Q: Traditionally, a novel's word count was estimated by multiplying the number of pages by 250 words per page (assuming standardized margins, font, double space, etc.) Now, word processors can give exact word counts instantly. When agents ask for a novel's word count, do they want the "traditional" word count or the "word processor" word count? —Guy T.
A: Either number will suffice, but you're always better off going with the more accurate word-processor count. It's important to keep in mind that agents and publishers aren't going to punish you for being a few words off in your query letter. Why? Because the specific number doesn't matter so much. They are basically looking for an accurate ballpark picture of where your work falls in the big number range—is your novel roughly 85,000 words (good) or is it closer to 250,000 words (yikes). Also keep in mind that agents expect you to have electronic versions of your manuscript—if you don't, getting a book deal will be nearly impossible—and any electronic version can get a word-count scan on it. So with the technology at your fingertips it's almost silly not to embrace it.
Your best plan of attack with today's agents is to use a word processor's word-count function to get the exact number and then round up to the nearest thousand (In Microsoft Word, the word-count function is under the "tools" file menu). For example, if your novel Harry Trotter and the Sorcerer's iPhone spits back a word count of 91,437 words, your query letter should read something like: "This 92,000-word satirical novel spoofing the Harry Potter series … "
And if, for some reason, your software doesn't have a word-count option, there are plenty of free websites that will run a word-count for you, like wordcounttool.com and wordcounter.net. Just cut and paste your text into the box and viola!