Word-Count Worries

At this stage in the Twelve Rules of Writing we reach the issue of word-count. As it says in the rules:

8. Word-count is important.

Only books with specific numbers of words ever get published.  This is why many books never see the light of day.  Once a word-count has been used, though, it can’t be re-used, which is why books are different lengths. The exact number of words required is a secret of the industry and is only known by editors and publishers, which is why they are often published authors in their own right, as they know what number comes next.
Try counting the words in recently published books to try and guess the next number in the sequence.

There are a surprising amount of questions about how many words are required in order to increase your chances of publication and there is a lot of misleading advice out there, which is why Rule 8 exists. It’s as if somewhere there is a magic number of words that will appeal to all publishers, agents and editors. So let me be clear: There is no magic number. There are, however, better and worse answers to the question, and that’s what this article is about.

As an initial and purely practical guideline, between 70K (70,000) and 150K words in a good number to aim for in a first novel.

These aren’t hard numbers. 65K might be okay and 160K might also be fine, although once above 150K words you are starting to reach the physical boundaries of a printed paperback. Font sizes may have to be reduced and the binding may require special attention to prevent splitting when you open it. This can increase the unit cost of publication.

1216 pp of George R R Martin

That does not mean that books will not be published outside these boundaries. As an example, my first novel, Sixty-One Nails is 154K words and because of that the font size is very slightly smaller than normal. Genre plays a part – The Eye of the World, the first in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, was 305K words. George R R Martin’s: A Storm of Swords is 404K and runs to over 1,000 pages in paperback. There is even an acronym in the industry, BFF, which stands for Big Fat Fantasy, for exactly this type of book.

Similarly, below 70K words novels start to look a little thin, and the font size and line spacing may increase slightly to give a book a bit more heft. Too much below 60K and the reader starts to feel that they might not be getting their money’s worth, the spine get’s thin and the book vanishes on the shelf when edge on. Below that we’re talking more novella than novel.

167 pp of Paulo Coelho

But once again, there are exceptions. Stephen King’s: Gunslinger, first of The Dark Tower series is 55K words. Paulo Coelho’s: The Alchemist, is about 45K words, which is well into novella size, but they were both successfully published and sold very well indeed. John le Carré’s: The Spy Who Came Into The Cold, and Ian Flemming’s: Casino Royale, both fall into this category as they were published at a time when thinner books were more prevalent.

When a publisher takes on a new writer, they take a risk. There’s a chance that the book won’t sell and they’ll end up crediting the booksellers for all the unsold stock and swallowing the cost of publication and distribution. If the book is more expensive to produce then the consequences of that risk become greater, so publishers can be reluctant to publish a new author’s book if it costs more to produce, especially if there’s a shorter book from another author that’s just as good.

While word-count will not prevent your book from being published, it will have a bearing on the decision an agent or publisher will make. They will look at the risks and the opportunities and make a judgement call. They have to look at their market and decide whether readers will buy what you’ve written for the price they can produce it.

Part of the craft of writing is learning when to cut and when to expand. It’s not a matter of writing to a particular word-count, but rather learning to step back from your work and understand where a thin story needs more meat and a fat story can be pruned to remove distracting detail. The expectations of your audience and the current conventions of the genre are the guide here rather than any arbitrary number.

The trump card is the writing. If you can make your story stand head and shoulders above anything else on offer then the word-count will be irrelevant.

It really is that simple.

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