Word Counts and You: The Real Deal for Every Genre

We want to start this report by telling you to ignore everything you’re about to read. 

Well, that’s not really true. But you should take it with a grain of salt. 

In the bad old days, when traditional publishing was the only game in town, word counts were important. They impacted sales price, interacted with printing requirements, and had a meaningful effect on how a book performed. 

Knowledge of appropriate word counts was also a gatekeeping force agents and editors used to cull queries. If somebody pitching hadn’t researched their genre enough to have at least a basic idea of how long a book should be, the powers that be assumed they didn’t know enough to write a good book. 

Most of those factors are no longer true for ebook sales on Amazon:

  • It costs the exact same amount to sell a completed 100-word ebook as a completed epic of 1,000,000 words
  • Printing requirements aren’t a factor
  • You’re not dealing with an agent or submissions editor, so gatekeeping doesn’t apply
  • Genre lines blur more each year, with genre length assumptions blurring alongside them

That said, the fans who will buy your books have a few expectations, and you should work to keep them in mind. You can skew a bit from the standard range, if your story demands it, but start your book with the following in mind. 

Determining Novel Length

The traditional way of defining how long a book should be has evolved over the decades. At first, you had three basic categories:

  • A novel was anything 40,000 words or longer
  • A novella was fiction between 20,000 and 40,000 words
  • Anything shorter was a short story

Later on, as we got better at collating data, we found those definitions should be tempered by the norms and expectations of genre. For example, a nonfiction book could get away with 30,000 to 60,000 well-crafted, informative words. Picture books were counted by number of pages (always 32). A spy thriller could be 70,000 words long, and fantasy or sci-fi fans would buy books in the 150,000 word range. 

Amazon gave us even more powerful tools, though. By looking at the average word count for best-selling books in the Kindle store, we didn’t find out what book lengths the established conventional wisdom adhered to. We found out what word counts generated the most sales. Here they are, for the top 12 fiction genres as of 2020. 

Word Counts for Top Genres

Image by Gerd Altmann.