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Will Publishers Buy a 200,000-Word Novel?

Categories: Publishing, Writing Advice.

Q: I am a first-time novelist with an incredible manuscript on my hands. The issue I have is that my work of historical fiction runs about 200,000 words long, and that’s with 60,000 already lopped off. I truly cannot see how I can make more (and such drastic) edits without ruining the story. Thus, my question is two-fold: What are my chances of selling this beast as a whole, and, is it possible to break it apart and sell it as a two-book installment deal?—Adam J.

A: I’ll be honest here: The chances of a first-time novelist selling a manuscript that clocks in at 200,000 words is about as likely as me in my 5’8″ frame dunking a basketball. There quite possibly could be a rare occasion or two where a fiction writer—who has a large, established platform—breaks through and sells a behemoth of that size, but I can’t think of any. In fact, most agents won’t even look at a fiction manuscript if the word count breaks 100,000, let alone double that.

So your first step is to really examine your work by having someone else examine your work and to make some tough decisions for you. Find an editor, ask him to take a look and tell him your dilemma. After one read, he should be able to tell you which sections deserved to be carved up. Keep in mind that you’ll likely have to pay for his services; but if you believe your book is destined to be a New York Times bestseller, it’s worth the upfront investment.

If you can’t afford to hire an editor, join a local writing group and ask if there’s someone who will book-swap with you (she’ll edit your manuscript, you edit hers). Here your investment is time, not money, and the payout certainly isn’t as reliable as what you’d get with a professional editor. But it does give you a chance to have a second pair of eyes look at your work for potential areas to cut—and that’s crucial before making any decisions about your next step.

After all of that, if you’re convinced that there’s nowhere left to cut, you should entertain the idea of splitting the book into two—if not three—volumes (hey, you have 60,000 words on the cutting room floor to work with if needed). This move requires you to reexamine your work again because each book must be able to stand alone on its own merits. For example, you can jump in, read and enjoy any Harry Potter book without necessarily having read the previous installments because each has its own overlying story arc. Your series of books must do the same.

And if you do sell a 200,000-word novel, definitely let me know. I’ll break out my basketball shoes.

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5 Responses to Will Publishers Buy a 200,000-Word Novel?

  1. jannertfol says:

    Pathetic.

    So if Gone With The Wind was a new novel by a new author (and Margaret Mitchell never wrote any other book), its word count of 245,000 means it would need to be split into 3 books OR lose 3/5 of the story?

    Pathetic.

    No wonder self-publishing is an option more and more people are considering.

    It’s got nothing whatever to do with quality, readability OR popularity. Only cheap sales. Pathetic.

  2. FJ says:

    I believe The Historian was well over 200,000 words. Wasn’t that a first novel?

  3. Brian, I think you need to mention that a big part of the issue, unsurprisingly, is economics.

    A six-figure print quantity for a first-time author is a high risk bet. Unless that’s the volume, the cost of a 200,000 word novel will be a much larger fraction of the price than would be the 80,000 version. The price elasticity isn’t there to allow the bigger work to command a proportionately higher price. Of course, if you’re Stephen KIng, you can splash out on 1,000 pages as the risks with a six-figure print quantity will be much lower. Secondly, for a new author, promotional budgets to get the name out in the media and to have reviewers rave over the work, will likely need to be a higher percentage of expected revenue. That expense must come from an already constricted gross margin if the print run isn’t large.

    All the above notwithstanding, I believe there’s a certain myopia in the approach by publishers. What it doesn’t look at for example, is the cost averaging effects of having electronic media books, whose production costs are zero and whose distribution costs have no relationship to word count. If publishers could take into account a likely mix of media formats, they would have less difficulty seeing enough margin not to rule out a promising but long story. I’m the author of SIKANDER, a 600 page , 205,000 word novel (won the LA Book Festival Grand Prize in March by the way!) which I self-published and I’m seeing gross margins in the 70% range even with my puny volumes and even with channel intermediaries like Amazon. This is mostly, because about half the volume is in Kindle or iPad format. Needless to say, I will continue promoting the electronic format while having the physical always available (and I don’t mean print-on-demand only).

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