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Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New, Word Count.

Word count for novels and books is something I don’t think about too often until I travel to a writers’ conference, and then someone asks a simple, innocent question: “How long should a book be?” With that in mind, I’ve tried to put together the definitive post on word count for fiction (novels, young adult, middle grade, children’s books and even memoir).

 


The most important thing here is to realize that there are always exceptions to these rules. And man, people love to point out exceptions—and they always will. However, if there is one thing I remember from when my wife dragged me kicking and screaming to He’s Just Not That Into You, it’s that you cannot count on being the exception; you must count on being the rule. Aiming to be the exception is setting yourself up for disappointment.
What writers fail to see is that for every successful exception to the rule (e.g., a first-time 175,000-word novel), there are at least 100 failures if not 300.

Almost always, high word count means that the writer simply did not edit their work down enough. Or—it means they have two or more books combined into one.

“But what about J.K. Rowling???” asks that man in the back of the room, putting his palms up the air. Well—remember the first Harry Potter book?  It wasn’t that long. After JK made the publishing house oodles and oodles of money, she could do whatever she wanted.  And since most writers haven’t earned oodles, they need to stick to the rules and make sure they work gets read. The other thing that will make you an exception is if your writing is absolutely brilliant. But let’s face it. Most of our work does not classify as “absolutely brilliant” or we’d all have 16 novels at this point.

(Should you sign with a new literary agent? Know the pros and cons.)

ADULT NOVELS: COMMERCIAL & LITERARY

Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.

Now, speaking broadly, you can have as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words. That is the total range. When it dips below 80K, it might be perceived as too short—not giving the reader enough. It seems as though going over 100K is all right, but not by much. I suggest stopping at 109K because just the mental hurdle to jump concerning 110K is just another thing you don’t want going against you. And, as agent Rachelle Gardner (Books & Such Literary) pointed out when discussing word count, over 110K is defined as “epic or saga.” Chances are your cozy mystery or literary novel is not an epic. Rachelle also mentions that passing 100K in word count means it’s a more expensive book to produce—hence agents’ and editors’ aversion to such lengths.

In short:
80,000 – 89,999:       Totally cool
90,000 – 99,999:       Generally safe
70,000 – 79,999:       Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 – 109,999:    Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000:           Too short
110,000 or above       Too long

Chick lit falls into this realm, but chick lit books tend to be a bit shorter and faster. 70-75K is not bad at all.

SCI-FI AND FANTASY

Science fiction and fantasy are the big exceptions because these categories tend to run long. It has to do with all the descriptions and world-building in the writing.

With these genres, I would say 100,000 – 115,000 is an excellent range.  It’s six-figures long, but not real long. The thing is: Writers tend to know that these categories run long so they make them run really long and hurt their chances. There’s nothing wrong with keeping it short (say, 105K) in these areas. It shows that you can whittle your work down.

Outside of that, I would say 90K-100K is most likely all right, and 115-124K is probably all right, too. That said, try to keep it in the ideal range.

(Is it best to query all your target agents at once? — or just a few to start?)

MIDDLE GRADE

Middle grade is from 20,000 – 55,000, depending on the subject matter and age range, and the word count of these books has been trending up in recent years. When writing a longer book that is aimed at 12-year-olds (and could maybe be considered “tween”), using the term “upper middle grade” is advisable. With upper middle grade, you can aim for 40,000 – 55,000 words. These are books that resemble young adult in matter and storytelling, but still tend to stick to MG themes and avoid hot-button, YA-acceptable themes such as sex, drugs and rock & roll. You can stray a little over here but not much.

With a simpler middle grade idea (Football Hero, or Jenny Jones and the Cupcake Mystery), aim lower.  Shoot for 20,000 – 35,000 words.

YOUNG ADULT

Perhaps more than any other, YA is the one category where word count is very flexible.

For starters, 55,000 – 69,999 is a great range. 

The word round the agent blogosphere is that these books tend to be trending longer, saying that you can top in the 80Ks. However, this progression is still in motion and, personally, I’m not sure about this. I would say you’re playing with fire the higher you go.  When it gets into the 80s, you may be all right—but you have to have a reason for going that high. Again, higher word counts usually mean that the writer does not know how to edit themselves.

A good reason to have a longer YA novel that tops out at the high end of the scale is if it’s science fiction or fantasy. Once again, these categories are expected to be a little longer because of the world-building.

Concerning the low end, below 55K could be all right but I wouldn’t drop much below about 47K.

PICTURE BOOKS

The standard is text for 32 pages. That might mean one line per page, or more. 500-600 words is a good number to aim for. When it gets closer to 1,000, editors and agents may shy away.

WESTERNS

I remember reading some Westerns in high school and, if I recall correctly, they weren’t terribly long. There wasn’t a whole about this on agent and editor sites, but from what I found, these can be anywhere from 50K to 80K. 65,000 is a solid number to aim for.

MEMOIR

Memoir is the same as a novel and that means you’re aiming for 80,000-89,999. However, keep in mind when we talked about how people don’t know how to edit their work. This is specially true in memoir, I’ve found, because people tend to write everything about their life—because it all really happened.

Coming in a bit low (70-79K) is not a terrible thing, as it shows you know how to focus on the most interesting parts of your life and avoid a Bill-Clinton-esque tome-length book. At the same time, you may want to consider the high end of memoir at 99,999. Again, it’s a mental thing seeing a six-figure length memoir.

SOME THOUGHTS

You have agents like Nathan Bransford (now formerly an agent) and Kristin Nelson who say that you shouldn’t think about word count, but rather you should think about pacing and telling the best story possible—and don’t worry about the length. Yes, they’re right, but the fact is: Not every agent feels that way and is willing to give a 139,000-word debut novel a shot. Agents have so many queries that they are looking for reasons to say no. They are looking for mistakes, chinks in the armor, to cut their query stack down by one. And if you adopt the mentality that your book has to be long, then you are giving them ammunition to reject you. Take your chances and hope that excellent writing will see your baby through no matter (and I hope it does indeed break through).

But I believe that we cannot count on being the exception; we must count on being the rule. That’s the best way to give yourself your best shot at succeeding.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

 

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44 Responses to Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post

  1. rich olson says:

    I just did a word count on Maurice Sendak’s picture book “Where the Wild Things Are.” It was 333 words which tends to be lower then the average picture book. I am using this number count as a benchmark for my own storybook.
    Richard Olson/children’s book illustrator
    http://braintofu1.blogspot.com

  2. HannahEMurphy says:

    Great article! Thank you for sharing!

    One question, though. Sci-fi/Fantasy tends to be in the 100,000′s range while YA is in the 55,000′s range. What about a fantasy YA?

    Thanks!

    -Hannah

  3. aladida says:

    What about an historical novel. Edward Rutherford’s first historical Sarum was very well over 100,000 words. Do you really think writing an historical that is epic-like can be done in less than 100,000 words? This is one of the most disappointing articles I have read. It seems there is no room to write an epic that covers thousands of years in one book. Is everyone supposed to appeal the ‘lesser reader?’ is writing a business of’ ‘laz agts & cst ctg pubs?’

  4. jannertfol says:

    This is a dreadful trend. I know it makes it ‘easier’ for publishers to whack through their pile of manuscripts, arbitrarily rejecting ones that are ‘too long’—without even bothering to read any of them. But length has nothing whatever to do with quality, or pacing, or story content.

    I know as a reader, I am never put off by how long a novel appears to be. Many of my favourite books of all time are ‘long’ ones. Some stories offer full immersion, and are not meant to be quick reads. These are the kinds of books I prefer, as a BUYER of books.

    This arbitrary length ‘rule’ is just laziness on the part of agents and publishers, unless they represent a genre that requires a certain format, such as Mills & Boon. Sorry. No wonder so many people—including already-published authors—are planning to go the self-publishing route for their new work.

    I have no interest in writing-by-numbers to satisfy some agent’s notion of an ideal word count. I don’t write genre stories, and I never will. I edit my own work to within an inch of its life, down (or up) to whatever word count that works best for my story. I want to be proud of what I’ve written, and I want my novel to say what I want it to say. What’s the point of writing, if that’s not my goal?

  5. LeftWrite says:

    I’m sorry, Chuck, but I side with Nathan Bransford and Kristin Nelson on this one. I worry more about the pacing, telling the best possible story, and having fun doing so. I’ve written a lot of flash fiction, so I know I can write tight. But my first novel, an historical fiction with two main characters, easily broke 165,000 words.I know there are plenty of writers who have written works much longer than mine; names such as Wally Lamb, Stephen King, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace come to mind. Maybe my first novel just won’t be my springboard to success.Or maybe I just need to keep looking until I find my ideal agent.

  6. january5bday says:

    Oh goodness, I was worried I would make my book too long, but when I saw the word count for fantasy novels I realized I was aiming a little on the short side (90,000 words). Lol. Thank you for writing this. It is very helpful.

  7. houguinea says:

    Hi, I was just wondering if age affects how publishing companies look at your word count. I am sixteen, and my novel is 80k words long. I have done a good job of editing it, and everyone who has reviewed it has said that it is very good. It’s historical fiction, but really fits more into the adult or young adult genres. This is my first book, so I am rather naive about the publishing thing. Can anybody offer some welcome advice to a novice author?

    • atwhatcost says:

      Yes! Stop telling people how old you are!

      You’ll be published by the merit of your novel, not your age. The only thing telling your age does for you is to have slush-pile readers think, “Oh no. Another teenager who thinks this is the one.” And that’s all done in the space it takes to flick it to the reject pile. You have to be as good as any other writer, not “good for my age.” So, get your age out of your head, when approaching an agent or publisher with your query. Don’t mention age at all, until you talk or it’s time to sign the contract. The only reason you mention it then is because it’s likely your parents will want to go with you to make sure the contract is legitimate (and possibly because they don’t want you going into a big city on your own. ;) )

      (Also, if by “everyone who has reviewed it has said that it is very good” you mean “my family and friends think I’m good,” you’re simply not ready to publish yet. If “everyone who has reviewed it has said that it is very good” means your writing group has read it, and some people in your writing group are authors–not merely writers–then you’re ready to start studying the publishing aspect of getting your manuscript out there. But realize this, you are most certainly competing with older people and you are expected to be just as good, because no one is judging you by your age.)

  8. houguinea says:

    Hi, I’m just finishing my first novel. It’s roughly 80k words long after editing. It is historical fiction, (I have done so much research it’s not funny), but it is much shorter than recommended for that genre. I am not sure if the content would fit into the guise of YA or adult. I’ve had several writers review it, and they all say it is “masterful storytelling with beautiful prose,” not to brag about myself or anything like that… but it moves very quickly, while gives plenty of historical tidbits. Does word count really matter that much to publishers? The other thing is that I am only sixteen. Will that affect how publishers look at me? Will they be more or less lenient? Since this is my first book, I’m rather naive about the publishing process. Can anyone offer some helpful and much appreciated advice?

  9. hotwriter says:

    I have a Work in Progress that’s over 60,000 words and I am not done editing it. Should I pad the story up just to make a word count?

    • atwhatcost says:

      No, you make it good and worry about if you have enough words only after it’s great. By that time, chances are good it won’t be 60,000 words. Padding it just makes it noticeable that you’re padding it.

  10. standardprincess says:

    While reading this, I recalled my high school senior year english prof. who told me about a story of hemingway.
    Its only 6 words http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/28/baby-shoes/

  11. lisawritesbooks says:

    Chuck – I’m curious how word count ranges and limits have evolved. There appears to have been some shrinkage over time. In 2008 I pitched my literary novel to an agent at the San Francisco Writers Conference. He seemed enthusiastic and described himself as “very interested” until he asked the dreaded word count question. When I answered, he winced (yes, Gentle Reader, he did) and said, “I’m really interested in this. Well, I would be really interested if it were no more than 120,000. If you can get it down to that, then query me and say you pitched to me here.”

    Other agents at the conferences and workshops I attended around that time, as well as various articles mentioning word counts, seemed to be in agreement.

    I’ve no doubt you speak the gospel in declaring the permissible word count upper limit for literary fiction as 100,000, with 110,000 and up being “Too long”. That’s ten – twenty thousand less than a handful of years ago. What’s happened?

  12. Michael1950 says:

    A very suspect article, especially when there are guidlines available from a variety of sources that actually define word counts for different genre’s as well as age groups. One example is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America’s definitions. For that group, a novel is more than 40K words, a Novella is 17.5K words, and a short story is under 7.5K words. I don’t mind a publisher, agent or even a writer giving us his opinion of what word count makes a book, but to try to pass it off as definitive is more than arrogant. Pfft.

  13. Avatar13 says:

    Chuck: I don’t see a recommended length for historical fiction. Some of the posts I’ve encountered in the past seem to support a length of between 150,000 and 200,000 for historical fiction, and I’m wondering if you would concur or take issue with that. The exhaustively-edited and re-edited novel I have written is a little under 250,000 words; hence, its length is not due to a lack of editing but the presence of two major historical narratives (one from the ninth century and one from the twentieth century) along with several smaller ones, perhaps in the vein of something like “Cloud Atlas” (but spanning a far longer period of history). This is because the book is not merely a “historical novel” but a novel about the relationship between history and myth, as well as the individual stories within it. Perhaps to you this sounds like one hot mess of utterly unmarketable excess. But I would ask: how qualitatively different is being the one in 100 (or more) “great” long novels that gets sold versus being the 1 in 200 (or more) novels of ANY length that gets sold? I’m not trying to be cute here. But really, it’s a vertical challenge regardless, yes? Isn’t the key really the writing itself? I have asked all sorts of people I know–lawyers, hair stylists, shampoo gals, teachers, admins, restaurant servers–if reading a 700-page novel by an unknown writer would bar them from buying the book. Only one of them has said ‘yes.’ The only thing they all said mattered was if they ‘heard it was good.’ That’s always been the only factor for me that mattered. I actually find very long novels “exciting”: like an adventure, a voyage. Finishing the last page of the last volume of Proust was one of the saddest days of my entertainment life. I felt like I’d moved out of state.

    • Chuck Sambuchino says:

      I haven’t seen much on historical, but I would say no more than 125K is a safe bet. 250K seems just way too long. If you really feel like you can’t edit it any more and that it MUST be that length, then all you can do is query away and hope for the best.

  14. myrtlebeachgirl says:

    Thanks Chuck! Kind of scratching my head over the YA numbers, tho. Teens and young adults love a lengthy read because they invest more heavily in the characters. No one can deny the success of big, honking books, in endless series, like Twilight and Harry Potter (which appeals to a far wider audience than it was probably intended to). What do you think is the reasoning behind the more conservative word counts in this genre? Are these only first novel word counts?

    • Chuck Sambuchino says:

      First books, yes. Go look at the first Harry Potter book. Is is quite short. Only after Rowling proved herself a bestseller did she get leeway to write however long she liked.

      • katay444 says:

        Just thought I’d point out that even though the first Harry Potter book is shorter than the others, it still clocks in at 77,000 words. That’s a good 7,000 words higher than your suggestion for YA, and it’s actually classified as MG, which should theoretically be even shorter than YA. I think 55-70K is on the short end for YA if you’re including YA fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal in your calculations.

      • mmcoxbooks says:

        Divergent and Hunger Games are both first books, and they both clock in around 100K. So it does seem like they’re trending longer. Also, I walked through the MG section at B&N the other day and those books are thick. Maybe that’s why kids are reading less? I hope not. Big books never scared me!

  15. alshultz says:

    Once again, I find just what I’m looking for written by Chuck. Thank you -

  16. GillianBagwell says:

    Third, in progress, at over 125,000 for second draft.

  17. GillianBagwell says:

    Thanks – I’m sharing this with the online class on writing historical fiction I’m teaching! I’m sure you’re right that in general, under 300 pages is better. But I think that historical fiction as a genre tends to be longer. My first novel, “The Darling Strumpet,” was just over120,000 words, and my second a bit longer. And my contract specified manuscript to be between 90,000-120,000 words!

  18. nurice says:

    This is a super-helpful post, Chuck! Thank you.

  19. atwhatcost says:

    I have read so many versions of word counts online. WD is finally a place I trust for this topic. Thanks – even knowing now my word count will be leaning too far to too high for younger MG. (If my characters were only older by a couple of years. Alas. They are the perfect age for this story. lol)

  20. virginiallorca says:

    Thinking about how tall an agents slush pile is and tailoring your writing to that seems so wrong.

  21. rickrbc says:

    Very helpful. Thanks for all the important numbers.

  22. Great post! Thanks for the numbers. Seems to me that the most important thing is to tell a good, well-written (and edited) story. But knowing the boundaries helps when considering to publish.

    So thank you!

  23. Can you talk a bit more about what constitutes word count? Is this simply what Microsoft Word says at the bottom “Words: 50,000″ or whatever? MS Word counts hyphenated words as one word. “Seventeen-year-old” is one word for MS Word. Do agents and publishers use some other tool to count words? Is there any magic involved that’s not obvious to the newcomer?

    Thanks!

  24. add site says:

    Have to take issue with you about the length of SF though – the best novels in the SF genre have all been on the short side and the best early SF novels were around 60K only.

  25. Thank you–these guidelines are fantastic. I wish I could have read this before I wrote my first novel. Free Submit Url

  26. Thank you for covering YA SFF. I have recently taken up my pen and finally begun plotting out the hybrid genre YA book I’ve had in my head for quite a while, and I’ve worried about the 50k word limit I’ve heard so often cited.

    And Judi Moore, how long was Dune? It definitely sits as one of the great SF books, and if I recall, it was pretty wordy. But other than that, you’re right–SF is about ideas and their realization; fantasy is about epic worldbuilding. It’s when a hybrid comes along (for instance Star Wars or Stephen King’s The Dark Tower), where genre conventions are blurred and intermingled, that SF books really get some meat on their bones.

  27. C. Divoky says:

    Do you have any information re word counts for a self help book?

  28. Terry says:

    Thank you, I’ve been confused about the numbers. Now I know. I’ve asked this question before at a writers group, and as you said, a firestorm ensued. I went away bewildered.

    Your blog is always informative. I love your agent interviews too. Great series.

  29. Judi Moore says:

    Like another commenter said: great to have these numbers all in one place.

    Have to take issue with you about the length of SF though – the best novels in the SF genre have all been on the short side and the best early SF novels were around 60K only. I’m racking my brains just now for a long one … nooo. Not coming up with anything. Fantasy now – that’s a different matter. All those magic swords and elves seem to bulk a book up in no time.

    Great blog. Very helpful. Many thanks.

  30. Brian Jung says:

    I always feel so hesitant to accept any of these rules. Yeah, it’s partly because I want to see myself as the exception, as "above" such simple prescriptions.

    But there are also those exceptions. And it’s not just that there are a few exceptions that happen to be successful, it’s that the most successful books tend to be exceptions to the rules–I’m thinking in terms of MG: not just Harry Potter but Inkheart and The Peter Pan prequels on the long end, Lemony Snicket on the short end. Yes, I know these exceptions are usually by experienced writers who got where they were by first following the rules.

    But the books would still be great books (and probably good sellers) even if they’d been written by unknowns.

    The whole thing makes the "rules" seem arbitrary. Why aren’t publishers interested in publishing books that are very much like the ones that sell the most copies?

    Is it that unknown names are statistically unlikely to sell long or short books? (If that’s really the case, I’ll withdraw all my whining.) Or is that just the perception? Or is there some other logic to it?

    I do believe that you are representing the reality of the publishing world. I just wish I understood WHY.

    In any event, I very much appreciate the advice given here and in all of your columns. Your blog has answered so many of my questions. Thanks!

  31. Sheila Deeth says:

    Thank you. It’s great to have all these numbers in one place.

  32. Aaron Swann says:

    Great post. I refer to this as "the Underdog syndrome." We are attracted to underdogs. We love the Little Engines That Could. We admire success in the face of overwhelming adversity. And, because we romanticize it, many people want to cast themselves in the role of underdog. They want to be able to tell the story of how, despite the fact that only one in three hundred 150,000 word first YA novels finds any success, THEIRS did. I often coach writers to stick to telling the stories on their pages and not hope to be able to tell the story about how they beat the odds. Leads to far less heartbreak.

  33. And perhaps I should edit before I post…

    "Middle Grade" instead of "they Middle Grade"
    "define" instead of "definite"

  34. Thank you for this information. This is my first time on your blog. One number that I’ve been forever frustrated in finding out is: children’s first chapter books (like the Junie B. Jones ones). How many words are those? Is there a standard?

    Are these books classified under "Children’s Books?" For some reason, whenever that moniker comes up, people always think of picture books. Like they "Middle Grade" perhaps there should be an "Elementary Grade" to definite these stories.

    And a final related question is: Would agents who represent "children’s books" be the ones to approach with these chapter books?

    Thanks much for your time and advice.

  35. Thank you–these guidelines are fantastic. I wish I could have read this before I wrote my first novel. Of course, I probably had to write the whole thing and get rejected to force myself to see I really had, as you said, enough material for more than one book!

  36. Lis Garrett says:

    Thanks for the guidelines!

    I think many writers get hung up on word count, myself included. But I want to make sure I’m at least in the general ballpark of what is acceptable. I’m nearly done with my first YA novel, and I’m currently sitting at just over 67,000 words. I estimate I have another two chapters to complete, which might put me over 75,000 words. Of course I’ve yet to edit, and hopefully I’ll be editing out and not in. ;-)

    • atwhatcost says:

      Just curious. When you wrote this you were nearly done your first draft. How different is it in word count three years later? (I’m in my Nthteenth revision, and I keep thinking I know how long it is, until I have to revise again. lol)

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