In this article, you will learn why an inappropriate word count can be an obstacle to a potential deal. You will also learn how to avoid word count being an issue for agents and publishers.
In the previous article, you learned how to define the genre of your book. In this chapter, you will begin to understand why word count can become an issue.
When writing the second paragraph of your book proposal it is important to include the approximate word count of your book. If your book is not finished, then estimate. It is also best to quote the number of words, rather than the number of pages. The reason is that the number of words of a printed page alters (especially when considering digital publishing). By using word count you avoid any potential confusion.
I am often asked by unpublished writers what is the correct length for their book. My answer is always the same, “It depends!” The only thing that is important is that your book is neither too long nor too short. However, the ideal length varies with genre.
The almost universally agreed minimum word count for a novel is 40,000 words. Below this then the book will be considered a novella. I would strongly suggest that if your book is sub-40,000 words that you seriously consider expanding. Though novellas have their place, they are very difficult to sell to publishers and you will probably not be able to secure agent representation with a novella.
If you are writing science fiction then the minimum word count is 50,000 words. The reason for this is that 50k is the minimum size for a novel to be considered for the prestigious Nebula Award.
As for typical novel sizes, I would suggest that you should be aiming somewhere in the region of 60-80,000 words. However, some genres can be considerably longer. It is not unusual for a fantasy or thriller novel to be closer to 100,000 or even 120,000 words.
So, as a rule of thumb your novel should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
Why does size matter?
Let’s start with very small novels…
The publishing industry has a belief that when readers are deciding to buy a book, physical size plays a part in the buying equation. Rightly or wrongly, it is felt that very small novels (sub-40,000 words) will appear flimsy and less substantial than the competition, and therefore will, in the mind of the reader, not be worth the cover price. Now, I understand that this may (or may not) be the case in reality, but all that matters is that this belief persists in the publishing world. If your novel is below 40,000 words it will be an issue.
And too big…
The problem with large novels (we are talking above 150,000 words) is twofold. The first reason is all to do with cost. If a novel is made up of hundreds of thousands of words then it will naturally need many pages, and pages cost money. Large novels with hundreds of pages can quickly become prohibitively expensive to print.
All books are a gamble, but those by debut novelists are even more so. A publisher will be looking to print at least a couple of thousand books in their first print run. It is cheaper to print 60,000 word novels than it is to print 120,000 words novels. Therefore, smaller novels = less financial gamble.
The second reason is also all to do with cost. When an agent or publisher is assessing a potential book deal, foreign rights sales will play a part in the thinking. Foreign rights are permission for the book to be translated and sold in other countries. These rights are sold to foreign publishers — giving agents, publishers and writers an additional cash windfall. However, very large novels present a problem. Translators charge by the word and therefore very large novels bring with them very large translation costs. This means the rights will be more difficult to sell and this will be seen as a negative by agents and publishers when initially assessing your book.
- Word count is linked to genre.
- Aim for between 80 and 100K.
- Always talk in word count not page count.
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