Monday, August 27, 2012

Sweet Spots: Taming the Word Count Monster

Size matters! Especially in word count for aspiring authors.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Stories like War and Peace exceed half a million words. Is it really so bad if I sneak in a few thousand extra words?”

Let’s begin by understanding that word count is NOT an element of literary style. It’s a business decision. Publishers judge manuscripts in terms of market potential and production/distribution costs. If two excellent stories reach the final step of the decision-making process, and one has 15,000 more words than the other, which one will the publisher choose?

Which book will the editor choose - 78K sci-fi, or 135K sci-fi?
Extra words mean more printed pages, more weight/cost, and a more expensive finished product. Higher price generally influences sales volume negatively. Editors know these realities, and they are acutely aware that an additional 15K of words means another 60 pages of cost.
Who gets to decide word count standards?

Readers do. They display their book preferences through historic purchasing patterns that include desirable story-lengths for each genre. And, book lovers are funny critters who want consistency. Publishers get paid to identify reader demands. Ever hear the expression, “Know your reader”? It’s no different for a publisher than for an author as editors cater to reader wants.

Do word count ranges change from time to time?

I wondered that, too, so I looked at new-author releases going back half a century. Word counts for first-time author releases have been remarkably consistent for decades. Recent invention of the electronic-book market dramatically reduced production and distribution costs, so you might think word count standards for digital books would be moot. They’re not.

E-book expectations come from two important influences. First, traditional expectations among readers in each genre-market tend to set word count. Second, e-books are often tied (in practice or by wishful thinking) to a print edition. In other words, a story released only in e-book format has no physical limitations, but if the publisher also expects to release a physical book, then old school limitations of production and distribution cost must apply to the e-book as well. Imagine the uproar if readers loved an e-book and bought paperbacks as gifts for their friends, only to discover that 40K of the story was edited out of the physical novel version.

What about awesome writing? Shouldn’t a fabulous story be able to defy industry norms?

This reasoning pops up a lot on internet writing forums. Wishful and idealistic aspiring authors gravitate to the notion that a great story can earn a pass on the word count issue.

Sorry, it’s not true. Consider a fabulous story in the YA genre. By current convention, it should run less than 75K in word count. But, let’s say this one runs 120K words and captivates the agent from page one to the last page. That agent must now convince acquisition editors at mainstream publishing houses to read the manuscript, despite its extreme length. That’s a tall order. Some editors will reject the story solely because its word count grossly exceeds industry expectations. Authors who attempt outside-the-box word counts might be limiting their chances of finding a willing publisher. Agents are smart. They know this, too. For that reason, some agents will automatically reject manuscripts with word counts significantly over (or under) industry expectations for a given genre. Do you want to eliminate a few potential agents or publishers before your book even gets reviewed?

“Come on, Dean,” you say. “I’ve read many stories with word counts far above the numbers I’ve seen recommended. How do you explain that?”

Easy. After an author sells the first ten novels, or climbs the New York Times Bestseller list, word count becomes much less important. It’s pretty simple. Successful authors get automatic sales from existing fans for their new releases. First time authors don’t offer that magic.

This does bring up an important point, though. Word count consideration should really be divided into three categories: first-time authors, journeyman authors, and high sales authors. I see comments all the time in forums where someone will cite the success of Tolstoy, Steinback or Hugo as justification for their excessively long manuscript. My response? “You ain’t Tolstoy.”

Let’s narrow this discussion down to first-time authors, since others already have publishing relationships and word count is less important. Would you like to know the ideal word counts by genre?

Marisa Corvisiero, Esq
I asked my literary agent, Marisa Corvisiero, this very question. She said ideal word counts shown below are for first-time authors in the print-book market. They aren’t set in stone, but straying far from these targets, diminishes your chances of finding an agent and publisher.

ALL GENRES from thriller to romance (except Fantasy/Sci-Fi):  85K

FANTASY/SCI-FI:  115K (120K if truly outstanding)

YA:  less than 75K

MG:  less than 65K

Memoirs and most non-fiction:  70-100K. (I usually find that over 90K is harder to sell.)

Novellas:  Adult - 45K to 65K

Short Stories:  10k to 45K

Marisa’s guideline word counts come from her professional experience, publisher/editor guidance and statistics for actual sales in industry publications such as Publishers Marketplace.

What about word count guidelines for electronic or digital-audio books?

Marisa told me it’s best to stick with the print expectations, because a successful e-book always has potential to expand into the print market. Many are planned that way from the outset. Readers will want the print book to mirror the digital story, so print book target lengths carry over to digital books.

Saritza Hernandez, friend, associate, electronic marketing guru, and Literary Agent in the Corvisiero Literary Agency, recently said, “In digital publishing, the word count limits for romance can vary but the standard generally runs (up to) 120k with the ‘sweet spot’ being around 50-60k for erotic romance, 75-90k for contemporary romance and 40-60k for gay romance. I've found if the word counts are within those ‘sweet spot’ ranges, the sales tend to be higher and the likelihood of seeing the book in print within the first year of publication (if not a digital-only publisher) is much better.”

I really like her advice. The concept of “sweet spots” for publishing and sales success makes a world of sense to me. Word counts should be viewed this way, as sweet spots that agents, publishers and, ultimately, fans expect.

What about sub-genres or special markets like those getting a lot of press lately, NA (New Adult) and Steampunk?

Marisa explained to me that Steam Punk can be middle grade, YA, or adult. Its word count should be at about the norm for the appropriate age group but can be a little higher because of the world-building and technology—sometimes, as high as science fiction and fantasy. NA defines a target market, as opposed to a specific genre. It follows the same basic guidelines for the underlying genre. For example, NA/Romance would strive for 85K, while NA/Fantasy might go to 115K.

I hope this discussion about word count provides you with the “reason d’etre” for the guidelines. As an aspiring author, the decision rests with you. Write your story any way you like it, but understand that your ultimate decision about word count can enhance or diminish your chance for commercial success. Truth is, the word count dance is only a one-time gig. Once you sell a bazillion books, you get to dictate word count to the publisher.

Hmmmm . . . move over Tolstoy! I feel a 600K urge coming on!


  1. Love it! And sometimes your blogs feel as though you talking right to me, Lol.


    1. Hi Susan, I'm glad you found something of interest in this blog. My goal is to give aspiring authors a sense of why it is important to pay attention to word count. Ultimately, these implied "rules" only apply to the first book published. After that, the author and publisher will jointly agree on word counts for future books. Thanks for stopping by...Dean

  2. Dean,
    I think your advice is right on target. I will add that while particpating on a panel with epic fantasy writers, they discussed contract clauses that set minimum word counts far above the average fantasy. It goes to reinforce what you'd indicated about reader expectations. But also, these authors had a proven track record before they were contracted to write their 150,000 to 250,000 word epics.

    1. Great perspective, Terry. It sheds light on what happens AFTER the aspiring author becomes a successful author with, as you said, "...a proven track record..." and a substantial fan base. Thank you for your comment...Dean

  3. Writers need a word counter to be able to know how many words their work is. Long literary pieces could make up a book.

  4. chris - every word processing program I have seen on the market today provides word count automatically. I stick with MS Word and it provides and ongoing word count. In addition, I can highlight a chapter or other section and get a word count just for that portion. Thank you for your comment...Dean


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