Some writers find it surprising–or even constricting–to discover that publishing houses, agents, editors, and even readers care about a book’s word count. Why does word count matter? If my novel is 140,000 words rather than a traditional 90,000, is it a big deal? Isn’t that a more complex and therefore intriguing story? Shouldn’t the reader be grateful they got more for their money?
Ah. But they didn’t. A longer book costs more to produce so the retail price will naturally be higher. And the reader invested more time as well as money into the reading experience. The longer book is the one they leave home when traveling. Whose luggage can bear an unnecessary extra pound or two? An exceptionally long book can psychologically look daunting, a quest to conquer rather than a story to enjoy.
Consider these other perspectives, the whys behind word count guidelines.
Many devotionals carry word count expectations because of reader expectations. A daily devotional is timed to take no more than 2-5 minutes to read. That length also affects uniformity in the look of the finished product.
A very thin book with few pages can disappear on a shelf–either in a bookstore or home. The spine is too thin for the author name, title of the book, or publisher logo. A thin book is hard to find in a home library and all but disappears in a bookstore.
A gift book may have an intentionally lower word count to allow for artwork, images, or other interior design elements.
Take a careful look at books in your category. You can find their word counts online. Investigate publisher recommendations for word counts on their writer submission pages. You’re not looking for an exact number, but are you in the general range of books like yours?
If you’re submitting to an agent and your word count is not aligned with industry standards, it may indicate to the agent that you are either unaware of industry and reader expectations, you know them but are choosing to ignore them, or you have a little adjusting to do.
A thinner than average book gives the impression–real or not–that the book may have less significance in its contents, and that decision is made by the reader long before reading its first line.
Too little, too much, just right?
Conversely, a dramatically thicker-than-average book doesn’t slot well on a shelf either. But think even more practically about a book with an extra long word count. It’s heavy to hold. Even in ebook form, it’s cumbersome to navigate. Now, where was I?
Publishers have reasons for their word count guidelines.
One of them is basic uniformity of size.
Another is cost of production. An overly-long book costs more to print, more for the paper it’s printed on, more editing hours, and occupies shelf space that could have held two books rather than one. Both readers and other author friends will appreciate a book that “stays in its lane.”
Publishers also take into consideration reader attention spans and rhythms. Even if not conscious of its roots, a reader will often feel unsettled by a book that either seems to end too soon or doesn’t end soon enough. That’s why novellas–much shorter than a novel–are specified as a separate category. The human brain expects a book labeled a novella will be a quicker read, so when it is, it feels well within rhythm. The same is true for the word count of a self-help or how-to book.
Imagine yourself the reader approaching a book entitled Three Easy Ways to Save Time on Housework. You’re reaching for that book because you want to save time. You’re likely buried in an avalanche of responsibilities and multiple to-do lists. If the book is 200,000 pages long, will it feel like a betrayal? Easy ways to save time, huh?
Does word count matter for writers who self-publish?
Anything that draws attention to a self-published or independently published books as different-looking from its traditionally published counterparts will lure attention away from the book’s contents. Exceptions exist in almost any context, but to keep their work competitive in an overflowing market, authors who choose to self-publish still need to consider word count.
Take advantage of the archives.
The following link will take you to just one of several blog posts on the subject of word counts. Check it out for more insights on this subject.
And please know that a word-count range is not a punishment for the loquacious. Word counts matter.