Size does matter, especially in fiction!
I sat down recently with several fiction editors and hammered out a comprehensive list of suggested word counts by genre & sub-genre. As you read through this, keep in mind three important things:
- These are suggested word counts; rules get broken all the time.
- These suggested word counts will most often apply to debut writers; successfully published authors are the ones who end up successfully breaking the rules.
- If you are planning to e-publish only, and your book will never be printed out on actual paper, these guidelines aren’t nearly as important.
Something I saw a lot in queries as an agent were word counts that exceeded 100k. Often, a manuscript exceeded this by a considerable amount: I’ve seen word counts of 140k, 160k and one writer actually told me about a YA manuscript he’d written that was 188k.
Somewhere out there a myth developed – especially amongst science fiction and fantasy writers – that a higher word count was better. Writers see big fat fantasies on the shelf and think that they have to write a book just as hefty to get published. And sometimes a writer just writes a long book because they aren’t yet a very good writer. Good writers learn how to pare a manuscript down to its most essential elements, carving away the word count fat that marks so many beginning writers. And the fact of the matter is, most of those “big fat fantasy” books you see on the shelf actually only have a word count of about 100k to 120k.
The exceptions are usually authors who’ve already had an established track record of sales with previous – shorter – books, like George R.R. Martin. And, yes, once in a great while you will see an incredibly long debut novel. But the writing has to be absolutely stellar; knock-down, drag-out, kick-you-in-the-teeth amazing. (A good example is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which clocks in at just about 240,000 words.)
And I should also point out here that the longer a successful writer has been with a publishing house and the more actual dollars that author brings to the house (and the bigger that author’s advances get), the more clout that author may have regarding being able to keep his or her novel intact, without taking advantage of the editorial guidance being offered. And that is never a good thing for the book. Editors exist for a damned good reason, and no author is ever such a fabulous writer that a good editor can’t find things to make better in his or her manuscript.
There was a time about ten or so years ago when bigger word counts were the norm and not the exception. Like everything, the book industry goes through trends. But these days, editors of adult fiction – even editors of epic fantasy – squirm a little when presented with a manuscript that runs over 110k words. Books with a higher page count cost more to physically produce, resulting in a higher per-book manufacturing cost, meaning even more copies will need to be sold to make the estimated P&L work.
Do the math.
When you search around the Internet for information on word counts, you get a lot of conflicting information, some of it just plain wrong, and often this information is coming from sources that would appear reputable to a writer who didn’t know any better. One article I read last week that was posted online at a major writing magazine actually insists that the average novel (non-genre) is 150,000 words. I have no idea where the writer of the article got his or her information, but that’s simply untrue. An average novel length is between 80k and 100k, again, depending upon the genre.
Word counts for different kinds of novels vary, but there is are general rules of thumb for fiction that a writer can use when trying to figure out just how long is too long. For the purposes of this post, I’m only talking about YA, middle-grade and adult fiction here. And bear in mind that there are always exceptions, but good general rules of thumb would be as follows:
middle grade fiction = Anywhere from 25k to 40k, with the average at 35k
YA fiction = For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 120k but editors would prefer to see them stay below 100k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn’t be word count for the sake of word count.
paranormal romance = 85k to 100k
- romance = 85k to 100k
- category romance = 55k to 75k
- cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k
- horror = 80k to 100k
western = 80k to 100k (Keep in mind that almost no editors are buying Westerns these days.)
mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction = A newer category of light paranormal mysteries and hobby mysteries clock in at about 75k to 90k. Historical mysteries and noir can be a bit shorter, at 80k to 100k. Most other mystery/thriller/crime fiction falls right around the 90k to 100k mark.
mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = Depending upon the kind of fiction, this can vary: chick lit runs anywhere from 80k word to 100k words; literary fiction can run as high as 120k but lately there’s been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short as 65k. Anything under 50k is usually considered a novella, which isn’t something agents or editors ever want to see unless the editor has commissioned a short story collection. (Agent Kristin Nelson has a good post about writers querying about manuscripts that are too short.)
science fiction & fantasy = Here’s where most writers seem to have problems. Most editors I’ve spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, some editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary. I know at least one editor I know likes his fantasy big and fat and around 180k. But he doesn’t buy a lot at that size; it has to be astounding. (Read: Doesn’t need much editing.) And regardless of the size, an editor will expect the author to to be able to pare it down even further before publication. To make this all a little easier, I broke it down even further below:
—> hard sf = 90k to 110k
—> space opera = 90k to 120k
—> epic/high/traditional/historical fantasy = 90k to 120k
—> contemporary fantasy = 90k to 100k
—> romantic SF = 85k to 100k
—> urban fantasy = 90k to 100k
—> new weird = 85k to 110k
—> slipstream = 80k to 100k
—> comic fantasy = 80k to 100k
—> everything else = 90k to 100k
Editors will often make exceptions for sequels, by the way. Notice that the page count in both J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series gets progressively higher. But even authors who have been published for years and should know better will routinely turn in manuscripts that exceed the editor’s requested length by 30k to 50k words, which inevitably means more work for that author because editors don’t back down. If a contract calls for a book that is 100k words and you turn in one that is 130k, expect to go back and find a way to shave 30k words off that puppy before your manuscript is accepted.
Remember that part of the payout schedule of an author’s advance often dangles on that one important word: acceptance.
I cannot stress highly enough that there are always exceptions to every rule, especially in SF/F. Jacqueline Carey and Peter F. Hamilton, among others, have proven this quite successfully. If an agent finds a truly outstanding book that runs in the 200k range (yes, it happens!), he or she may advise your cutting the manuscript into two books to make life easier for everyone. But for a debut novelist who is trying to catch the eye of an agent or editor for the first time? Err on the side of caution with your word count.