The first rule of book length is to stop thinking about it in terms of pages. Every professional in the field considers a book’s length by its word count. The only exception to this is children's picture books (more on that in a bit).
If you are writing for traditional publication, agents and editors will want the word count in the first paragraph of your query. They will compare that count to the conventions of your genre, and make some decisions based on that.
If you are self-publishing, you have a little more flexibility. That said, genre fans expect books within a certain range, usually very close to what you’ll find in traditional books from that genre. It’s good to keep those guidelines in mind as you write.
So today, let’s talk about those guidelines and why they matter.
Why You Should Give a Hoot About Word Counts
Again, this depends on your writing goals.
For traditional publication, word counts are a red flag for the gatekeepers of the industry. Imagine for a moment that you’re a literary agent who receives a query for a science fiction novel. You know from experience that 100,000 words is about average for successful books in that genre. If that query weighs in at 20,000 words, or 250,000 words, you know right away that the author isn’t familiar with the conventions of the genre, or isn’t disciplined enough to work within them. It’s not an automatic dealbreaker, but does help make some decisions.
For self-publishing, it’s all about the reviews and your career. A science fiction reader expects books of a certain length. If you sell them a book that’s much shorter than that, they may feel ripped off. That feeling can generate the kind of momentum-killing reviews that can potentially tank a book.
On the other extreme, two books are better than one when you are self-publishing. They generate both more income and more momentum, and offer opportunities for promotion a single book lacks. If you have 200,000 words, you can turn it into two books instead of one…or expand it by 50,000 and make it a trilogy.
In all cases, word count matters. It matters more than most writers want it to, and arguably more than it should. But it matters, and we should all pay attention.
But Don’t Panic
When writing your initial draft, don’t think about word count at all. Just write what you have in you, or what’s on your outline, until you have the initial words on the page. Worrying about word count at this stage is a recipe for writer’s block.
Once you move on to your first set of revisions, take a look at the word count and compare it to the standards for the kind of book you’re writing. You can usually vary by 10 or 20 percent and be just fine, but if you find yourself over or under that range, you might want to make some adjustments.
How Long Should My Book Be?
Word count expectation vary widely by genre, so look up what you’re writing on this list:
- Literary fiction: 80,000 to 100,000
- Commercial and upmarket fiction: 70,000-90,000
- Science fiction: 90,000-110,000
- Fantasy: 90,000-120,000. You will find some much longer books, but those are for previously established authors. Debuts should stay within the regular range.
- Mystery: 80,000-90,000
- Crime: 80,000-100,000
- Thriller: 90,000-100,000
- Historical fiction: 90,000-100,000
- Mainstream romance: 70,000-90,000
- Category romance: 45,000-60,000
- New adult: 60,000-80,000
- Young adult: 60,000-80,000. As with fantasy, you will see books by established authors that push this, but stick within the lines for your first works.
- Middle grade: 40,000-60,000
- Chapter books: 8,000-12,000
- Memoir: 70,000-90,000
- Self help: 50,000-70,000
- Prescriptive nonfiction: 70,000-90,000
All that being said, attention spans are shorter than they've ever been, and as long as you are meeting genre expectations you can get away with lower word counts if that is what makes sense for your style of story telling. This is especially true if you are self-publishing your book; the traditional publishing model is more about selling paper than selling stories and strict adherence to traditional word counts is more important for them.
Children’s Picture Books
Children's picture books are usually going to be in the 300-500 words range, but depending on the demographic you are writing for that can easily go as low as 100 words or up to around 900 words.
As I mentioned earlier, though, children’s picture books are an exception to the word count rule and instead work by page count, with surprisingly narrow requirements. This is a holdover from the physical process of how those books were printed back in the mid-20th-century, but most publishers stick to them.
- Picture books are 24 or 32 pages, with some double volumes at 64 pages
- Board books are 16 to 24 pages
If you are self-publishing, you can largely ignore these requirements and instead just make a book at least as long as the above expectations. Just check with who you hire to print them, as they might either only print within a certain range or charge a premium for too much variation.
If Your Book is Too Long
Too many words in a book is easier to fix than having too few, for the simple reason that most authors don’t write lean enough. If you’re in this position, consider some of the following fixes:
- Attack each page and pull 10% out of the word count by tightening up your sentences
- Look for redundant words, phrases, and actions. Pull out the weakest ones.
- Remove a scene, subplot, or even a whole character that’s not vital to the main story.
- Check your beginning and see if you can enter the story further into your book.
- Check your ending and see if you can end the book earlier in the story.
- Read transitions between major scenes. See if you can tighten them, or remove them entirely.
- Ask yourself what each scene accomplishes. Ideally each will do at least two jobs. For those that do only one, figure out how to make a different scene accomplish that task and delete the uni-tasker.
- Look at any tangents, flashbacks, and backstory you’ve included. Excise any that aren’t necessary to the core story and characterization.
- Do a search for words that pad writing like almost, even, often, than, and most adverbs. In many cases you can just delete them without harming the sentence they’re in.
- Check for redundant phrases like “very unique”, “regular routine”, or “unexpected surprise.” They are common in spoken and written english, but you can get by with one word in each case.
If you’re close to double the word count, you can always turn the manuscript into two books. That said, first see how much you can condense it. Two padded, saggy books are never better than one tight page-turner.
If Your Book is Too Short
The real challenge with a short book isn’t adding words: it’s adding words that don’t turn the thing into a sagging, kludgy mess. In this age of Netflix, apps, and 60-hour work weeks, you can’t get away with just padding your novel up to expected word counts.
Those words need to count. To make them count, consider some of the following techniques and considerations:
- Give your protagonist a vibrant character development arc as well as action within the story
- Describe the major and supporting characters well enough that they feel like people on the page
- Add another round or two of trying and failing before your protagonist reaches their goals
- Look for opportunities to let your protagonist rest for a moment, so long as that rest period includes strong character development
- Check that each scene, especially dialogue, happens in a well-described place. If it could happen anywhere if taken out of the story’s context, add details to anchor it.
- Round out transitions to give the main scenes more flow and setting
- Consider adding a location, character, or subplot that adds depth and complexity
- For nonfiction, provide additional examples for your key points
If you’re having a lot of trouble reaching that page count, you can also change the label (and pricing) of your work. There’s nothing wrong with setting out to write a novel, but producing a novella, or a non fiction book that becomes an essay or cheat sheet. Be realistic about what your idea can reasonably become, and give yourself permission to make that choice.
Write the book you need to write. One you’ve done it, fine-tune toward word count as best you can. If the numbers don’t exactly match, you can always change how the words are packaged.
Bottom line: think about word count, but don’t worry about it.