Getting into your writing “flow” is the best feeling ever, right? You’re in the zone, knocking out scenes left and right, and blowing your own mind with all the fantastic pieces of dialogue and narrative you’re coming up with. You keep thinking to yourself, Wow, where did that come from? Who wrote this? Twenty pages, thirty pages, fifty pages- “I’m on fire today… Oh wow, I didn’t even see that one coming… That was profound, did I really come up with that?” When you’re hitting strides with your manuscript writing, the last thing you want to think about is your word count. You just want to go with the flow and see where the story takes you. It’ll end up being as long as it should be, right? Well, if you’re considering traditional publishing as an option, that’s not exactly true.
1) Why Does Word Count Matter?
The word count of your book makes a difference because your readers are going to have certain expectations of your book before they even pick it up off of the shelf. There are expectations surrounding your plot and characters based on your genre, of course, but the genre can also dictate readers’ expectations of your book-length. The length of a true crime book vs. a fantasy book on average can be very different. The last thing you want is for readers to pick your book up off the shelf and say “Wow, look at this giant!” or “Why is this so short?” because that has the potential of putting them off.
2) First-time author or seasoned author?
Regardless of how good a book is, publishers will most likely not take a chance on a book that significantly exceeds or falls beneath the suggested word count for a particular genre. A large part of why word count restrictions are placed on various genres has to do with both book sales and publishing costs. When a reader is walking around a book store and spots a book from an author they’ve never heard of before and sees that it’s either much bigger or much smaller than they expected, it’s less likely they’ll take a chance on the book to see if they like it.
Not only that but (particularly with longer books) printing costs are significantly increased if a book far exceeds the suggested word count. So, if you’re an author that’s never been traditionally published before, it’s less likely that a commercial publisher will choose to take a chance on you because it becomes more expensive for them to do so and therefore riskier. For both of these reasons, if you’re an author who is looking to be traditionally published for the first time, you’ll need to keep your book within the suggested word count.
3) Average book length
For most publishers, the average novel length falls somewhere between 50,000 words and 120,000 words. This can also be broken down further by genre and everyone has their own opinions on the specifics. Generally speaking, however, anything below 50,000 wouldn’t be considered a novel and anything over 120,000 is going to be too long for first-time publishers. There are obviously exceptions to the rules and epic novels can go anywhere from 120,000-200,000 words, but those are typically from seasoned authors who have already established a fan base. According to Outlining Your Book in 3 Easy Steps, the average novel today is about 90,000 words. It’s best to shoot for a word count somewhere around there generally speaking since, if you’re working with an editor, you’ll likely have to make some significant cuts.
4) Novel length by genre breakdown
Flash Fiction: 300-1500 words
Short Stories: 1,500-30,000 words
Novellas: 30,000-50,000 words
Novels: 50,000-110,000 words
Fiction Genre Breakdown
Science Fiction/Fantasy: 90,000-120,000 words
Historical Fiction: 80,000-100,000 words
Young Adult: 50,000-80,000 words
Thrillers/Horror/Mysteries/Crime: 70,000-90,000 words
Mainstream Romance: 70,000-100,000 words
Subgenre Romance: 40,000-100,000 words
Standard Nonfiction: 70,000-80,000 words
Biography: 80,000-200,000 words
Memoir: 80,000-100,000 words
Self-Help/How-To: 40,000-50,000 words
Picture Books: 300-800 words
Early Readers: 200-3,500 words
Chapter Books: 4,000-10,000 words
Middle Grade: 25,000-40,000 words
5) Edit, edit, edit
Once you know the word count expectations for your book, how you proceed will depend on where you are in the writing process. Having that information as you’re going into writing your book may help you plot and outline your book to naturally achieve the desired word count. If, however, you’re in the middle or toward the end of your writing process then you may need to go back and expand or cut down in some areas in order to fit within the guidelines. It’s better to aim toward the higher end of the word count within your genre since you’re editor (if they’re any good) will be making heavy cuts when they go into the editorial process. If you’re having trouble figuring out what to cut in your story to try to get it within the word count suggestions, that’s the perfect time to turn to your editor as well.
And, if you can’t seem to cut down or add more to the story without sacrificing the integrity of your work, self-publishing can be an amazing option. It allows more freedom in terms of word count so you can get into the zone and just write, knowing that at the end of it you won’t have to embellish or tear your book to the ribbons to meet a publisher’s requirements.