Word Counts – How Long Should Your Novel Be?


Before I begin

Before I get into the numbers in this post, I want to make it clear that you can write a book of any length. Nobody is prescribing how you should write, what you should write, or how long it should be. It is entirely up to you.

However, as a first-time author, you do increase your chances of getting published (and being read) if you follow certain guidelines.

What readers want

One of the things you will learn from countless agents and publishers is that there are preferred word counts for books. It is very rare for a publisher, or any reader for that matter, to be willing to take a chance on a manuscript of over 100 000 words from a first-time author. There are always exceptions to every rule, but most of us are not exceptional.

We stand a better chance of being published if we give people in the industry, and readers, what they want, and what most agents, publishers and readers want is a novel of approximately 80 000 words.

The facts

I think it’s important for writers to realise that publishers are not simply making our lives difficult. They understand their business and their readership. Readers like familiarity. Human beings like genres because they know what to expect – and one of the expectations is a book’s length.

The other issue is cost. 80 000 words usually translates to a comfortable 360-380 pages, which keeps the book in the affordable to produce and sell range.

Remember that longer books require more time from editors and proof-readers, so ebooks are included in this equation. It is difficult enough to sell a book without pricing ourselves out of the market.

A word count example to live by for first-time authors:

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 76 944 words
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – 85 141 words
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – 107 253 words
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – 190 637 words
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – 257 045 words
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – 168 923 words
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – 198 227 words

Tip: Think about how we see an unknown writer. Readers are more willing to take a chance on us if the monetary and time commitment is not overwhelming.

Word Counts – Let’s get more specific 

1.  Commercial and Literary Fiction

You should aim for 80 000 to 90 000 words when writing for adults. This length is ideal for literary and mainstream fiction. It ill not scare any literary agent or publisher away. It includes most genres such as romance, crime, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror.

You can write anything from 70 000 to 110 000 words, but this is out of the average range. It is very rare for a crime or a love story to need to push on beyond the 110 000-word ‘epic’ mark. A good editor could probably cut 30 000 words without breaking a sweat. It becomes more expensive to produce a novel when it is that long.

2.  Category Romances

These vary from 55 000 to 75 000 words. Please check submission guidelines for Harlequin and Mills&Boon.

3.  Science Fiction and Fantasy

Agents and publishers in this genre want books that fall into the higher word-count end of adult fiction. Most agree that 100 000 words is the ideal manuscript size for a first-time submission.

The higher-word count exceptions they publish are usually books written by authors who already have an established track record of sales with shorter books, for example books by George R.R. Martin (one of Martin’s first books, Dying of the Light is only 288 pages long) and Stephen King (Carrie, published in 1974 is only 199 pages long).

4.  Young Adult Fiction

Young adult is flexible. However, 55 000 to 80 000 words is a good guide for first time authors. Some novels have as many as 100 000 words. The higher word counts are generally found in the paranormal, science fiction and fantasy genres within the YA definition. They are also usually not the first books that these authors have published.

5.  Memoirs

Memoirs are similar to novels. Editors prefer memoirs to be 70 000 to 80 000 words long. If you write anything longer than that, you are
probably overwriting, or including everything that ever happened to you in your book. This is unnecessary.

Please note that I have not included word counts for children’s books, picture books, short stories, novellas and flash fiction.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Amanda Patterson

© Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. The Four Most Important Things To Remember About Pacing
  2. Six Simple Ways To Handle Viewpoint Changes
  3. 13 Ways To Start A Story
  4. 10 Things To Stop Doing To Yourself As A Writer
  5. The Nine Types of Unreliable Narrator

This article has 12 comments

  1. Tee Morris

    No wonder The Order of the Phoenix is my favorite. It is roughly the same size as my first novel, MOREVI. ;^)

  2. Mark Evans

    For my non-fiction book, I was aiming for 50,000 words. With images, it worked out about 270 pages, which is pretty good for a business book.

  3. Dianne

    Thanks for this info. I really didn’t know this, and it seems my work is already too long. Now I’ll give breaking it up into two books more thought.

  4. Writers Write

    It’s a pleasure, Dianne.

  5. Neen

    I just don’t think my YA work will be long enough. What can an aspiring writer do if the story is finished? The finished draft is a little over 45,000 words. I’m afraid if I try and add something else, it will take away from the story.

  6. Brooklen Borne

    This is some great information.

  7. Writers Write

    Thank you, Brooklen.

  8. Hi

    Neen, It’s okay to have a story, not a novel. some people prefer shorter books, find an editor and publisher that like the same things you do and It’s likely that once it’s edited, revised, looked over and edited again, it’ll be different so don’t worry.

  9. Surprise nhlapo

    Well I just finished writing my first novel which is just 25000 words but now I noticed that I still have a long way to go to get the book a good publication but either way I still need some guidance and a mentor. Please help I need someone I can communicate with.

  10. Linnie Peterson

    For new / aspiring novelists, this is very helpful information I have not seen elsewhere. I am linking to it from from Newbie Novelists’ Links page which already links to a number of other Writers Write articles.

    Congratulations to all the staff. Your articles are consistently well done.

  11. Writers Write

    Thank you, Linnie.

  12. HellRiser

    so I suppose it’s very bad that my first book out of trilogy ( at least) has over 600K words ? …

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