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.
NOTE (April 2021): Thank you to everyone who has commented and shared this post, I am so happy it has been a useful scrap of information for so many readers. As a result of reading all the comments I really wanted to add that you should write your book in the first instance without too much concern for the wordcount. Every narrative has its own flow and will find its own feet – you can take time to consider the wordcount during the editing phase 🙂 I hope this helps! Happy writing!