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.
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
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.
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.
© Amanda Patterson
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