If you want to get published, you need to be aware that major New York publishers are looking for a specific word count, depending on your genre. Your fantasy novel word count needs to be different than your YA Fiction book, which has a different word count from other books.
How many words are in a novel? Or at least one in which publishers might be interested? In this post, we're going to explain word count and how it affects your chances of publishing success.
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How long is the average book? How long should your book be? And should you even care about word counts? Let's break it down.
Why Word Count Matters
You might question whether or not word count matters.
Whether you are self-publishing or traditional publishing, the amount of words in a book varies for different genres, and it's important for you to meet word count guidelines in order to satisfy reader and publisher expectations.
Although best-selling writers can get away with longer books, most writers, especially those writing and publishing a first book, need to stick to the standard book length for their genre.
Sure, there are exceptions: epic fantasy novels, for instance, can get really long. But even those stories have an average word count that shouldn't be overlooked.
Long books aren't bad books, and novellas or short stories don't make for less impressive stories. But too little or too many words can throw a reader.
Best of all, the constraint of a word count requirement might actually improve your story. While every writer has trouble killing their darlings, trimming down a long first draft might be just what the editor ordered.
Why You Should Write to Word Count
Right now I'm obsessed with a novel/web serial called Worm. It's by an author who goes by the pen name Wildbow. The novel is 1.75 million words long, the equivalent of about 7,000 pages, give or take. When I first opened it on my Kindle, it said it would take 110 hours to read.
This novel is too long to publish, at least by a traditional New York publisher.
I'm telling you this because I want you to know publishers are particular and risk averse. They want books to look a certain way, be a certain length, fit a certain market.
Does that mean you shouldn't write your million-word epic of a novel? No, you absolutely should. But only if you're open to not getting published traditionally.
Sure, there are caveats.
Sometimes, publishers are so taken with a book that they're willing to take a risk on a book that's too long or too short. Fantasy and Sci Fi stories are the most likely to fall into this exception list, and there are plenty above the word count that have gone on to become bestsellers.
However, with the way the market is going right now, the number of risks traditional publishers are willing to take is shrinking more and more.
Second, there's a reason publishers look for books of these lengths. Publishers think books of this length sell the best.
They may be wrong or shortsighted, but they've been doing this a long time, and it's at least a good idea to keep them in mind.
Books of certain lengths have proven to engage readers, and thanks to self-published authors selling on Amazon, so have books outside those lengths.
Why You Should Count Words, Not Pages
Most people think in terms of pages, not words. So why does the publishing industry speak in word counts?
Because page length can vary widely. If the font is a bit smaller or the margins are a bit wider or the page size is a bit larger, it will result in a completely different page count.
If the publishing industry spoke about page numbers, the number would constantly change depending on the stage the book was in. Word count, on the other hand, stays pretty much the same.
How Long is the Average Book?
Books can be as short as 25,000 words, around 100 pages, or as long as 3 million words, or about 1,000 pages. Nonfiction books tend to be shorter, around 45,000 words on average, and novels tend to be longer, around 80,000 words on average.
However, book length varies widely between genres, among authors, and based on the content of the book. There is no standardized rule—although traditional publishers and literary agents are likely to favor a book that is within the average word count for its genre.
As a general rule of thumb, the sweet spot for a novel is 90,000 words.
But what's the average word count for each type of story?
Let's break it down by genre.
Novel Length Guidelines
A novel is usually defined as anything over 40,000 words. There's technically no max length to a novel. Although if it's over 110,000 words, some may call it an epic, not a novel.
Famous novels have been extremely long, like 530,000 words for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables or 420,000 words for George R.R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons.
Novels can also be extremely short, like Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, which is just 26,000 words.
The number of words in a typical novel (i.e. publishable novel) varies depending on the genre.
It also might change based on when it was published. Consider the length of a contemporary book compared to a title by Charles Dickinson, who was paid per word and therefore far more motivated to write longer stories.
General Fiction/Literary Fiction Word Count
Ideal word count: 90,000 words
Most traditionally published novels for adults are about 90,000 words. They can go as high as 110,000 words. However, longer than that is too long for most publishers, especially if you're a first time author. 70,000 words or less are usually too short for the average publisher.
You might also consider the category of the book, or the age group typically reading it. Middle grade books, for instance, will fall shorter than adult fiction, probably around 60,000 words.
40,000 words is considered a novella.
And short stories can run anywhere from 1,500 words to 7,000.
Children's books and picture books will have the lowest word count of all (note: most picture books as a category still have words, but pictures dominate the page).
Again, this doesn't necessarily apply if you've already published a bestseller. Publishing Houses, at that point, may be far less concerned with specific word counts than they are about the ideas and storyline.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel Word Count
Ideal word count: 100,000 to 110,000 words
Sci-fi/Fantasy usually run longer than general fiction. Why? Here are three (unconfirmed) theories:
- Perhaps sci-fi/fantasy readers are more inclined to bear with a longer story
- There's a chance that the amount of world building required in a good fantasy novel demands a longer book
- Or maybe these novels tend to be part of a series, readers are more bought in and are looking for a longer continuation of the story
Science fiction and fantasy novels typically have a word count between 90,000 to 125,000 words. The sweet spot, according to Donald Maas, is 100,000 to 115,000 words.
This goes for debut novels and seasoned writers.
YA Fantasy novels, too.
Consider how J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which is drastically shorter than the later books in the series starting after The Goblet of Fire.
Part of the reason for this is that Harry Potter actually jumps from middle grade to young adult in the series, and they're also longer because Rowling was selling millions of books by the end of the series.
Rowling had proven that readers were going to read her stories regardless of their length. I'll give an exact word count difference in her books later in this post.
Mystery Novel Word Count
Ideal word count: 80,000 words
I found some disagreement about the ideal length of mystery novels.
Traditionally, mystery novels have tended to be on the shorter side. Agatha Christie, the best-selling mystery writer of all time, wrote novels that averaged about 40,000 to 60,000 words.
However, most agents and writers say your mystery novel should be the same word count as general fiction, 80,000 to 90,000 words. If in doubt, shoot for 80,000 words.
Young Adult Novel Word Count
Ideal word count: 65,000 words
Young adult novels have a wide variation in lengths.
I mentioned J.K. Rowling earlier in this post. She started with shorter novels—The Sorcerer's Stone was 76,000 words—perhaps because her editors were restricting.
As she gained their trust, her novels ballooned. The longest is The Order of the Phoenix with a word count of 257,000 words.
Outside YA Fantasy, however, it's unlikely that YA Fiction will run to such a length. For examples look to the YA Fiction leaders in the publishing world like John Green, Angie Thomas, Adam Silvera, and Becky Albertalli.
If you've read any of these authors books, you know that the length of a book does not determine a book's quality. Most of their books fall within the average YA Fiction word count length, and they're glorious.
(For YA Fantasy fans, look to Suzanne Collins, Cassandra Claire, Sabba Tahir, and Maggie Steifvater, among others.)
Overall, most young adult novels fall between 55,000 and 70,000 words.
Longer books don't mean higher quality stories.
Memoir Word Count
Ideal word count: 80,000 words
Like a general fiction novel, a good target word count for a memoir is 80,000 words. 70,000 words is probably too short and 100,000 words or more is too long.
Does Word Count Really Matter in Novels?
Well, as publishers matter less and less, in some respects, word counts matter less and less. Today, successful authors are publishing 30 or 50 or 80,000 word novels as part of huge serials spanning a dozen or more books.
Others, like Wildbow, whom I mentioned earlier, are writing epic books of a million words or more that take months to read.
Publishers are sticking with their word count lengths, but in the Wild West that is the publishing marketplace right now, the idea word count is largely up for grabs.
I hope this helps you be more informed about word count in the publishing industry, but the rule is:
First, write a great story. Worry about your word count on the second draft.
What about you? Do you think about the word count as you write? Let me know in the comments.
Choose three novels you enjoy and count the words. Here's how: first, count how many words are on an average page (you can count the average words in a line, then multiply by the number of lines), then multiply that number by the number of pages. This will give you a rough estimate of the word count.
What do you think? Do these word counts surprise you? Post your word count results in the comments below and discuss your findings with a few other writers.
Alternate practice: Set the timer for 15 minutes and write a scene where a character discovers they have grossly miscalculated how much of something they need. Did they order 100 pounds of bananas on a grocery shopping app? Did they need 500 meters of rope and only had 50? What will they do?
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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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