Let’s play Two Truths and a Lie. Which one of these following statements is the lie:
- A book should only be as long or short as it needs to be.
- One should keep writing, until it’s done.
- Length doesn’t matter as long as the story is good.
What’s the answer? All of them; and at the same time, none of them. One should keep writing until your book is done, and then go back and edit, edit, edit, edit. A book should only be as long or short as it needs to be, however if it’s too long or too short, it’s a red flag that there are problems. And no, length doesn’t matter as long as the story is exceptional, not just good, and exception is determined by market and how well established the author is in the publishing community. For the rest, there are industry standards pertaining to book length. And the one truth you can count on is that word count matters.
I know; it’s infuriating. You’re an artist. You create. You want agents to at least read your book, see its brilliance, and then it’ll be obvious how word count doesn’t apply to you. As creative beings, we relish our freedom and are repulsed by anything which seeks to limit us.
As an industry professional, I’m here to tell you that we too, love your creativity. We love your art. We love your work so much, we want you to be able to live off it. To buy groceries with it. To pay your bills with the money you’ve earned from selling it. We want you to have your best chance out there on the market because we believe in you and we believe in your work.
Why do agents and editors care about word count so much? What is the big deal about whether or not your book is too long or too short?
From a crafting perspective, too short of word count is indicative that a book may lack proper development. While this may seem like a pre-judgment, and the initial knee-jerk reaction may be to want someone to read your work and decide based on its merit, industry professionals who have waded through those slush piles, reading submission after submission of great pitches with low word counts just to find that low word count almost always results in great ideas that weren’t properly executed. Common problems are lack of well-developed secondary characters, lack of sub-plots that help maintain character motivation throughout the book, lack of appropriately developed conflict arcs, and rushing story development to hit major plot points but not to develop all the transitional moments in between.
Also, too long of books can be indicative that an author doesn’t know how to self-edit. Common problems are the presence of too many sub-plots that lose the focus of the story, narrative thought vomit, overly detailed descriptions for non-pertinent plot devices or characters, and (in the case of literary works) an author who is a little too in love with their own prose. It’s really important to make sure you are thinking about your manuscript critically and to not be afraid of making changes, because changes are going to happen. Several rounds of them, in fact.
Aside from craft, there’s also the business side to consider. In traditional publishing, the publishing house is investing in your work. That means they are taking ALL the risk in the event your book doesn’t sell well. They pay for the editors, the cover artists, the production costs, the marketing, not to mention your advance; an advance that you get to keep, even if your book doesn’t sell a single copy. That’s a lot at stake for a publishing house.
That’s why there’s so much research done on book sales and on what readers roughly expect when buying a book and on what market predictions look like for future trends based on what readers ask for in stores and libraries as well as a million other things publishing houses will research to help them get the best return on their investment.
So, what are the rules? How long should a book be? What’s a good sweet spot? Well, generally speaking for adult fiction:
Below 70,000 too low, (except certain types of genre fiction)
70,000 – 80,000 decent
80,000 -100,000 good
100,000 -120,000 a bit long, but still okay depending on genre
120,000 + too long
YA has, over the years, actually gotten longer to where it now competes pretty well with the adult market. While YA books are still written for teen readers (as they should be), they can still safely fall anywhere from 55,000 – 100,000 words, depending on sub-genre.
MG and children’s picture books are going to vary depending on target reader age range.
These are very general guidelines and word counts will still vary depending on the genre of fiction you write. For instance, thrillers, mysteries, and suspense will probably fall a little shorter due to their fast-paced, page-turning nature, while science fiction, fantasies, historical, and literary works will run higher due to world building, language, and prose.
“But what about….
- JK Rowling
- George RR Martin
- All these classics that are like a million words long that were published before the 1950s?”
Ah, yes. The exceptions. Remember what I said earlier about how publishing houses are the ones taking all the risk? Classic literature will always have a market of buyers. There is no risk in reprints of classical literature. They’ve already proven their market base as consistent.
And while JK Rowling most certainly had some pretty thick books come out, her first book clocked in to around 76,000 words and the length of her books grew as their popularity grew. George RR Martin’s books may have started out at epic lengths, but also keep in mind that George RR Martin also had several books published with Simon and Schuster and S&S imprints before selling Game of Thrones to Bantam. And guess what? His first published novel, Dying of the Light—much smaller book.
Chances are you’ve spent a lot of time on your manuscript and want it to be successful. You want to see it on shelves at bookstores and libraries, available on amazon, reaching new heights with five star reviews, and affecting readers everywhere. The best way to achieve that dream is by knowing the industry well enough to get your foot through that industry door. Don’t give the agent or editor reading your query an easy reason to pass due to astronomical or too miniscule word length. After all, you have to know the rules in order to break the rules.