As a new author, breaking into publishing can be challenging. There are so many rules to learn and tips to follow. Meanwhile, you just want to tell your story, help others, express yourself, and achieve your dream. One industry standard to consider is the length of a book. How long should a book be, anyway? Let's look at why word count matters, standard word count by genre, and exceptions to the rule.
As an aspiring author, you might be tired of hearing about all the rules in publishing. But word count ranges are not arbitrary numbers established only to trample your creativity. They are guidelines that exist for some important reasons. Here's why word count matters:
Agent and publisher expectations: Agents are less likely to take a risk on a first time author whose book is too long or short. If you want to find an agent and publisher, stick to the word count standards.
Publishing costs: Long books cost more to produce—and more for the customer to purchase. Whether you are publishing traditionally or independently, you may price yourself out of the market with a lengthy tome.
Bookshelf appeal: Books that are too long or short can look out of place on a bookstore shelf. Readers may overlook a book with a skinny spine, and may shy away from one that is extremely thick, especially if they're not familiar with the author.
Reader expectations: Readers invest their time and money in books, and they have expectations when they crack open a cover. They expect books to be a certain length, depending on the genre. Readers also expect the story to hold their attention throughout the entire book. That means that superfluous scenes, details, and descriptions have been cut. If a book goes far beyond the standard word count, there had better be a good reason for those extra words. Likewise, if a story is short, it should have the same weight as a full-length novel.
But writing is your art. Why conform? Literary agent Rachelle Gardner explains why word count matters by comparing book length to the length of other media. "Popular music consists of songs of a certain length. Popular movies fall within a certain range of lengths. TV shows have even stricter length guidelines, down to the second." She continues, "The simple fact is, if you want to be part of a massive and well-established commercial system, you’ll create your art so that it fits into that system."
Most publishers and agents call anything over 40,000 words a novel, as opposed to a novella or short story. However, that doesn't mean that you should shoot for only 40,000 words. An ideal word count for a full-length, adult novel is 80,000-90,000 words. However, the standard word count range changes depending on the genre of the book. Here are some of the standard ranges:
Literary and Commercial Fiction: 80,000-110,000 words
Romance: 80,000-100,000 words
Category Romance: 40,000-75,000 words
Mystery and Thriller: 70,000-110,000 words
Sci-Fi and Fantasy: 90,000-125,000 words
Historical Fiction: 80,000-120,000 words
Standard Nonfiction: 50,000-80,000 words
Self-help/How-to: 40,000-50,000 words
Memoir: 80,000-100,000 words
Young Adult: 45,000-80,000 words
Middle Grade: 20,000-50,000 words
Chapter Books: 4,000-10,000 words
Early Reader: 200-3,500 words
Picture Books: 400-700 words
There are, of course, exceptions to word count guidelines. It's easy to find bestselling books that are longer or shorter than the standard ranges, including A Game of Thrones (around 294,000 words), The Pillars of the Earth (about 400,000 words), The Great Gatsby (around 47,000 words), and Slaughterhouse-Five (about 49,500 words).
It's often the case that outliers are by authors who are already successful. That's because there's a loophole to the word count standards—once you have established yourself as a successful writer, your publisher is more willing to overlook a nonstandard word count. For example, the later books in the Harry Potter series are quite long, but the first three books in the series are not.
When considering word count standards, there's one important thing to remember: it's your choice, it's your book, and no one can stop you from writing it the way you want. Just understand that as a new author, you might have a harder time getting the initial attention of agents, publishers, and readers with a nonstandard book.
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