Follow word count guidelines to keep from snoozifying your reader.
by Anne R. Allen
A constant complaint I hear from agents, editors, writing teachers, and reviewers is that they see too many manuscripts with inappropriate word counts.
If you’re getting a lot of form rejections or simply silence from agents, reviewers and editors, this may be why.
Word count guidelines have been trending down in the last decade. Most editors won’t look at a debut manuscript longer than 100K words—a little longer if it’s fantasy or a non-romance historical. They were not so rigid ten years ago.
Now publishers—and many readers—won’t take a chance on any long book by an unproven author.
While readers will happily plunk down the big bux for an 819-page book by George R. R. Martin, they’ll turn up their noses at a book that long—even if it only costs 99c—if it’s written by Who R. R. You.
I know the “accepted wisdom” in the indie world is that if you self-publish, you can write whatever the heck you want and people will buy it. But that’s no longer the case. The wrong word count for your genre red-flags you as an amateur, and most readers don’t have time for amateurs.
Not when there’s so much professional-level stuff being self-published.
A decade after the beginning of the “Kindle Revolution,” too many readers have been burned by self-published bloated rough drafts. A reader is not likely to pick up a book that screams “I’ve been writing this in my spare time for the last 8 years and I refuse to rewrite and would never let an editor tamper with my genius.”
So don’t be that guy.
Word Count Guidelines By Genre
Word counts are generally agreed to be the count provided by MS Word’s “Word Count” tool. Some extremely old-school agents prefer that you use the formula of 250 words per page (double spaced, 12 pt. font) and calculate it yourself, which seems a silly waste of time, but always check agent websites for guidelines.
For debut authors, following these rules will seriously improve your chances of traditional publication and/or establishing a readership, no matter how you publish.
In other words, get famous first and break the rules later.
If you are a household name, you can publish a compendium of your shopping lists from the past two decades and your publisher will happily promote it and people will buy it.
Unfortunately, that’s not true for the rest of us.
Here is a summary of current word count guidelines. This is a composite taken from a number of publishing industry websites, so nothing is set in stone. Take these as target word counts. Some publishers will accept longer or shorter books, so always check the website of an agent or publisher before you submit.
Note I say these are for “debut” fiction. Once you have a loyal fan base, you can break the rules with abandon.
Word Count Guidelines for Debut Fiction
Picture Books—text: 500-1000 words (32 pages is ideal.)
Middle Grade fiction—20K to 40K. (Yes, we all know about Harry Potter. And when you’re as famous as J.K. Rowling you can write MG tomes, too.) “Upper Middle Grade” can be a bit longer.
Young Adult fiction—25K to 80K.
Cozy Mysteries—55K-70K. (BTW, Agatha Christie’s mysteries sometimes came in at 40K words. I think we may be going back in that direction.)
Fantasy—90K-110K. Definitely down from the epic tomes of yore. Self-publishers can get away with more. Fantasy readers like big books and they cannot lie. 🙂
Historical fiction—80K to 110K+. (You can still wax verbitudinous in this genre.)
Literary fiction—65K to 100K, trending away from the higher numbers. “Spare and elegant” is the mark of literary chic these days.
Standard Mysteries and Crime Fiction—70K to 100K.
Romance—55K-75K. For subgenres of romance, check publishers’ guidelines. Word counts for specific romance lines can be very strict. Some historicals can be longer, although Regencies tend to be short.
Science Fiction—75K—100K. When there’s world-building involved a book generally needs to be longer.
Thrillers—80K to 100K.
Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance—70K to 90K.
Women’s Fiction—70K-100K. The women’s fiction family saga has gone out of fashion recently, but they’re generally on the longer end.
Around 80K seems to be the magic number for most adult fiction. So if your ms. goes way over that, it may be time to put on your editor hat and get ruthless.
Word Count Guidelines for Nonfiction
Nonfiction books have shrunk drastically in the last decade. A study done last spring showed that the average length of a nonfiction bestseller has dropped 42% in the last seven years.
In 2011, the average length of a best-selling non-fiction book was 467 pages, but that dropped to 273 pages in 2017.
Nonfiction books get queried in the form of book proposals, so you don’t submit a complete manuscript (except for memoir, which you query like a novel.) That’s probably why word count guidelines for nonfiction are so hard to find. I’ve also found wildly different word count suggestions between agencies.
So treat these as word count “guestimates.”
Biography—80K-110K. These can be pretty long. Especially if your credentials are good.
Commentary—40K-60K. Not much info out there about word count guidelines for political and other opinion books. If you have appeared on cable TV news, you can probably get away with more verbiage.
Humor—20K-40K. For humorous memoir, follow memoir guidelines, and for funny novels, follow fiction guidelines, but for books like John Hodgman’s The Areas of my Expertise, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys or the classic 1066 and All That, (only 128 pages and still in print after 80 years) keep it to 40K words or less.
Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction—40K-70K. You’ll probably want to prune a memoir if it goes over 70K. Books in this genre tend to get bloated without heavy editing. Remember you can write many memoirs about different aspects of your life.
Self-Help & How-To—20K-50K. In the age of ebooks, these are getting shorter all the time. My publisher had me cut my book The Author Blog down from 40K. (And these days some ebook how-to’s are only 3500 words long.)
Travel and Nature—40K-70K A lot of these books blur boundaries with memoir.
What if Your Ms. Doesn’t Fit Word Count Guidelines?
With both fiction and nonfiction, it’s best to err on the side of brevity these days. To quote Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the Guide to Literary Agents:
“Agents have so many queries that they are looking for reasons to say no. They are looking for mistakes, chinks in the armor, to cut their query stack down by one. And if you adopt the mentality that your book has to be long, then you are giving them ammunition to reject you.”
If your word count goes over the limit:
- Consider splitting it into two books.
- Or a trilogy. You’ll triple your income. 🙂
- Are the extra words in there for world-building? Consider cutting some details and putting them on your blog.
- Do some ruthless editing. Are you repeating yourself? Can you say something with one word instead of ten?
- Can you condense some of those conversations with indirect dialogue?
If your word count is under the limit:
- For literary fiction: Flesh out characters.
- Thrillers: Weave in another subplot.
- Crime fiction: Kill off a few more victims.
- Or…maybe you’ve got a novella.
Novellas are hot.
Yes, old-school Big Five publishers (and Bookbub) still aren’t much interested in novellas, and some agents will reject on low word count alone.
But readers love them! Jane Austen fan fiction authors have been practically minting money with 140-page or less “Pride and Prejudice variation” Regency novellas in the last few years.
And forward-looking agencies like Fuse Literary offer “assisted self-publishing” for their authors to write novellas in between big novel releases. Their Short Fuse Publishing produces digital-first novellas in a number of genres.
For more on the popularity of the novella, check out Paul Alan Fahey’s post for us on the subject. Next June we’ll have a post from actress and bestselling author Mara Purl on the difference between writing a novel and a novella.
by Anne R. Allen @annerallen March 18, 2018. Photo by Sage Ross.
What about you, scriveners? Do you have a problem keeping to word count guidelines? Do you tend to write over or under the standard word count? Have you ever turned a long book into two or three?
On March 19th, Anne will be visiting Romance University, where she’ll be talking about the many benefits of having an author blog.
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