Some Words About Word Counts
The long and short of long of long and short books
For most of the morning, Twitter has been fighting about one of the seemingly dullest things: book word counts. An editor at a commercial-minded independent press tweeted that it broke their heart to see brilliant manuscripts in the 50k to 70k range because adult fiction books had to be 80k-120k and this—in the way of The Discourse—produced some informative tweets but also spiraled quickly into people angrily tweeting about their pet issues. It was proof that self-publishing is the only way to go, or proof that editors are crushing art, or proof that novels suck these days because authors needlessly pad out word count, etc.
Anyway, I don’t want to reproduce the initial tweets here because the whole discourse entered pile-on territory. I regret my own tweets already. But this topic does hit the twin points of this newsletter—fiction craft and publishing demystification—so it feels like a good topic for a (hopefully measured) take.
The topic is a tricky one.
On the one hand, authors are artists and should worry first and foremost about creating the best art they can, in whatever shape it needs to take. On the other hand, I do think it’s important to understand the business side of the equation. To learn as much as you can about (ugh) “the market” and where your work can fit. If you only want to write for yourself, obviously do whatever you want. But if you are hoping to sell your book to publishers and have it appear in bookstores, knowing the market is useful. Personally, I think MFA programs should all include panels or classes on the business side of being a writer from querying agents to filing freelance tax returns.
But! It can be artistically crushing to worry about following every publishing imperative you’ve ever heard, including the idea there is a “right” word count. If your novel is a taut 70k, adding 10k of fluff to hit the “required” 80k length you read about online you’re likely to make the book worse and thus harder to sell.
Art is not math. Many good books break at least a few of the “rules.” Almost every great book does. So being a writer is always an extremely tricky balancing act between honoring the art and navigating the business side of the equation.
To get to the point: what are typical word counts for adult fiction? Let’s qualify that we’re talking only about traditional publishing, and emerging or midlist authors. Frankly, if you are successful enough you can convince publishers to do whatever you want whether long or short. Don DeLillo’s recent “novel” The Silence was only ~15k, hardly even a novella and a fraction of word count of George R. R. Martin’s last ASOIAF entry A Dance With Dragons that was around 420k(!!!). There are plenty of other examples that could be listed here. Toni Morrison just had a single short story published posthumously as a sub-100 page hardcover book. But if you’re neither a Nobel-prize winning literary author or a bestselling SFF author with a popular TV adaptation, it’s going to be extremely hard to sell a book under 20k or over 400k. So what do you shoot for?
The first part of the answer is that it really does depend on genre and type of book. The expectations for poetry, self-help books, and so on are different. I’m sticking to novels here. Let’s start with literary fiction. It’s quite common for literary fiction titles to be in the 50 to 80k range these days. And I’ve read more than a few debut literary fiction novels on Big 5 presses that were in the 25k-50k range. Similarly, literary fiction books—including debuts—are often well over 120k. Literary fiction tends to have a wide range.
In literary fiction, short novels in the 25 to 60k range tend to be typeset with margins and spacing that make the books still feel hefty. Readers really do seem to expect fiction books will be at a minimum of say 200 pages. If it’s less than 200 pages, they feel they aren’t getting their money’s worth. We can decry this, but it seems to be the reality of the market.
If you’re thinking “Hey, Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby and many old books were really short!” the reality is that reader expectations can change. It’s not like many novels are serialized in magazines these days, even though that might have been common in Dickens’s time. In more recent history, commercial fiction books apparently got much longer in the 80s and 90s. And we might be moving in the opposite direction now, since we are in a digital age in which many people buy books online before seeing how thick or thin they are. Anyway, I explored a bit more of the history of book lengths here:
Okay, so that’s literary fiction. To be a bit more specific I think in literary fiction you are likely fine as long as your novel is over 60k words. Below that—or well above 100k—is quite possible to sell, but know the road might be trickier. For example, agents might simply tell you that you need to add 20k words to your 30k manuscript before they’ll even bother to read it.
In SFF, I think 80k to 120k actually does feel like the normal range for a novel. It’s not a hard and fast rule by any means, but the average range is a bit thicker in SFF. However! The SFF world does have a rather robust novella market that literary fiction lacks. Tor, for example, publishes lots of great novellas. The advances are typically lower though because, again, readers for whatever reason are less likely to buy novellas.
Other genres will have other ranges. Mystery novels are typically on the shorter side, epic fantasy typically on the longer side. Etc. Basically, you need to know your market. Go to bookstores and look at what books are selling in your genre or style. How long are they? I wouldn’t worry about strict word count ranges. There’s no strict rule. If the average book is 80k-100k in your genre and your book is 70k or 130k you probably won’t have much trouble (related to the word count at least). However, if you’re book is dramatically outside the usual range then selling it may be trickier.
And yet then again remember fiction is not a formula. Exceptions to the rule happen all the time. Here’s a fantastic editor at an excellent Big 5 press that publishes both award contenders and bestsellers:
And it should perhaps be said that independent presses tend to be more open to very short books than the big 5 imprints, since they are often non-profits who are funded by grants and can worry a little less about market demands. The market too is always in flux. What I said about reading lots of short literary fiction debuts is true, but it is really only true in recent years. Two decades ago, many of those very short novels would likely have been packaged with short stories in a novella + stories collection. Those used to be very common. It’s less common these days.
Ultimately, understand the market but don’t let it dictate you. And the better your book is, the less any of these rules of thumb matter. So just focus on making your book a singular work of genius that defies all expectations while at the same time honoring tried and true narrative techniques to engage both casual and serious readers and win you endless acclaim and sales (and don’t forget Hollywood adaptation potential). Then you’ll be free to do whatever you want.
Easy, right? Well, no, but then this is the life we’ve chosen….
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