Why is a novel’s word count so important?

Word Counts and book sizes

If you are searching for an answer to this, it’s likely you’re a new author who is either about to write, or is writing a debut novel.

Although there are no hard and fast rules to stick to, there is such a thing as an average length for a novel. The industry standard word count for most novels ranges between 50,000 and 120,000 words.

  • Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
  • Romance: 50,000 – 80,000
  • Mystery: 70,000 – 100,000
  • Thriller: 70,000 – 100,000
  • Historic fiction: 80,000 – 110,000
  • Sci-fi/fantasy: 90,000 – 120,000

A seventy-thousand-word difference is quite large, I grant you, but genre norms and the age of your target audience will dictate where your novel will sit on the scale. Even your sub-genre will impact your word count.

Right now, you might not have decided if you’ll try traditional publishing or walk the path of the self-published author. But whatever route you eventually take, it’s worth knowing why the industry gives so much credence to the word count of a manuscript.

It all comes down to the reader.

A book’s word count is not necessarily something a reader consciously considers. But an overly thick or thin spine will give them an idea of how long it will take to read. If the book looks out of place on the shelf, a reader is unlikely to pick it up.

Conforming to industry standards
Conforming to industry standards

There is one exception to this. If a writer is well established, readers will be aware of their previous books and are more likely to buy it.

But if you’re a new writer, this exception will not apply to you. You’ll be counting on a reader taking a gamble on your book, which they don’t particularly like to do.

Professionals working within the traditional publishing industry know this. Therefore, literary agents, editors, and publishers will give any outliers a wide birth. Especially if the writer is unknown.

Over the years, certain patterns have emerged. These trends show readers unconsciously respond to word counts (or more accurately, book size). Anyone financially investing in the publishing process will rely on historic data to turn a profit. It also means they are often reluctant to gamble their money when the data tells them not to.

However, in the self-publishing world, we are not restricted by what an agent or publisher will or won’t accept. We are free to do as we please.

But if sales are our goal, then we need to work within industry standards.

Our readers are the same as those targeted by traditionally published writers. And as a self-published author, it’s worth working with the data rather than trying to break the mould.

Writing for an audience
Writing for an audience

Why do they range so much?

If we consider the content each genre is likely to have, we can glean an understanding of why the word counts vary so much.

For instance, a Romance novel usually focuses on two characters and their relationship. It would be a difficult task for a writer to keep a reader interested for 90,000 words without adding a deeper storyline. And this is where we see sub-genres creep in.

A Romance novel where the characters are caught up in a mystery now becomes a romance mystery novel. It will deliver the elements of romance, whilst giving the characters and reader something more to think about. This type of story can easily reach 90k with no issues.

On the other side of the coin, a world-building fantasy would be very hard-pressed to deliver a whole story arc in 60k words. The writer would need to omit so much that the story and their fantasy world would be left feeling empty or hollow.

When a writer creates a world of fantasy, they need time to deliver it to a reader. If done well, there is no reason why this kind of novel cannot reach 120,000 words. More often than not, the difficult part is keeping the manuscript below that number.

Do I have to stick to the rules?

To debut authors, I will say yes. Remember, you don’t have a fanbase or a writer’s platform to help persuade readers to take a chance on a mould-breaking novel.

Pushing the boundaries
Pushing the boundaries

But the more books you release, the more flexible you can become with your numbers.

For example, a debut crime novel will usually finish at around 80,000 words. This is a perfect word count that will see the entire story arc played out in full. And this can be said for most genres.

At 80k, the reader will be introduced to the characters, the main plot, and any sub-plots. But it would be difficult to give every character a backstory within this range. This is perfect for a standalone novel in this genre.

A sequel to the first novel could grow to 90k words because now, the reader knows the characters and is likely to be curious about their backstories. And in order to deliver the details, the writer can use more words to satisfy the reader.

Now that the writer has established themselves and built a readership, they are free to bend the rules a little. They can now push the boundaries a little further and peak at around 100k words if the story requires it.

And this is a good pattern for a series.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on the debut.

What does a word count say?

In the world of traditional publishing, the word count is a beacon to literary agents of how well the manuscript has been edited by the author. An overly high word count signals the author is unable to, or unwilling to edit out elements of overwriting.

This can be a red flag to an agent because it could mean the writer has trouble with killing their darlings. It takes a lot of effort for a writer to create a chapter. But it’s a lot harder for a writer to acknowledge that the chapter might need to be removed. And even harder for them to actually remove it.

Good or Bad signals
Good or Bad signals

On the other hand, if a novel struggles to reach a typical word count for its genre, it could be that the writer doesn’t have the creative tools to develop the story further. Or, maybe the story doesn’t need to be further developed and isn’t actually a novel.

As I said earlier, self-published authors don’t need to worry about what an agent looks for. But they must bear in mind, there’s a reason why the professionals look at things like this.

Here’s a sports analogy for you: traditional publishing professionals are like sports coaches. They lean on experience and knowledge to know what works and what’s likely to fail.

Self-publishing authors might not need to follow industry standards to hook an agent, but they should certainly consider running on a parallel track.

It doesn’t have to be a novel

Like everything, stories come in many shapes and sizes, and it’s important to know the difference.

A story of any word count can fall under the following classifications:

  • Novel: 50,000 – 120,000 Words
  • Novella: 17,500 – 50,000 words
  • Short story: 7,700 – 17,500 words
  • Flash fiction: Less than 7,500 words

Again, these are just guidelines and mean different things to different people. But if you try to publish a novel that isn’t really a novel, it will not sell very well.

Same product in different sizes
Same product in different sizes

Not every story needs to be the length on an average novel.

If a story can be told in a certain number of words, then that’s what needs to happen. Padding out a story to reach a predetermined word count won’t just damage the narrative ­it’ll annoy the hell out of the readers.

Correctly classifying your book is the best thing you can do for everyone.

Finally

Word count targets are hard to hit. Going from a blank page to a finished novel is quite intimidating. So, the first thing I will say is for you to simply write your first novel. No editing or rewriting – get to the end of your story.

Only with a completed first draft will you be able to see if you need to write more, or cut away words. Under or overwriting during the first draft is common, so don’t kick yourself if you’ve missed the word count of your genre target.

Remember, the figures above are guides, and good self-editing is what will bring you within an acceptable range.

If you are struggling to reach a word count high enough to have your story classed as a novel, it might be worth reclassifying it.

Good luck

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