Friday, February 08, 2013

The Importance of Word Count part 3

Now let's bring this word-count discussion to the next level.  How does it apply to a writer–especially a debut author–in a practical sense?

Well, as I've said before, the length will be a consideration when pitching to agents and publishers.  A publisher I met last fall said that the sweet spot for publishing a book is 400 pages.  If it's a shorter book, typesetters will play around with the margins to make it EXACTLY 400 pages long.  This isn't a hard and fast rule, but it's a guideline they like to work with because the profit margin is so much better for them if it's 400 pages.  And what that means for debut and mid-list authors is that if a book is just a little too long, they'll start playing around with chapter breaks to make it fit.  And margins.  And widows and orphans.  It's a lot of work.  Mid-list authors may be worth it, but if debut authors have an editor on the fence, the extra effort needed may be the difference between their books getting published, or the slightly less marketable but cheaper-to-publish novel that's similar to theirs.

Is that fair?  Well, who cares!  It's a fact of the business world, and like it or not, publishing is a business.  So here's my advice, and it's something I live by: go into a local bookstore, or hop online and find out which books in YOUR genre are on the top of the charts.  Then do a google search on all of those books and find out what their word-length is.  Don't go under that by more than 20%, and don't go OVER it by more than 10-15%.

An agent I follow did say that certain genres have less leeway.  Romance, for example, she won't look at books that aren't in the 95k-99k range.  (I believe those are the numbers she quoted, but it might be an even tighter margin.  The number 99,999 sticks out because I think that's the ABSOLUTE max unless the rest of the query is fantastic.)

Whether or not you outline, this affects the decisions you make as a writer.  When it comes time to revise, that's where you have to make decisions about cutting or adding scenes.  Yes, emotional connection must be made between characters and readers, but do the scenes need to be as long as they are?  Can they be longer?

A rough goal gives you some boundaries to work within, and they'll let you know if there's not enough world-building, character development, and overall plot (if it's less than 60k, for example, and you're writing a YA Fantasy).  If your 500k retelling of War and Peace (Part 1 of the trilogy!) isn't selling, then chances are there's TOO much going on.

And while writers get into writing for the sake of the art, at the end of the day it's all business.  Publishers buy books that they can sell.  And a single author who's willing to buy a book doesn't mean the market will handle it.  Again, it may not be fair.  But it's business.  And in business, size matters.


  1. Interesting what that agent told you. I'll be checking out some books this week.

    1. It's a great way to get an idea of what agents and editors might be looking for. But it's difficult to write to the market, so don't use it as the only guideline :)