Authors regularly encounter discussions regarding how many words an average book should comprise. This can be distracting; pressurising; and confusing nevertheless, it is an issue authors should at least consider.
The predominant questions are: Does it really matter how many words a book contains? Does it make any difference to the reader? The answer demands upon perspective and purpose. This article will consider the topic from the viewpoints of publisher; reader; and author and will also include commonly suggested word count guides.
Naturally, the aspect of a tale taking as long as it takes to tell is always prevalent consequently, for some the issue of word count may appear superfluous. However, in some scenarios word count does serve a very real and import purpose.
Note: Word count impacts upon number of pages (to state the obvious).
The primary issues for those publishing physical editions of books:
- Trim size (based upon market demand and national trends).
- Publishing costs (formatting, staff, number of pages, paper, ink, binding, etc.)
- Pricing (trim size and number of pages impacts).
- Sale potential (acceptable size and length, customer preferences, customer demand, etc.).
- Marketing (book needs to be in an acceptable format, length and size).
- Stock (traditional publishers normally have to keep a quantity of physical editions to hand).
A book’s word count may therefore have a far reaching impact for traditional publishers and for those authors who utilise digital print-on-demand services (number of pages affects minimum price level).
In general books are either purchased from bricks and mortar bookshops or online (physical, digital, and audio formats). Beside a book’s appearance (cover, colour, etc. – not the subject of this article) the size may prove influential for a potential reader.
For example: If the reader is looking for a lengthy read to occupy winter evenings then a larger book may be what they want however, if they simply want something to occupy a short interval (commute, waiting for appointment etc.) a smaller publication may be preferable.
In bookshops, due to the constraints of space availability, books are usually displayed on shelves with the spine outermost. Naturally, the width of a spine, unless it is an image heavy publication, provides indication of length and consequent reading time. The word count will naturally have an impact.
Though spine width has no relevance in digital purchasing, the page count (usually displayed within the book’s details) may.
Going back to the idea of a tale taking as long as it takes to tell, some authors may feel the setting of a word count limit is in effect an assault upon their creativity. Of course, this depends upon outlook and, if an author allows the idea to become overbearing, it may indeed have that undesirable impact. Nonetheless, assuming the author is interested in obtaining sales, they need to seriously consider the points already mentioned under Publishers and Readers.
In addition, though it must be emphasised the following is by no means always the case, some (editors, agents, publishers, etc.) may think on over long manuscript is indicative of plot, pacing, etc., problems. As said, this is not always true: in a few, rare, instances, some excessively long books have become best sellers. Nevertheless, authors should be aware traditional publishers and agents may reject a manuscript purely upon initial assessment of potential publication costs.
In the modern world, with its digital self-publishing options, authors may ignore suggested word counts and go ahead with publication. However, they need to bear in mind reader preferences and not be so proud as not to consider there may indeed be something amiss with their work: as far as possible they should stand back and take an objective viewpoint.
It would be remiss not to also mention, for some, especially those new to authoring, word counts may prove helpful be providing approximate targets. Without these, a few will flounder unsure if they are providing something the market is looking for.
Depending upon the resource used, suggested word counts can vary substantially. The following are those that appear to be generally accepted (for those interested, some of the variations have been added in parenthesis).
Novel: 80,000 – 90,000 (59,000 – 90,000; 40,000 +; 80,000 – 110,000)
Novella: 17,500 – 40,000
Novelette: 7,500 – 17,500
Short Story: Under 7,500 (1,500 – 30,000)
Non-Fiction: 70,000 – 80,000 (Self help/How to: 40,000 – 50,000)
The above word counts are those generally suggested however, it appears genre can have some influence:
Fantasy/Science Fiction: 100,000 – 115,000 (50,000 – 150,000)
Romance: 80,000 – 100,000 (50,000 – 90,000)
Middle-Grade (eleven to twelve (secondary school in UK)): 20,000 – 55,000
Young Adult: 55,000 – 70,000 (60,000 – 90,000)
Mystery/Crime: 75,000 – 100,000 (40,000 – 80,000)
Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000 (40,000 – 80,000)
Western: 45,000 – 75,000
Of course, the above is not a complete list but does, hopefully, provide some guidance for those interested.
As may be seen there is considerable anomaly between some suggestions. Overall it would seem appropriate to adopt the trend of 80,000 – 90,000 for general fiction; under 7,500 for short stories; and 70,000 – 80,000 for non-fiction.
As emphasised throughout, the above word counts are essentially suggestions, even though they are widely recognised as valid. There are no ‘Hard and Fast Rules’ neither is there any implication of them being ‘Set in Concrete’. Nevertheless, authors would be wise to account for the following:
- Word count impinges upon page count and the consequent costs of production (including print-on-demand services).
- Generally accepted genre lengths (especially important for young readers).
- Market trends, national trends, reader expectations, etc.
- Anticipated popularity and saleability.
Authors should not feel unduly bound by these statistics but should, in combination, retain an objectivity with regard to their own work.
In the end the final word count is at the author’s discretion. They must decide how many words it takes to tell their tale.