How Many Words in a Book? A Guide for Writers
There are no hard and fast rules for how long your book or story must be, but there are recommended word counts that can help you reach success. They are not only excellent guidelines to help manage reader expectations, but are essential to finding agent representation or a traditional publishing deal. While prescribed word counts may seem arbitrary at first, they do actually help improve your writing. Setting goals and targets also help keep you focused and maintain momentum.
Why word count is important
There is a natural inclination to say that your story will be done “when it’s done.” While there is some truth in that, there is a reason why publishers recommend a certain word-count range for varying genres; they know what sells.
Publishers have put a lot of time and money into researching readers’ habits and preferences. They know exactly what is most likely to get readers to purchase books like yours. It’s why submission guidelines are so important to follow when querying agents. If you ignore those guidelines you limit an agent’s ability to sell your book to a publisher. As a consequence, they’ll be less likely to represent you.
Putting your book out into the world is a contract with your reader. They give you their time, and you entertain or inform them. A reader is less likely to enter into that contract if they don’t feel like the time commitment is going to be worth the payoff. If a book is too long, then they won’t want to invest their precious time, and if it’s too short, they won’t want to invest their money as it won’t be perceived as good value.
It’s true that word counts are less of a concern for self-published writers, especially those who publish digitally, but even if you take marketing considerations out of the equation, there are still reasons to use world count recommendations as a guide for your writing.
Word counts can improve your writing
Writing a book is deeply personal. It’s taking your creative vision and putting it out into the world. For this reason, one of the greatest benefits of working within the constraints of a recommended word count is to stop overwriting.
Overwriting is incredibly common and can absolutely destroy the pace and clarity of your work. By working within the constraints of a word count, it forces you to think about what’s relevant and what’s not – to trim the fat, so to speak. It will help cut out repetition or unnecessary description, and even help you tighten up the central mysteries of your plot. It will stop you from revealing too much to your readers and leave more to their imaginations.
Word counts can save money
A little-known positive side-effect of working within the constraints of a recommended word count is that it can save you money. While this can be true of writers who plan to traditionally publish, it’s especially true for self-published writers.
Of course, there are the considerations of lost sales if a reader won’t pick up your book because it’s too long or too short, but there are also more practical costs to think about when it comes to self-publishing.
Longer word counts cost more to edit.
Most professional editors set a project fee based on word count or charge by the word. If you’ve over-written a book to 150,000 words and an editor has to read all of that and cut it down to a more succinct length, you’ll be paying much more in editing fees than you would have if you’d considered word count from the get-go.
Longer books also cost much more to print, so another consideration is that sticking to recommended word counts will cut down on the costs of print-on-demand services. These are costs that are often pushed on to readers, so the risk is that you price yourself out of the market. If someone is buying a printed copy of your book you want it to be affordable, or they’ll simply look elsewhere.
Are there exceptions to the rule?
Of course, word counts are just guidelines. They’re not a hard and fast rule, and for self-published authors especially there’s a lot more leeway in length than there is if you’re querying agents, where the rules are quite strict.
Even when querying an agent, however, no one is going to refuse you if you go slightly over or under the recommended word count. Word counts exist to give a decent birds-eye overview of reader expectations, not to curtail your creativity.
An important thing to remember is that the more readers you connect with, the more freedom you will have. I always advise new writers to stick to recommended word counts as much as possible because their work is untested. As you gain a following and reach a wider audience, you’ll be able to play a lot looser with these guidelines. Readers will be more likely to invest their time in you, rather than the specific work you’re putting out.
Even traditional publishers will be more likely to publish work outside of the guidelines for authors who are tried and tested. It’s why series like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass could get progressively longer as the series progressed – readers were invested, and therefore were more willing to put their time into something that went beyond their normal genre expectations.
Are there exceptions to these genre guidelines? Of course. At the end of the day you need to do what will serve you, your book, and your readers the most.
Recommended word counts for common genres
Arm yourself with as much information as possible, and make an informed decision on what will work best for your writing project. There are lots of websites that will give you the word counts of different books in your chosen genre to help you with market research. Combine this knowledge with recommended word counts from agents and publishers, and you’ll be able to give your book the best chance at success.
Here are some rough guidelines on recommended word counts for common genres:
- Micro fiction: 5 – 350 words
- Picture books: 400 – 800 words
- Flash fiction: 250 – 1000 words
- Short stories: 1000- 5000 words
- Novellas: 10,000 – 50,000 words
- Self-help: 20,000 – 50,000 words
- Middle-grade fiction: 20,000 – 60,000 words
- Travel and nature writing: 40,000 – 70,000 words
- Young Adult fiction: 50,000 – 90,000 words
- Memoir: 50,000 – 90,000 words
- Narrative non-fiction: 50,000 -100,000 words
- Adult fiction: 50,000, – 120,000 words
- Biography: 80,000 – 150,000 words