Put on the Brakes! You Mean there Are Word Count Limits?
Just like speed limits, there are word count publishing standards. Go too fast down that freeway, and you’re breaking the speed limit. If you’re too slow, then you are under the limit which can also be hazardous.
Most signs along your writing journey recommend a comfortable 70,000 – 90,000 range. As a writer, especially one preparing to pitch their manuscript, following recommended word counts can be a key factor in securing an agent and publisher, and in satisfying your reader down the road.
Why Authors Should Care About Word Counts
Experienced authors are usually keenly aware of the importance of word counts. If you are a first-time author, agents and publishers will likely look at your word count with more scrutiny than they might with an experienced writer. While evaluating your pitch and your manuscript submission, they want to know that you understand the importance of adhering to word count recommendations. It helps in assessing if they want to work with you, not just on the first book, but on books to come.
Manuscripts that fall outside of industry standards present more risks. If the word count is too high, that affects printing costs. The price is also higher for the consumer who is not used to paying that much more for that product.
Agents and publishers are experts who know what word counts readers prefer. They understand the market data and their demographics inside and out. Agents and publishers need to assess risk in considering taking on new authors. Publishing a book that falls outside of its recommended word count is more costly, it might not appeal to the reader, and therefore is riskier.
Consumers can be intimidated by word counts that are too high. A romance novel that one packs for their beach book while on vacation is expected to be a breezy read. Likewise, a low word count can send up a red flag with readers. A hard science fiction fan might consider a novel with a low word count as not being meaty enough since they are accustomed to longer reads with technical details and lots of world-building.
The general word counts we recommend, based on a combination of experience and research, are as follows:
- Genre and Commercial Fiction: 70,000-100,000
- Literary Fiction: 50,000 to 100,000
- Young Adult Fiction: 60,000 to 90,000
- Middle Grade Fiction: 30,000 to 50,000
- Chapter Book: 3,000 to 10,000
- Nonfiction: 50,000 to 80,000
- How-To and Self-Help Books: 45,000 to 55,000
- Memoir: 60,000 to 90,000
- Novella: 10,000 to 40,000
Word Count Based on Genre
In addition to knowing your word count based on the type of book you are writing, understanding genre expectations is also crucial. Sometimes authors need to factor in both the audience of their manuscript as well as the genre. This is one reason why knowing your genre and subgenre is so important, too. Do read up on that topic to get the full picture.
Let’s take the popular young adult fiction science fiction dystopian novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, as an example. It comes in at 99,750 words. Oh no! You might be thinking it is breaking the word count speed limit for a young adult novel. However, it is within the limit for a science fiction novel. Combining those factors means that type of manuscript falls within its word count limits.
Here are some general word counts for genre fiction:
- Science Fiction: 90,000-130,000
- Fantasy: 80,000-140,000
- Mystery: 70,000-90,000
- Crime: 75,000-135,000
- Thriller: 70,000-90,000
- Horror: 80,000 – 95,000
- Historical Fiction: 80,000-100,000
- Romance: 40,000-75,000
Don’t Take Our Word, Do Your Research
There are many variances in opinions on word counts. Plus, one can further break down word count recommendations by subgenres. Paranormal romance with its elements of horror, suspense, and fantasy can climb up to 95,000 words. Christian romance with its spiritual themes might come in lower at 55,000 to 65,000 words. Regency romance with historical elements is often between 45,000 and 85,000 words.
While this article is intended to guide you, there are other sources you can consider. For example, some writing organizations offer word count recommendations. Editors are another good source. Your content editor should be able to advise you on word count while taking that first pass at your book. Many editors can trim around 20% of a manuscript just by focusing the story, cleaning up redundancies, and using word economy tactics.
The folks at Author Learning Center have general guidelines for word counts. Consider these suggestions for the most common genres from them. Other sources you may include advice from Writers and Artists, Literary Rejections, and books like Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.