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How Long Should Your Book Be?

Writing.ie | Resources | Getting Published | Submission Tips
Repro Free:Tuesday 1st September 2015. Picture Jason Clarke.

Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

I give regular seminars to new writers and one of the key issues that arises is word count. Going back into the huge Writing.ie archive, this article might help shed some light on the whole issue and why it’s important!

It is an industry standard that books are measured in word count rather than the number of pages. This is because everyone’s pages are set up differently, may or may not be double spaced (all submissions SHOULD be double line spaced), may have wide or narrow margins, so 50 pages could contain 10,000 words or 15,000 depending on your layout. Microsoft word has a very handy word count button that all writers use addictively. Ensure you include the final word count of your book in your submission package to a publisher or an agent as it will be one of the first questions they ask.

Different genres and publishers require books to be particular lengths for several reasons including the economics of book production, and reader satisfaction. If your book is too long or too short you may have difficulty finding a place for it. Publishing is a business and in order to make that business work, the product (your book) must be saleable and the cost price sustainable – within the retail price of a book there is the author’s royalty, the publisher’s profit and the book seller’s margin. Going back to the beginning of the process, the number of pages in a book influences the print cost, and print costs influence the retail price of every book. Readers are reluctant to pay €14.99 for a book that’s only half the size of the next one on the shelf.

The guidelines below apply to traditional publishing, but are guidelines only – a exceptional book that doesn’t quite fit the word count will still find it’s way to the shelf – every publisher is looking for the next big thing, and often ‘things’ don’t come in one-size-fits-all packaging (and that is their beauty).  Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is only 56,000 words, Mary Costello’s fabulous Academy Street a similar length, but both these books really are exceptional. Equally there are epic YA fantasies that are much longer than the lengths indicated, but these are books that stand out. Indeed, books by well established authors with existing readerships may also fall well outside of these guidelines – but until you are JK Rowling it’s worth knowing the industry norms.

So how long should your book be?

  • Short stories are generally 1000 – 8000 words (anything under 1000 words is generally considered Flash fiction)
  • Novella – 10,000-40,000 words
  • Commercial Fiction (including women’s fiction, crime fiction, fantasy etc) 90-120,000 words
  • Category Romance 55,000 – 85,000 words (check with each publisher/ imprint to see what they are looking for)
  • Literary fiction from 70,000 words
  • Non fiction from 70,000 words.

Books for Children

In the children’s book market length is particularly important as is largely dictated by the age of the reader. A general guide for children’s books (thanks to www.superheronation.com for this information from US Agent Mary Kole) is:

  • Board Book — 100 words maximum
  • Early Picture book — 500
  • Picture book — 750- 1,000 words maximum – check with specific publishers which length they prefer
  • Nonfiction Picture book — 2,000 words maximum
  • Early Reader — This varies widely, depending on the age level you are aiming at -· 3,500 words is the maximum.
  • Chapter book — 10,000 words
  • Middle Grade — 35,000 words for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical. 60,000 words would be the upper limit for this age group.
  • YA — 70,000 words for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Literary Agent Sallyanne Sweeny of Mulcahy Associates (and a recent judge of the Bath Children’s Novel Award)  has some useful tips on children’s books and word count:

There are good word count guidelines online and usually I’d recommend 6-10,000 words for a chapter book, 40-60,000 words for middle grade and 50-70,000 words for YA. Fantasy novels are usually on the longer side (think HARRY POTTER and ERAGON etc). I think it’s useful to keep these numbers in mind but really, a book should be as long as it should be (if that makes sense!), and there are always exceptions to the guidelines. If your manuscript is on the long side though, make sure it’s as tight and pacey as it can possibly be as you’ll often find there is room to make cuts. Similarly, if your manuscript is very short, look at your character and plot development.

In Ireland and the UK board books are normally commissioned, so if you want to break into the very young children’s market, focus on picture books. Note that a publisher will match your text to an illustrator, so there is no need to submit illustrations with your words, unless you are a writer/ illustrator. The royalty split between author and illustrator is usually 50/50 for picture books. The majority of picture book publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions but require an approach by an agent.

The Childrens’ Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook contains invaluable tips and advice on approaching the children’s publishing market, while The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook covers other aspects of the adult and non fiction market – both include lists of agents and publishers.

Digital Publishing

One of the joys of digital publishing is that word count isn’t a big issue – once it is well written and the reader is satisfied, a book that might not work in print can have huge success in digital. There are many digital publishing houses producing great books,  so digital publishing doesn’t always mean self publishing, but don’t discount this as an option. Many very successful authors have achieved success by taking the publishing process into their own hands and publishing via platforms such as Amazon Kindle.

What do you do if you book is the ‘wrong’ length?

If your book is wildly longer than the guidelines above it could be for several reasons – if it’s too full of plot, it may be a book that will break out into a series (although each book MUST have it’s own narrative arc – remember readers may pick up a book out of sequence or never get to the rest of the series). If your word count is huge, you may find your writing is too heavy on description, or you are introducing backstory for every character, or as is often the case, that you have too many characters.

If it is too short, perhaps you haven’t developed the subplots or haven’t used enough description to paint the picture clearly for the reader. Perhaps you don’t have enough story.

It is well worth getting your work critiqued by a professional writer/published author who can give you solid feedback on your opening chapters that will point you in the right direction. Check out the critiquing and manuscript assessment services offered by The Inkwell Group who as a sister company to Writing.ie provide one to one expert help to writers at all levels of their career.

Above all, if you are submitting to publishers or agents, check each website carefully for submission guidelines – every one varies slightly in what they require and your job is to make it easy for an editor or agent to like your work, not difficult. You are looking to build a professional relationship with an editor or agent and showing that you are professional in your approach from the start is vital.

If you are intending to submit your work, check out our articles on how to write a synopsis and our really useful links article on synopsis writing. Also check out how to write a covering letter/email. Best of luck!

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

About the author

Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin is the Founder of Writing.ie, and runs The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy. She is a Ireland’s leading talent scout who has discovered many best selling and award winning authors.

Writing as Sam Blake, the first of her Cat Connolly thriller trilogy LITTLE BONES  was published in May 2016 by Bonnier’s Twenty7 imprint and hit the bestseller list,  spending 8 weeks in the Top 10 with 4 weeks at No. 1.


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