You finish the last strokes on your masterpiece, a painting that stands twenty feet tall and thirty feet wide. It’s beautiful, fully capturing the essence of your idea of this city and the pitfalls of love, hate, and betrayal. You unveil it for your benefactor, eagerly awaiting the slaps on the back and joyous exclamations.
“It’s too big.”
“It’s beautiful. Breathtaking, really. But it’s just too big. We can’t sell this to anyone. If you can paint it again, exactly as it is, but half the size, then we can sell this. But right now, I’m sorry.”
Like the painter, most writers aren’t too focused on book length or statistics. Sure, it’s exciting to track book sales once you’re published … but beyond that, writing isn’t really a numbers game, right?
As it turns out, numbers can potentially make or break your book before you even submit it. Let’s talk about one of the most overlooked and underappreciated stats in the book business: word count. On the surface, word count isn’t the most exciting topic. But when you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that this figure can play a pivotal role in the journey your book takes from creation to publication to sales.
So, why does word count matter so much? Let’s take a closer look at the thought process behind the recommended length for books in every genre.
It’s a Publisher’s Prerogative
First and foremost, word count matters because it matters to publishers. Following the submission guidelines for a publisher is critical. Your book may not be considered at all if you fall too far outside of the recommended word count range. If you’ve published a book successfully before, you may have more leeway in this area, but it’s best to play it safe by staying within the parameters set by the publisher.
Page count is a completely different matter when it comes to submitting your book. Depending on the size of your font and the formatting of your pages (single-spaced vs. double-spaced, margin size, etc.), the page count for your book can vary widely. Editors and publishers can better gauge the length of your book by the number of words, which is why this figure is emphasized in their submission guidelines. Plus, it prevents authors from fudging the stats to make their book appear longer or shorter based on the number of “pages” they’ve written.
Publishers don’t just come up with recommended word counts based on what seems right. Instead, they use customer expectations to set their guidelines. Ultimately, it’s only worth investing in your book if it will actually sell and earn profits, so publishers request that submissions fit into a word count range that readers tend to prefer when purchasing books like yours.
There are two noteworthy exceptions to word count requirements. The first is self-publishing, in which readers tend to be more forgiving when it comes to length. In addition, e-books don’t feature page numbers, so if you plan to only publish electronically, the word count isn’t a major concern.
Word Count Woes
What can go wrong if your book happens to fall outside the recommended limits for word count? Besides being slightly less appealing to publishers, a book that’s too long or too short can face some serious challenges in the publication process.
Consider a book with a word count that’s too high. Because it’s a bigger book, it will be more expensive to produce from start to finish. It’s not just more expensive to print the extra pages; there’s also the added cost of a longer editing process, higher shipping costs, and extra warehouse space. While the publisher can consider increasing the price to cover these costs, that could make the book less attractive to readers, especially since most have become accustomed to paying a certain amount for books in particular genres.
You might think a shorter book could actually be more appealing to publishers. After all, wouldn’t it cost less to produce? While that might be true, a short book faces its own unique challenges. The slim spine makes it harder to spot on the shelves. In addition, readers might feel like it’s not worth the money compared to a similarly priced book that’s closer to the expected length for the genre.
Where Your Word Count Should Land
Before we dive into the numbers, let’s go over a simple rule of thumb. For most adult fiction, adult nonfiction, and YA novels, simply divide the total number of words by 250 to get a page count estimate. For example, a 75,000-word book is about 300 pages long. You can use this handy calculation to visualize the size of standard books in particular genres based on the word count ranges. Or you can use this online calculator here.
Now let’s take a closer look at the recommended lengths for various book genres.
Adult Fiction Word Count Ranges
Literary Novel 70,000 – 110,000 words
Science Fiction & Fantasy 90,000 – 120,000 words
Historical Fiction 90,000 – 110,000 words
Thriller 90,000 – 100,000 words
Mystery & Horror 70,000 – 90,000 words
Romance 50,000 – 90,000 words
Novella 20,000 – 40,000 words
Short Story 1,000 – 8,000 words
Most novels should fall between 70,000 and 110,000 words. To get a better idea of what this range looks like in real life, consider The Catcher in the Rye (73,404 words) compared to Wuthering Heights (107,945 words). Some publishers prefer a narrower word count range of around 80,000 to 100,000 words—you could call this the “sweet spot” for literary novels.
Certain fiction subgenres have slightly different expectations due to the nature of the stories being told as well as reader expectations. Romance, mystery, and horror novels are quick, exciting reads, so a slightly shorter word count is a better fit. Meanwhile, a longer word count may be needed to accommodate the world-building or layered details found in many sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, and historical fiction novels.
Adult Nonfiction Word Count Ranges
Nonfiction Book 50,000 – 100,000 words
Biography 80,000 – 150,000 words
Memoir 60,000 – 90,000 words
Travel & Nature 40,000 – 70,000 words
Self-Help & How-To 20,000 – 50,000 words
There’s a lot more leeway when it comes to nonfiction word counts. Because these books cover such a vast number of topics, some in great detail, you’ll likely see a wider variety of book sizes in this genre. If you prefer to have a range in mind, research nonfiction books that are similar to yours to get a better idea of the typical length you should be aiming for. Of course, you can also check out publishers’ submission guidelines for direction.
Children’s Fiction Word Count Ranges
Picture Books (Ages 3-8) 50 – 800 words
Early Readers (Ages 5-9) 200 – 3,500 words
Chapter Books (Ages 7-10) 10,000 – 12,000 words
Middle Grade Novels (Ages 8-12) 20,000 – 25,000 words
Young Adult Fiction (Ages 12+) 50,000 – 80,000 words
What age group do you want to write for? That’s the big question that children’s fiction authors have to answer before they submit their book. The word count increases significantly as kids grow into each subgenre, so be sure to consider your target audience when writing children’s fiction.
It’s important to note that the picture books and early reader books cover the ages when kids’ reading skills improve dramatically year by year. There’s a very noticeable difference between a book with 200 words and a book with 3,500 words, for example. Authors writing picture books and early reader books need to consider vocabulary and reading comprehension skills and match them to an appropriate word count within their subgenre.
Young adult fiction has subgenres that are similar to adult fiction, which can affect the final word count. Romance and fantasy are two particularly popular subgenres for pre-teens and teens, and their word counts tend to be on the shorter and longer ends of the spectrum, respectively. For example, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has just 65,752 words, while Divergent by Veronica Roth has 98,521 words.
If you’re the type that believes rules are made to be broken, you’ll be happy to hear that great books don’t always fall within the recommended word count ranges set forth by publishers. In fact, here are some notably long rule-breakers from literary history:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe – 160,515 words
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – 174,269 words
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – 186,418 words
Ulysses by James Joyce – 265,222 words
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – 293,625 words
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – 345,390 words
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami – 407,450 words
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 418,053 words
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – 561,996 words
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – 577,608 words
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 587,287 words
Short books can break the rules, too. There are a number of famous novels that happen to be longer than a novella but shorter than what most publishers today consider to be the minimum for adult fiction, including:
The Awakening by Kate Chopin – 45,965 words
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – 46,118 words
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – 47,094 words
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – 49,459 words
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – 49,962 words
Heartburn by Nora Ephron – 54,595 words
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – 56,695 words
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – 65,105 words
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – 68,320 words
Want to break out of the expected word count range? Prove that your books can sell. J. K. Rowling is an excellent example of pushing the boundaries after gaining recognition in the literary world. Her first two books in the Harry Potter series are on the long side for children’s fiction, but the word count is relatively normal from a publisher’s perspective. But after the wild success of the early books, she was able to publish longer, more detailed books with word counts that easily veer into “epic novel” lengths. Check out this breakdown for the series, which was published over the course of a decade from 1997 to 2007:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone – 76,944 words
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – 85,141 words
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – 107,253 words
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – 190,637 words
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – 257,045 words
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – 168,923 words
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – 98,227 words
Speaking of epic novels, are longer books becoming a trend? While most publishers generally stick to the traditional guidelines, it’s worth noting that some recent award-winning fiction books have gone well over the expected limit for word count, including:
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000 Man Booker Prize) – 160,080 words
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2015 Pulitzer Prize) – 165,920 words
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2013 Pulitzer Prize) – 168,490 words
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2006 National Book Award) – 174,435 words
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001 National Book Award) – 175,680 words
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009 Man Booker Prize) – 210,975 words
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2015 Man Booker Prize) – 214,720 words
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013 Man Booker Prize) – 263,520 words
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2014 Pulitzer Prize) – 297,680 words
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen (2008 National Book Award) – 351,625 words
Hone Your Story
It’s natural for authors to feel incredibly attached to their books. After all, you spend countless hours crafting your story, inhabiting your characters, and bringing details to life on the page. That’s why it can be so tough to hear that your book might not warrant attention from a publisher based on how long it is.
However, having an appropriate word count can help your book become a success. It can make your book more attractive to both publishers and readers, which is key for those trying to break into the literary industry.
And if you have a sprawling story that simply can’t be contained by traditional word count guidelines, you can place your bets on being one of the rebellious rule-breakers—or find a great editor to help you rein it in.
About the Author
Ashley Henshaw is an editor at The Artful Editor and a contributing writer for a number of online publications, including The Huffington Post, USA Today, and AOL City's Best. She has a BA in English from Loyola University Chicago and previously worked for a publishing house. She is an avid fiction reader and loves to edit fiction and nonfiction alike, especially titles dealing with travel and culture. If she could, she'd spend every spare minute on the beaches of Lake Michigan, but Chicago's weather has proven uncooperative.