day, they have a lot of power, so it is important to keep both these audiences in mind when you are ‘selling’ your book).

And as I have already said: there are always exceptions to rules, but in the current publishing climate it pays to expect to be the rule, rather than the exception.

About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.

Comments

Word count by genre: How long should my book really be? — 25 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Start – Jenny Gilbert

    • I wish I could answer this in one neat line. But it is a huge question to ask. The best place to start is with passion, write that book that you have been itching to write. Do it because you love to write. Focus on making that book the best it can be – this means self-editing, writing several drafts, and employing professional editors to help. Only then should you even start to think about publishing and the hurdles you might face! Good luck!

  2. Thank you SO much for this article!! I recently completed my first manuscript, which ended up being just under 130,000 words. O_o I’m thinking of breaking it down into a two separate books (would a pre-written sequel act as a selling point, do you think?) If not, I have some SERIOUS editing to do, lol. Thank you again for your guidance!! It is very much appreciated!! ^_^

    • Publishing houses are always looking at investing in authors who have more than just one book up their sleeve, so a pre-written sequel (or series of books) is definitely a value-add. I am so happy you found value in our article 🙂 Thanks for your feedback! Good luck with the rewrites!!

  3. I have just finished writing the first of, hopefully, five sci-fi novels in the same series. The first book, on Word 2016, is 134 pages with the Table of Contents and the chapters, but that would probably fall under the Novella. I might want to use The Manuscript Agency for review and publishing.

  4. How would you typically submit a manuscript? I’m in the process of writing my first novel and when the time comes I don’t even know where to start.

    • Hi April, It is a tricky question (which I am currently writing a blog about!). I would focus on the manuscript in the first instance, making sure that you have done all that you can to make it a great read (services like ours are helpful in this process). Then it is a matter of sitting down and pondering a few questions, i.e.:
      – Would I like to publishing traditionally or self-publish?
      – Do I want to work with an agent or go direct to a publisher? (This opens up a lot of questions in itself!)
      – What is the genre of your manuscript?

      The answers to these questions all lead you down different paths. I wish I could offer a more definitive response, but there just isn’t one…well, not a short one at least! I would be happy to chat with you more when you are nearing the time where you want to seek publication, just shoot me an email or give me a call.

      Happy writing!!

  5. Hi, I have a few different questions.

    First, the one that’s been on my mind the most. I’m currently writing a story that, as I’m writing, I consider a full length book once I finish it. Obviously that’s only my mindset and there are actual guidelines to how long certain types of stories are (as your article explains). I’m currently at about 32,500 words and almost 10 chapters, but the story is 3/4 of the way done. It’s an adventure/fantasy story, geared toward teens/young adults. I’ve mostly been writing it for a middle to high school level audience. I’m estimating that I’ll have around 40-45,000 words once I’m through. Is this a realistic/proper length for a story like this?

    Second, I’ve written a couple short stories, both finished, and I was wondering what the market for these types of stories is like. I suppose this is a more broad question than specific to my story, but would a short story realistically do well in selling, assuming that it was well written and interesting? How would you go about publishing something roughly 10,000 words?

    My third question, which might need a bit more explaining, has to do with copyright laws. Say that a person writes a song. After you listen to it, a vague idea of a story comes to mind (note: not that the lyrics tell a story, but meanings conveyed through the song inspire a possible backstory to it). If you were to write a story, completely separate from the song and anyone possibly related to the song, but the song itself was your initial inspiration, would this be considered infringement of the song writer’s intellectual property?

    • Hi Kitty,

      Thanks for your queries! I will do my best to provide you with some responses.

      Firstly, I wouldn’t worry about the word count until you have a completed manuscript. Once you have the framework complete then you will see areas that need fleshing out in your editing process. The first draft is usually just a matter of getting the words on the page. Once you have that structure and the editing commences then you will probably see that a lot will change. Writing fantasy/adventure for that age group is an interesting one. On the one hand, they are a younger audience and so you have to consider their attention span/focus/engagement. On the other hand, readers of that genre tend to become more invested and expect a higher word count as world-building usually accounts for a lot more content than ‘normal fiction’. Although you are targeting the YA audience this genre tends to hook a wider age range of readers, it is worth keeping this in the back of your mind also.

      Short stories are a tricky market in that there isn’t really one. Writing competitions and anthologies are a good place to target for short stories.

      In terms of copyright, I wouldn’t even begin to advise you on this, I have general knowledge about these things, but when in doubt I will always refer to a lawyer. What I would say is that inspiration comes in all forms and if it is merely inspiration and not reflection then I would think you would be okay, but you are still best to seek professional advice.

      I hope these responses have been helpful!
      Cheers,

      Kit

  6. I appreciated your information on word count and novel length, particularly since you broke it down by genre. Several years ago, my son wrote a short story that I found to be very good, as did many of his teachers. I suggested he turn it into a novel, which he did. Technically, it is a suspense/murder mystery, but the main characters are the age he was when he wrote the original short story (it only works if they remain that age). However, it doesn’t read as a YA novel, despite being about a seventeen-year-old boy and his friends.

    The last time my son worked on the novel, he was almost twenty. For the past almost two years, I have been editing and proof reading it, in the hopes of submitting it for publication (with self e-publishing as a fall-back option). Because the novel has basically doubled in length under my efforts, we now consider that we are co-writers of the novel. He had the idea, the plot, the characters, but I’m the one that cleaned up the dialogue and fleshed it out (perhaps too much).

    The problem is this: What started out as a 5500 word short story became a 30,000 word novella, and after my first “edit” to flesh it out, it became a lumbering epic of biblical proportions: 200,000+ words. On subsequent edits, I was able to cut it back to 145,000 words, but it seems “stuck” there.

    I’ve handed out copies to friends, asking them to proof read it and give honest opinions as to content and length, and they all seem to blow through the thing very quickly, and none have found the length to be overwhelming. They are, however, very good friends, and might just not want to hurt our feelings.

    The book does contain a major “twist” in it, which could, with additional editing, become a breaking point, turning it into two novels (the original, and a sequel.) But the nature of the “twist” might lose a lot of the punch if we did that. About half-way through, the reader is lead to believe the mystery has been solved, as does the hero. But it turns out, everyone is wrong, as is discovered in the second half of the book. Would there be an audience for such a thing as a single book, with basically a single plot, being broke into two books? The first book would seem to have a satisfying ending and resolution, but the second book would show that that was not the case, and basically pick up where the first left off, furthering the same plot and characters to the final (and correct) ending.

    If I could do this, then I could add back a little of what I cut out that I wish I had not had to lose, making each novel roughly 85,000 words. Has this ever been done before? I’m not talking about a proper sequel, where the next book has the same characters, but a different story. It would be a continuation of the same story.

    Or should we just forego any hope of publication and go the e-book route?

    • Hi Kathy,
      Thanks for your message. Breaking a manuscript into two is not unheard of, however it is hard to offer firm advice until I have seen the manuscript. Some manuscripts have an obvious point where it could be ‘broken’ while still leaving the reader fulfilled and also offering enough fulfilling content for the sequel. My advice to you would be to have a professional appraisal of the manuscript – particularly after its lengthy gestation and also after the involvement of two authors. An appraisal would give you a greater sense of where the MS is placed and how to move it forward. I don’t usually ‘sell’ my services in these comments, but it does sound like your MS could do with some objective feedback.
      Please feel free to email or call me if you wish to discuss this further, I’d be happy to chat.
      Cheers,
      Kit

      • Thank you for your response. As it happens, I like the idea of having someone that does not know me, or my son, read and appraise the manuscript, and will probably avail myself of your services. However, after writing my initial inquiry, I felt compelled to put my editing cap back on, and I am seeing the manuscript through “fresh” eyes. I think I understand that the reason I go into such detail is because I don’t trust the imagination of the reader to get them to the right place. I need to get over that. And there are too many inconsistencies from too many previous edits that took place too close together (making it difficult for me to remember what had been removed/changed/added, and when). So after I go through it one more time, I will be contacting you again to make arrangements for an appraisal. (My son will also be verifying HIS “voice” is still front and center). Hopefully, the word count will DROP, not rise. (Fingers crossed).

        Thank you.

  7. Hi Kit,

    Thanks so much on your advice! I am in the process of writing my first novel as well and have noticed I am continuously have ideas generating throughout my writing process. My novel is a thriller (my main area of interest) and I’m already more than halfway through! I just wanted to ask if your agency or any other agencies specifically seek novels of the thriller genre.

    Also, having been a fan of the thriller genre from a young age, I was wondering what are the general warning signs when you sift through manuscripts, specifically thriller types, that alert you to not go ahead with? I have circulated my novel with very few family members and they have showered me with positive thoughts on my writing so far (starting to think they maybe be biased!)

    Thanks,

    Jamaine

    • Hi Jamaine,
      Well done on picking up the figurative pen and starting your first novel 🙂 We have developmental editors across many genres of writing. However, at this stage, we don’t act as agents so I cannot give you a concrete response to your query. In terms of warning signs, most agents and publishers will only read the synopsis/cover letter in the first instance, before requesting a sample of the manuscript (if they feel it is worthwhile pursuing). I would advise making the synopsis/cover letter the best they can be in order to gain the right attention from an agent or publisher. I would also make sure I read the guidelines of that particular publisher/agent to ensure I was submitting my work according to their requirements. After that I would ensure that the sample chapters I submitted had been carefully edited and checked for typos and formatting issues. Those sample chapters should really grab the reader, so make sure your opening isn’t dull – give them a taste of something that they want to keep tasting! Writing teachers often advise cutting the first few paragraphs for the final version so that the reader is thrown into the action, I think this is often rather good advice in the self-editing process. As you are aware, a novel (thriller or otherwise) is a complex beast and requires the right balance and nuance in terms of plot, character, prose style etc. There is no set equation for what works and what doesn’t, if there was then my agency wouldn’t exist! We approach each manuscript differently and appraise it on its own merits and shortcomings. Objective feedback is a great asset in writing, and unfortunately this can rarely come from friends and family. Once you have completed your manuscript I would advise approaching an appraiser/assessor (my agency or otherwise) to get some objective, professional advice.
      I hope this feedback is useful.
      All the best with your writing!
      Kit

      • Hi Kit,

        Thanks so much! The information you gave me has been most helpful! It definitely has given me a clearer understanding and now I am motivated more than ever to get my first draft done.

        Thanks again! 🙂

    • Hi Joe,
      I couldn’t agree more. The story comes first. The word count comes into play once you start editing your own work, and also important to keep in mind when submitting your work to any ‘professionals’.
      Thanks for your input 🙂
      Cheers,
      Kit

  8. Hi Kit

    Your article is very helpful, however I was hoping you might be able to help me with a specific question. I used to weigh over 180kg and in the last 6 years I finally managed to win the weight battle and lose 100kg. I am in the process of writing a book about my story and will also include tips and things that I have learned over the course of my journey in the hopes that it helps others who are trying to lose weight. So I guess it is also a self help book. I am currently at about 12,500 words and probably half way through if I were to guess. Is 25000 words too short for this kind of book, or is shorter better in this case? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Regards

    Shari

    • Hello Shari,

      Well done on the weight loss, I am certain it took a lot of determination, resilience and emotional resolve to lose 100kg. It is no small task, so a huge amount of respect goes to you for this!
      In terms of self-help titles, there is no hard and fast rule about word length as the content can vary so much and the audience expectations of this content varies also. I would start by looking in bookshops (or on Amazon) and looking at comparative titles to see how long they are. I would also sit down and have a think about what I would have wanted to read when I was starting out/going through the weight loss journey. It also depends on whether you are self-publishing or seeking traditional publishing. You can get away with a lot more in self-publishing (although, I’d still advise looking at comparative titles and what the best sellers are doing). Traditional publishers might be happy to look over what you already have (along with a strong synopsis and covering letter) and view it as a framework for what they could develop the work into.
      It also depends on the content and how this will ultimately be ‘designed’ into the spreads that make up the book. For instance, do you include recipes, exercise regimes etc? These inclusions may take up more space in the book and ‘bulk it out’. I feel a good designer/editor team working on a self-help book can make all the difference, because they will be able to design/arrange your words into a more accessible format (ie tips and hints boxes, as just one example).
      I am afraid it is tricky to provide concrete advice on certain genres, because there are so many variables.

      Good luck!
      Kit

  9. Hi Kit,

    I am writing a fantacy for 13 – 130 years and was reading through earlier comments from writers/yourself above. Thanks for some great ideas. Are you suggesting that when i am ready to submit, i need to also submit a synopsis/cover letter to sell my book to the editors before they actually read my book to “sell to marketing?”

    If so, must this cover letter be a short story of your book or what info will the editors require to take note of your book?

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