Here’s why it’s worth paying attention to the length of your novel whether you’re publishing independently or submitting to an agent with the aim of securing a publishing contract.
What determines word count?
Guidance on word counts differs according to:
The infographic below provides a very rough guide to word counts – lower and upper limits and a midpoint. These align with publishing convention.
And these are conventions rather than rules, which is why the ranges are rather wide for some genres.
Economics: Printing costs
Pages cost money. KDP says: ‘Printing costs vary depending on page count and ink type (black ink or color ink). Trim size, bleed settings, and cover finish don’t affect printing cost.’
Bear in mind, however, that your chosen trim size will affect the number of words you or your designer fits on a page and therefore the page count, which in turn will affect printing costs.
It’s therefore worth experimenting with different trim sizes and interior designs if you’re going down the print-on-demand route.
There’ll be an optimal design that offers the desired aesthetic for your budget. Approximate calculations are available via the KDP print cost calculator.
If you’re printing in bulk with your own printer, there might be economies of scale on offer for larger print runs. Talk to the supplier and your formatter about how to keep costs down by tweaking the interior design without impacting on readability.
Economics: Editing costs
Generally, the more words in a book, the more each stage of editing will cost. Line editing 80K words will take perhaps a week longer than line editing 50K words.
If you’re working with a pro editor, remember to factor your word count into your chosen editor’s fee structure.
Expectations: Audience sweet spots
Readers have expectations. Back when my child was four, I expected the picture books I read for them to be shorter than the thrillers I read to myself.
And I don’t mind digging into 100K words or so for Baldacci because his books are quite detailed. Sue Grafton’s Alphabet mystery series has a different feel to it and I’ve come to expect a quicker read – around the 55–75K-word mark.
And if you're self-publishing, consider this from the IngramSpark blog: ‘With less time available for reading, it makes sense that readers want to get to the last page quicker. The trend for the past few years has been to publish books with less than 200 pages on average, or around 50,000 words’ (Self-publishing Trends 2018–2019).
Expectations: Agents and publishers
Agents want to sell books to publishers, and publishers want to sell books to readers.
Hitting an industry-standard isn’t about word count in itself. It’s about ensuring that the story is told with enough words, and only enough words so that readers are engaged.
Paying attention to word-count conventions reduces an author’s chances of ending up in a slush pile because there aren't red flags indicating overwriting if the novel is huge, and undeveloped story if the book's shorter than standard.
Why word counts help authors focus on quality
If you’re self-publishing, you’re in control. You might decide your thriller needs to be 130K words. If every word drives the story forward and holds the reader’s attention, great.
When the book's too long
If, however, 20K words are cluttering adverbs and adverbial phrases that could be removed or replaced with stronger verbs, the novel’s length isn’t serving the reader.
Or perhaps there are 30K words of laboured stage direction – detail that describes every mundane movement a character makes to remove themselves from a car, climb a flight of stairs, or move from one room to another. Often, nudges that enable the reader to make sense of space and place are enough.
Readers don’t count words, but they will start skimming over them if the prose isn’t tight. And so even if your first draft has X,000 words, use the revision stage to consider what needs to be removed or tweaked.
When the book's too short
If your novel’s word count is substantially lower than industry conventions, consider what might be missing. There could be structural issues such as a too predictable plot, undeveloped character arcs, or too few obstacles.
There could also be opportunities to show rather than tell a scene so that the narrative distance decreases and the reader is drawn deeper into character experience.
The difference between word count and page count
When it comes to novel length, bear in mind that page counts are affected by design (e.g. trim size, margin size, font size, layout) whereas word counts are determined by story alone.
Pro formatters can adjust the page count of a printed book by tweaking the design, though there are limitations.
No reader will be convinced that they’re holding an 80K-work crime novel just because 50K words are set in a Times New Roman 18.
On the other hand, if you’ve written 100K words aimed at the middle-grade market (8–12 years), you’d be wise to reduce the word count considerably rather than asking your designer to make your book look shorter by squeezing more words on each page!
Furthermore, when it comes to ebooks, there’s no such thing as a standard page because the reader controls how much text appears on the screen. Ebooks lengths are therefore measured in kilobytes (KB), not pages.
It’s a cliché but a good story is as long as it needs to be. Longer novels shouldn’t be longer because they haven’t been edited, and shorter novels shouldn’t be shorter because the story is insufficiently fleshed out.
Pay attention to word counts as part of an evaluation process that ensures the words that need to be on the page are on the page, and those that needn’t be there are removed. That way, your story will be in the best shape for your readers.
Related resources for authors
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
FIND OUT MORE
> Get in touch: Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader
> Connect: Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, Facebook and LinkedIn
> Learn: Books and courses
> Discover: Resources for authors and editors
'Louise uses her expertise to hone a story until it's razor sharp, while still allowing the author’s voice to remain dominant.'
'I wholeheartedly recommend her services ... Just don’t hire her when I need her.'
J B Turner
'Sincere thanks for a beautiful and elegant piece of work. First class.'
'What makes her stand out and shine is her ability to immerse herself in your story.'
'A million thanks – your mark-up is perfect, as always.'