Book Length

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Recently I ordered the bundled ebook of A Game of Thrones. It weighed in at 3936 pages! I’m just thankful I don’t have to lift the book in order to read it. We all hear about mega books and mini books. One of my favorite novels of all time is Helen Hooven Santmyer’s And Ladies of the Club. It has 1176 pages. And of course, who can forget the raised eyebrows when a 350 page debut YA novel was released by an unknown J.K. Rowling? Or even when a blockbuster nonfiction book, The Prayer of Jabez, took the world by storm despite it’s petite postcard size at just 96 pages long.dreamstime_xs_12783150

Looking at those bestsellers it makes sense to conclude that book length hardly matters, right? It’s what’s inside that counts. I recently heard a writer ask a panel of experts a question about book length. One of the panelists smiled and said, “Your book should be as long as it takes to cover your subject or tell the story. Not a word more or a word less.”

That makes for an clever little answer but it’s wrong. Utterly and completely wrong if you are writing for publication.

Each genre, each kind of book has an expected size. We expect a children’s picture book to be 32 pages long. If I pick up an historical novel, I expect it to be around 400 to 500 pages long. A skinny historical novel just doesn’t promise the read we’re anticipating. And a hundred-page picture book would overwhelm the average child.

So how long should a book be? There’s a simple answer to this: Look on the shelves of your library or bookstore. Take a stack of books in your genre and record the page length of each one. You’ll get a feel for the average size book in your own particular category or genre.

Here are a few more things to know:

  • A quick rule of thumb for estimating printed pages from manuscript word count is that a printed page is usually about 250 words. So a 50,000 word manuscript would net about 200 pages.
  • When you sign a contract with a publisher the target word count is usually specified along with the variation allowed. For instance your contract might say 80,000 words plus or minus 15%.
  • There is a direct correlation between number of pages and the list price of a book. This is the reason publishers are careful about word count. If you are a debut author would you want your unknown book to be $14.99 when all the other books on the shelf from well-known authors are $12.99? Readers are notoriously price conscious.
  • It’s easy to make a case for your book being longer than most in your field and you can certainly point to some of the examples I used in the first paragraph but, trust me, a book outside the normal parameters will have one strike against it when you submit it to a potential agent, a second strike against it when being considered at a publishing house and the third strike at the cash register. Is it worth it to keep trying to peddle that 135,000 word novel?
  • As you continue to write in your category or in your genre you’ll come to sense the rhythm and movement of your book and the word count will almost come naturally.
  • Sometimes a certain subject will necessitate a shorter length. For instance books on grief tend to be shorter because a person walking through loss finds it difficult to concentrate for long periods. Books on caregiving are short because there’s precious little time left in a day for a full time caregiver. But you’ll observe these unique trends by doing your shelf research. Always point out the reason in your proposal– it will show a real grasp of your readers’ needs.

I could create a rough list of expected word counts for you but I’m not going to do it because it is important for you to do the work of analyzing the books in your field, in your category or in your genre. Until you begin to understand what the reader has come to expect, it’s very difficult for you to create a commercially viable book.

And here’s an insider secret: We professionals can judge if you’ve done your homework and know your market by your word count. When someone comes to us with woman’s fiction at 60,000 words. . . well, we know they have a steep learning curve ahead of them.

So now it’s your turn. Does it bother you to hear the words “commercially viable?” Does it stifle creativity to have to conform to a word count expectation? Should you worry about word count on your first draft? If your book is too long, how do you cut? How about paragraph lengths.

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  1. So interesting. I’ve been writing and re-writing a YA novel for the past 10 years and word count expectations has changed drastically since I started. When I first started they wanted something between 30,000 and 60,000 words the shorter the better. Now expectations vary. I had two different editors request my manuscript. One house wanted YA between 35,000 and 65,000 words and one liked big bulky books 90,000 words for YA. Big is great they told me. When I pick up a YA novel to read the first thing I do is read the first line and then I flip to the end and look at the word count. I’ve noticed that YA for girls seems to be shorter. The Gallagher Girls series started with just an 180 page novel, but the Percy Jackson books started with a 375 page tome. Fantasy YA can be huge, even for middlegraders (Brandon Mull)but then you will run across volumes that conform to the word counts of ten years ago as well. It seems very much divided up into subgenre in YA. Anyway, yeah I’m reading and paying attention…but my genre seems to have trouble making up its mind.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I think you may be right Kristen. YA book length varies greatly between genre. If you are writing dystopian YA it will be different from sweet romance. Fantasy may require one of those big books. Yep, sub genre length will vary greatly.

  2. Kate says:

    I am so grateful for this post! I was just reading about word count and was wondering how many words a page generally contains. I also was hoping for a word count expectation by genre but I now totally agree that I need to do my homework and get reading in my genre! Thank you so much for your help and encouragement.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You are welcome, Kate. As you do your “homework” you will learn so much more about the books that will share a readership with yours. It’s such an important part of research.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    Wendy, I appreciate your post. And I gasped out loud at the thought of hefting a 4,000 page book! I shudder to think what shipping cost. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I actually like to know the parameters to work within. I’m an in-the-boundaries sort of gal. I also like to know ahead of time if I need to make changes to make my story more viableโ€”word count wise or content-wise.

    On my first drafts, I don’t worry about word count. My goal is to get the story on the pageโ€”in all its ugliness. ๐Ÿ™‚ When I go back to revise, I can cut words, and even scenes that don’t work with the overall story. If I know the goal (word count) I’m aiming for, I can usually hit it.

    Thanks for sharing these insights, Wendy!

    • You’re the in-the-boundaries sort of gal. I am to, when I’m dealing with anything that doesn’t stop and end with moi.
      But…outside the walls of what I ‘should’ do? Walls like family, work, and all that…a whole lot of “Wooo hooo! Look at me! I’m wearing polka dots on stripe day! Nyah nyah, come and get me!!”

      Surprised, arntcha?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Jeanne, you are already ahead of the game if you have boundaries set at the beginning. And by not worrying about them during the first draft you’ll get the story down first and then work on those parameters in the rewrites. Perfect.

  4. Jill Kemerer says:

    Book length guides actually force me to write better. I like having a frame to fit in, but that’s just me!

    BTW: I started reading the Game of Thrones series this winter. I could not put the first two books down!! Just warning you!

  5. Jaime Wright says:

    What did I learn from this post? That I must check out “Game of Thrones” asap. Outside of that, I’m with Jill. I love guidelines. AND the challenge to meet the preferred word count. I’ve found it helps me to be succinct with my words, clear with my voice, and there’s often a lot of “repetition” (see “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” ๐Ÿ™‚ ) that can be consolidated when cutting down on word count. I love learning this craft. It’s utterly intoxicating!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Great advice, Jaime– Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It’s a must-read, isn’t it?

      • Iola says:

        Self-Editing for Fiction Writers should be a must-read. I’ve just finished a book with thoughts in quote marks and tagged “she thought to herself”. Who else would she think to?

        On word count, I’m not always convinced that historical novels take more words. Certainly the current trend of Western Historical Romances don’t need to be longer than standard length.

        I’ve also seen a couple of contemporary romantic suspense coming in at 400+ pages. In my reader opinion, many of those extra pages were unnecessary as they did little more than drag out the plot.

    • Loved that book.

  6. “I will not allow my ART, my soul, the words of my veins to be SOLD…”

    Annnnd, yeah. Get a grip, this isn’t PBS and I’m not living in a hovel in 18th century London, trying to become the King’s scribe.
    I am trying to SELL a book, to market my work, not have it dipped in gold. Although, that would be kinda cool.

    Knowing the market and flicking it in the nose and pronouncing oneself above it is just plain foolish. So is being clueless.
    There’s a line in a kid’s movie “The Rescuers Down Under” that still makes me laugh. George C. Scott, yes, him, voices the bad guy and at one point says “I didn’t get all the way through grade three for nuthin’!”

    I say that to myself whenever I debate putting in the extra work, or staying up late, again, to work longer. It is my job to know everything from ideal debut novel word counts, to which days I should blog.
    I have embraced and accepted that I, the once shy girl in the corner, want my name to be synonymous with nail biting, heart wrenching, tear jerking historical romance. So, I have to do my best to produce that product in the exact number of words my agent and publishers ask.
    I am hungry to learn as much as I can, because I do know that right now, I am still a newb.

    For now.

    ๐Ÿ™‚

    Soooo, you don’t want that 173,000 word romance written entirely in Pig Latin, eh?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Good words, Jennifer. Commercial fiction is just fiction that is more about the reader experience than about the writer’s experience.

  7. Ever since I’ve been reading novels, I’ve always checked the number of pages first. I guess I like to get a feel for how long it will take me to read it. I particularly remember hauling around Herman Wouk’s Winds of War in eighth grade to read in bits and pieces during downtime. I don’t remember it to be scintillating, but once I started it I was determined to finish it.

    Since I’ve been writing with the goal of publication, that has changed my approach to reading. Now I find myself analyzing the plot according to the length and speculating on what may or may not have been added just to reach a particular word count.

    I don’t see how a word count can stifle creativity. If a book is too long, it can take a lot of creativity to tell the story in an edited version. On the flip side, if a book is too short, creativity is an absolute must in order to add to it. I appreciate your analysis as to why word count is important, Wendy.

    • Meghan, that was one of the hardest things when I first began to read e-books. I had no idea in the beginning how long it was!

      I learned quickly though to pay attention to the percentage at the bottom of the screen, and I could tell pretty quickly if I was reading a thin book or a thick book. But it took awhile before I could read a book and not worry about how small or big it was.

      • That is still a frustration for me with ebooks, Sally. I like the actual number of pages without having to do the math. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Jan Thompson says:

        “I learned quickly though to pay attention to the percentage at the bottom of the screen, and I could tell pretty quickly if I was reading a thin book or a thick book.”

        Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. I have heard of readers saying that some eBooks, especially self-published ones, are padded with so much back matter that artificially inflated the size of the ebook, back matter such as sneak peak into the next book in the series, or sample chapters from previously published books, or advertisements. There is currently no “rule” regarding how much “padding” ebooks can have. So caveat emptor.

      • Jeanne T says:

        I GET this, Sally. I began reading Les Miserables in ebook format. After a few good diligent reading times, I was only at 7%โ€”and that was after skipping a few sections, I realized it was a Very. Long. Book. I’ll get back to it.

        One of these days. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Jan, that’s true. Fortunately traditionally published books don’t tend to pad the back so I know I can trust that percentage.

    • When not done well, I think it’s obvious when content is added just for the sake of word count.

  8. Wendy Lawton says:

    It’s a good thing you’ve always been aware of book length. It shows that you’ve paid attention to the craft as well as to the art of writing.

    Neglecting this would be like an artist refusing to consider the size of his canvas.

  9. Angela Mills says:

    I just went and checked a bunch of books, and it looks like my target word count might be about ten thousand over. So glad for this post!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I’ll bet you find that in the cutting you’ll tighten the story, improving it. The funny thing is that losing words is rarely a loss to the story.

      • Liz says:

        In the most recent major edit I did on my zombie YA book, I cut A LOT but somehow the word count never changed much, which amused me.

        What did change was the writing quality. I got rid of a lot of overused and unnecessary words. The additional words came from rewriting (to get rid of overused words) and adding information that had been clear in my head but not the ms.

        I ended up with the same length, but a much tighter (better)story.

  10. When I wrote my very first book, I didn’t pay attention to word count. I just wrote. But like Jeanne, I’m a rules girl. I like to know what’s standard, and if I have a good reason to stray, I do. It helped when I attended a writing retreat and heard the standard word count for a good scene. It gave a range, so it’s something to aim for on a first draft.

    Since I write contemporary, the word counts vary a bit, given about 5K-10K or so. The good thing is, I think my ms is a marketable length, but if a publisher wanted me to cut it down, I’m willing and able to do that too.

  11. Amanda Dykes says:

    Loved this, Wendy. Thank you! Word count, accompanied with this quote: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time” (Blaise Pascal), helps give me a quantity to shoot for and a quality to strive for. Especially when cutting superfluous language. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. VERY wise advice to know your genre expectations, Wendy. My first agent was unaware that my NaNo novel of 50K was far too short to submit as a women’s fiction novel. And that’s another heads-up for future NaNo-ers–you’re shooting for 50K in a month–fine for YA, but if you’re writing an adult novel, you’ll have to add about 30K to that. So LEAVE ROOM IN YOUR PLOTLINE! I had it all summed up at 50K! I do plan to revise and self-pub that novel someday…perhaps as a novella. It’ll probably still wind up around 60-65K, but as a self-pubbed book, I don’t have to fret so much about the length.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Yep. Word length is important for each genre. My uber-reader daughter is always complaining that she inadvertently orders what she thinks is a book from one of her favorite authors and ends up with a novella. She hates it– does not like the novella length story.

  13. Lori says:

    It does not bother me to hear the words โ€œcommercially viable” nor do I think it stifles creativity, at least not for me. I am not sure I should worry much about the word count on a first draft since it’s a “draft” and not a finish product ready for submission.

    I am more worried that my book may be too short than I am too long.

    Right now I can use a nice short book on pet grief. (My concentration is bad and I am trying not to let it affect my tech writings.) Can anyone recommend a book? I had to put down last week my 13 1/2 year Westie. She had been a diabetic for 4 1/2 years and it was time. It was a gut wrenching decision.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      So sorry, Lori. Grief is hard work whether it is a family member, a friend or a furry family member. I wish I knew of a book. Hopefully someone out there will.

    • Lori,

      I can’t recommend a book, but please know that you are in my prayers.

    • Lori,

      Our vet gave us a short (32 page) book when we put our 15-year-old Westie to sleep. It’s called Good-bye My Friend: Grieving the Loss of a Pet by Mary and Herb Montgomery. It says to order from Montgomery Press, PO Box 24124, Minneapolis, MN 55424, phone 952-928-0826. ISBN 1-879779-00-5. Perhaps this would be what you want.

      We have a new Westie. She’s delightful, but entirely different. They would have liked each other.

      Many blessings, Pamela

  14. “Commercially viable” does not bother me at all. I want my books to sell. And I find that as I read commercial fiction, I begin to think that way. You really do get a feel for word count and where the big change in the middle of the book should be. I think if you’re truly writing to sell and you read a lot in your market, word count and other issues aren’t a big deal.

  15. Norma Horton says:

    “Commercially viable?” It’s business.

  16. Lori Benton says:

    I always blow past acceptable word counts in my first draft (I write historicals). My comfort zone is 130-140K. I let that happen, then I go back and tighten and trim and can usually cut away 20-30K. Sometimes it means cutting painfully deep, though.

    I prefer to read historical fiction this length too. And longer. Some much longer!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      The best thing is, Lori, that your genre is the one that forgives a big book– especially when the story is riveting.

      • Anne Love says:

        Good to know. I thanks for the insight Lori–I think that seems to be my style so far. I’m busy whacking, slashing, and ditching wordiness right now. I’m sure that process will get tighter with each first rough draft to a degree. But part of the long start for me is turning off that internal editor in order to let my story flow. Always learning! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Can I get an AMEN? YES!! A good historical needs to be a solid inch and a half thick, if not more.
      I read this AWESOME book called Burning Sky, I LOVED it and was entirely mad when it ended. I have issues with a certain character, though, who needed a heck of a lot more ‘screen time’… cough.

  17. Fascinating post, Wendy! Thanks!! I’ve been concerned with word count too.

    I recently found this link on Karie Ganshert’s blog for suggested word counts acceptable for publishers & thought it was rather interesting.

    http://www.cjdarlington.com/writing-articles/how-many-words-should-your-novel-be.htm

  18. This topic has challenged me a lot as I run through my writing journey. My first ms (Women’s/Romance/Suspense) weighed in at about 113,000 words. I knew #1 I needed to find a genre and stick with it, and #2 cut the word count down. Cutting out 13,000 words dramatically improved my writing. It’s amazing how many unnecessary words (and scenes) I found in there. But then I read Donald Maas’s book and easily added 2,000 words–sigh–to add more depth to my characters. And subsequently needed to find more unnecessary words (and babies, I mean, scenes) to kill. A roller coaster, yes, but the story is definitely better for it.

  19. Annie says:

    Wendy, I always appreciate your blog although I seldom take the time to respond.

    So thank you for an interesting post…

  20. The phrase “commercially viable” doesn’t bother me at all. As Norma said, this is a business.

    In regards to word counts, when I first started writing my current novel, I looked at a number of agent and publishing house sites for the word count range for YA fantasy. I have read a good deal of YA fantasy and the books tend to be on the longer side because of world building, but I wanted to have some idea of what word count is typical of the genre. The range that came up the most often was 75,000-90,000 words. So, I set my goal at 80,000 words. While working on the rough draft, I’ve been aware of my word count, but my primarily goal has been to get the story written. The cutting will come in the revision when I can look at the whole picture as well as the line-editing. I already know that my current Chapter Three will be eliminated (it kills the story’s momentum), but I’ll worry about that and the restructuring of chapters after I write the final scene of the book.

    Paragraph length is an important issue. First, short paragraphs, rather than ones that take up three-quarters of the page are more visually inviting. Second, I think the reader can get lost or bored if a paragraph is too long. A long paragraph often is a sign that I need to go back and decide a)does all that information need to be in one paragraph and b) is all the information necessary.

    Thank you, Wendy. Have a good week.

  21. Nancy Moser says:

    One of the first books I wrote was 184,000 words! Once I got a contract the editor said I needed to cut about 84,000 words! 40% of the book! Yet it was one of the best challenges I ever tackled because it taught me how to prioritize and write tight (or tight-er). I combined characters and had enough sub-plots to keep many a TV show going for a full season! To make it psychologically less painful I kept what I wrote in a file called “edits” so it was there if I needed it. Funny thing was, I never did.

  22. Jan Thompson says:

    Thank you, Wendy, for this post.

    I’ve been observing both traditional and indie publishing, and have noticed that traditionally published books are more consistent when it comes to book length expectations.

    Indie book lengths are all over the place because they can, and itโ€™s not unheard of to see 32-page or 200-page books competing for rankings in the same genre as 400-page books. Iโ€™m not sure how 40K became the minimum size for novel lengths, but I see many indie novels topping off at 40-60K in some of the genres that normally have longer length books e.g. 80-100K.

    I am now wary of buying any book, whether ebook or printed, before I check for these 3 things:
    – number of pages
    – dimension of its printed version (because it could be mini pocket size, thus bumping up the page count)
    – pricing (just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean you’re getting a full-length novel)

    I wish booksellers, such as Amazon, would add one more item to their description of books: word count.

    This is why I still prefer to browse through bookstores, hold the printed books in my hands, flip to the last chapter, and check the page count. And then I buy the ebook online LOL. But I know the size of book I just paid for.

    ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. One thing that has helped me consider word count more carefully as a writer is promoting the work of others. When a client comes to me, I’m looking at word count to help me decide how many reviewers I might get for a virtual book tour.

    Like some others, I write a sloppy first draft, but knowing where my word count needs to be helps me decide what is necessary and what is superfluous.

    Thanks for the great post.

  24. Elissa says:

    I am a big fan of door-stop fantasy novels like Game of Thrones. If it’s epic fantasy and under 100k words, it probably is skimping on world-building and/or character development. Even 150k might be too short for some in this genre.

    That said, I see plenty of pre-published or indie-published fantasies that could really use a good editing. I like to think that “word count” really means “make every word count”. As had been said already, it’s amazing how much better a novel can be when you cut all the extraneous wordage.

  25. In reference to your question above, I feel like I should make some deep comment about how my creativity cannot and will not be stifled. But I think I’m my own worst enemy in this regard sometimes.
    My future readers will greatly benefit if I choose to focus on their expectations of the genre I write, and this includes ms length. Historical fiction focuses widely on time and space, on how events and social shifts affected people, on how progress gave them hope or stopped them cold. But fans of this genre also want to know how people moved through the edifices they inhabited, how they courted, how they grieved the dead. Not to mention what they ate, and the toys their children played with. So many riveting layers demand an adept way of bulking up the word count.
    Since I tend to underwrite, and need to work on pacing, this is a clear area of needed growth for me. Thanks for your insight Wendy.

  26. Thanks for the tip. I’m writing my 2nd novel.

    So far I have finished writing the correct number of page numbers. .

  27. Melissa Frye says:

    After the second draft of my women’s fiction novel, I’m still short in word count. After researching the genre, I found books range from 60k to over 100k. Mine is just shy of 50k. I’ve told the story and I think I’ve done it well. I fear if I try to add more words, it will just be padding and will hurt the overall story.

    There’s a huge knot in my stomach because I don’t want to give up on the project, but I don’t want to waste my or any agent’s time trying to pitch it.

    • Elissa says:

      Melissa, you’re right that adding more words just to make the word count is a bad idea. Assuming your characters are properly developed, your settings are vivid, etc., one other thing you can consider is to add a sub-plot that in some way enhances the overall story.

      One of my favorite books on writing is “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass. It might help you see ways to flesh out your novel without simply adding words.

      In any case, don’t lose heart! It might take you another couple of drafts, but there’s no reason to give up on your novel just because it’s a tad short right now.

      • Melissa Frye says:

        Thanks, Elissa. I’ll go through it and see what scenes I can develop further.

        I’m just an impatient person and think I’m rushing a little. I have the germination of a new novel rattling around in my head and ideas for a couple of short stories. I’ve even heard from someone that they want me to compile my short stories into print editions so they can have autographed copies.

        So many ideas – so little time. *sigh*

  28. caylee says:

    Wendy,

    I just finished the first draft of my book and I’m in the middle of the 30,000-60,000 word count. My problem is I’m not entirely sure what word count to shoot for. I really don’t know what genre my book falls into because it is written like an autobiography but it is fictional. What advice would you have for me?

  29. With books for kids the number of pages often depends on the font size as much as the number of words. Books for younger readers tend to have larger fonts and some illustrations, both because those fonts are easier to see while pictures are fun, and because kids like books that appear longer while still being easy to read.

  30. Thank you for an incredibly helpful post! It would have saved me a ton of grief on my first book, which got a contract a full third shorter than I proposed. Cutting was tough — though it made it a better book.