What’s in a Word Count?

1158260369_3ba07950e5_zIn a decent literary agent query, the word count is supposed to come right after the title of your book.

That’s right.

Before the genre and blurb.

The agent wants to see your novel’s word count before they see pretty much anything else about your book.

Because it’s really, really important.

The word count indicates how long the book is going to be, and thus how expensive printing costs will be.  Longer books need more paper and ink and printing time and everything else you’d expect.

Second, a word count, outside of a certain range, can limit the book’s market.  Think about your own experiences buying books in a book store.  If you had no knowledge of the author or story, were you likely to buy a book that appeared very short or very long?  Or were you more likely to buy the book that was sized “just right?”


Successful, established authors are more likely to get away with a long or short word count.  They – presumably – have an audience, so publishers have a degree of confidence they won’t be wasting their time and money on a book that won’t sell.

But I’m not an established author, and most of those reading this blog aren’t either.

So let’s dig into these guidelines.

The sources on the internet vary on the exact numbers, but a general rule of thumb is for a first time author to shoot for between 50,000-100,000 words.  This is a range where printing costs are relatively stable, as is the marketability.  Agents won’t reject your manuscript off hand in this range, although you’ll have to make sure the rest of your query and manuscript are up to snuff.

Sources indicate that this range varies by genre.  Check out this post or this post (or even this post) if you’d like to get more genre specific guidelines.  I won’t re-hash the ranges given by all these sources, because restating information is not useful.

My primary genres are fantasy and sci-fi.  Most of what I’ve read suggests that publishers and agents are willing to go a little longer in those genres, because readers have that same willingness.  Having read many a thousand page fantasy epic, this does not surprise me.  First time fantasy or sci-fi authors submitting manuscripts over 100,000 words long won’t be rejected off hand due to length.

That said, Jessica from Bookends Literary suggests “when in doubt, think 80,000 words, give or take.”  She elaborates, “I don’t think you can ever go wrong with 80,000 words whether you’re writing mystery, romance, fantasy, literary fiction, or nonfiction.”  This strikes me as excellent advice.


My Take

I think it’s important to remember you can’t count on being the exception.


I burn with jealousy

The exception is a novelty for a reason: the rule applies to virtually everyone else. Sure, Patrick Rothfuss’ brilliant The Name of the Wind clocked in at an absurd ~259,000 words even though he was a first time author… but he is the exception that proves the rule (as Kvothe would say).  And he wrote one of the greatest fantasy books ever written.

Your novel may be of such obscene quality that it deserves to be printed at 130,000 words, or even 200,000.  However, if nobody is bothering to read past the word count line in your query, you’re out of luck.

You’ll have to decide how you want to approach this conundrum yourself.

Personally, my goal is to hit somewhere around the 80,000 word mark, at least for my first novel.

I understand that sci-fi and fantasy writers are given more leeway with the word count.  But… I think of all the barriers that exist between writers and publication.  Queries can be rejected for any reason.

I don’t want my word count to be one of them, and I’d like to get my story past as many of an agent’s internal check boxes as I can.



Img: Meg

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Word Count?

  1. Good advice, particularly the part about not counting on being the exception. People always refer to various major authors with 300K+ word counts, and figure a good story can justify the extra words. That may be true in principal, or if you are very lucky and manage to get your submission around the slush pile, but for everyone else the best manuscript at 300K words will probably go unread.

    My first draft of my first novel weighed in around 115K words, and I am doing everything I can in revision to get it sub-100K before I try submitting it anywhere. I doubt I’ll get as low as 80K…

    • Hey, Mike,
      Thank you for your comment!

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Obviously these 300k word first time author books exist, so we know it’s doable. But we have to recognize that its probably a huge obstacle to getting published. It’s kind of a balance, because if the story isn’t done… well, it isn’t done.

      I’m in the same boat as you with one of my projects. My fantasy book is a 145k monster at the moment, and I’ve got another ~15k to go. It’s going to be an absolute nightmare getting that down to a more reasonable range. I’ll probably never get it to 80k either, but I’d settle for 99.999k ;-).

      Congrats on getting a first draft done! That’s a huge accomplishment. Good luck with the querying process, and keep me posted on how it goes.


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