Editors Blog

Will Publishers Buy a 200,000-Word Novel?

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 are a few exceptions where a fiction writer—who has a large, established platform—breaks through and sells a behemoth of that size, but it’s rare . In fact, most agents won’t even look at a fiction manuscript if the word count breaks 100,000, let alone double that.

Why? Cost. It’s extremely expensive to print (and ship) and book that large. More pages cost more money. Bigger books mean fewer in each shipping box, which means more boxes required to ship the same number of books. Plus there are more internal costs for editing. It’s hard for publishers to justify this added expense on first-time authors without a track record of excellent sales. By trying to get a book that size published, you are putting yourself at a big disadvantage.

[Want to know the standard word counts for different genres? Here's the definitive post on word counts.]

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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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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9 thoughts on “Will Publishers Buy a 200,000-Word Novel?

  1. thetelleroftales

    Another good example is the Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien originally wrote it in one novel, but in the end the publishers decided on splitting it. In some ways, that ended up boosting the sales. My personal opinion is that trilogies or series don’t have to be able to stand alone, and it will work well if you can hook your readers in the first book. Still, I don’t have a lot of experience, so we’ll see.

  2. cecalli

    The publishing world is changing so fast that is difficult to follow its steps. I suggest that even if you have a great story in 200,000 words, you should split it. The most important thing is that everybody wins, both your audience and you. Instead of having one great story that nobody reads because nobody dares to publish because of its length and cost, you may end having 2 or 3 great books, than can be successful. It is better to get adapted to the present needs. I stand for the Harry Potter’s example. I, myself, have written a 10 chapter fantasy fiction book, in which every chapter can live by itself, like a series of one big idea. Besides, once you get very well known, you can always create a deluxe version of the complete book, with your 200,000 words, and nobody will complain then! Everybody wins! You’ll have 2-3 books and the deluxe one. ;)

  3. jotokai

    I always loved the work of Terry Brooks. Even then, as a kid, I remember that he loved to make wordy sentences. Now, maybe there’s something in your uncut version that wouldn’t be there; but just because you can’t see how it can be done, doesn’t mean it can’t. Stephen King says that some of his success comes from having been required to write a full size story, then cut it down to five hundred words.

    Either way, I wish you and Brian Klems luck. He should videotape it in case he succeeds with his slam dunk!

  4. Michael Leo Morrison

    Amen to that. I have written an incredible 240,000 word novel. Self-published, it slightly exceeds 600 pages.

    A year ago, I took it with me to a Writer’s Digest agent slam here in LA. Three hours and four hundred bucks later, I realized I was trying to sell a symphony to a roomful of people looking for the next Britney Spears pop hit. None of them would even glance at it. What’s it about, and how long is it? End of discussion.

    It is also available on Kindle, Nook, and iBook (or whatever that is), but without promotion, no one is ever going to see it.

    As an author, I realize the satisfaction of having written something is apart from whether or not it sells and makes me any money. My two novels are good, and I can hold them in my hands and realize I’ve written them.

    Have a nice day.

  5. karinfuller@gmail.com

    I’m betting few readers of a 200,000 word book would agree there’s nothing that could be cut. I know a writer whose manuscript includes an 80-page fight scene. ONE scene. 80 pages. He believes it’s written as tightly as possible. I could reduce that scene to two pages without losing one essential element, but he’s so in love with every one of his words he won’t allow it. The book will probably never be published unless he pays to do it himself. If I were an agent and someone presented me with a 200,000 word book, I’d assume they were someone who is resistant to editing and wouldn’t take them on, regardless how promising the idea for the story might be.

    Now, all that said, my favorite books include Lonesome Dove, The Stand, and Gone With the Wind, so some of us are goofy enough to take on reading those monsters, but man–would I love to have the time to go through each of them and find what could be lost.

  6. jannertfol

    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.

    1. stanislavf

      Economics ALWAYS played a role, even in Margaret Mitchell’s day. Exceptions don’t prove the rule.

      The history of publishing is littered with these sorts of exceptions and they are remembered because they are exceptions.

      In fact, the only reason that more and more people ARE considering self publishing is also due to economics. It is now vastly cheaper to self publish.

      THE AVERAGE new author and book sells about 50 copies.

  7. M. Salahuddin Khan

    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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