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.
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.
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 risk a book that’s too long or too short. However, with the way the market is going right now, the number of risks they’re willing to take is shrinking more and more.
Second, there’s a reason publishers look for books of these lengths. The reason is that 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.
Why Count Words Not Pages?
Most people think in terms of pages, not words. 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 Many Words In a Novel
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 latest, 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.
General Fiction/Literary Fiction Word Count
Ideal word count: 80,000 words
Most traditionally published novels for adults are about 80,000 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.
Again, this doesn’t necessarily apply if you’ve already published a bestseller. Publishers, at that point, will let you do almost whatever you want.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Word Count
Ideal word count: 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.
- Perhaps because of the amount of world building required in a good fantasy novel.
- Or perhaps because 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.
Mystery 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 bestselling 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. We’ll do more research on this, but if in doubt, shoot for 80,000 words.
Young Adult Word Count
Ideal word count: 60,000 words
Young adult novels have a wide variation in lengths. J.K. Rowling, for example, 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.
Most young adult novels fall between 55,000 and 70,000 words.
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.
Do Word Counts Really Matter?
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, who I mentioned earlier, are writing epic million or more word long books 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 section so we can learn from your research!