Often writers will ask me variations of the question ‘how many words make a proper book?’ This question suggests the questioner is probably a new writer. They may not have spent long looking at the type of books they are writing or aspire to write.
As with many questions about writing, my immediate thought is, it will depend. Although some will say that a creative should let their writing flow and produce the manuscript which tells their story and writing should not be constrained by a set wordcount, this is not going to help a new writer. In the early stage of getting a first draft written, flowing creativity is most helpful and story is paramount. The beginning, middle and the end need to be crafted. At some point in the writing process, perhaps still at first draft or when self-editing and editing, manuscript length is worth considering.
When does it NOT matter how long a book is?
When the words are precisely as the author wants and the intention is to self-publish, the wordcount does not matter. Some books may be made in this way, for example where a poet has invested a great deal of time crafting their lines and verses and has a group of themed poems to go into a volume. The author is the final arbiter and if this is their process the reader could be presented with any wordcount in a book. Once an author has become established and has a loyal following, they can be less concerned about the wordcount of their manuscripts.
When DOES it matter how long a book is?
With digital publishing typesetting constraints are not what they once were but physical books still have the same issues.
Picture books are typically thirty-two pages long, as they need to be in page count multiples of eight. The words need to fit within this construction.
Most books are not tied to a fixed page count, and equally most are not entirely free from an expected wordcount norm.
At any stage in the writing and publication process the word count of a manuscript comes with implications.
- Getting it written – if you know the wordcount you are aiming to write for a project (whether book, blog post or article) you can use it as a gauge for how far remains to completion. The wordcount can be helpful to break the writing down into chunks which are more manageable to consider as chapters, scenes or acts to help bring a balance or pace to the narrative. Grouping wordcounts within a long-form manuscript can help outline and plan.
- Managing the project – wordcount can be used to monitor progress. Awareness of wordcount helps with scheduling dependent activities such as self-editing, copyediting, proofreading, beta readers, publication and marketing.
- Meeting genre expectations – book genres come with standards for the number of words they require which is based on traditional publishing. Staying within the recognised wordcount appropriate to genre will prevent frustrating the expectations of others.
- Wordcount will have a bearing on editing and proofreading costs; production costs and perceptions of value. Books which seem short may appear as poor value for money and books that are longer than readers expect may be perceived as drawn out or demanding.
What are standard traditional publishing wordcount guidelines?
These are benchmarks wordcounts and come from various sources including Hill (2016), and the Writers and Artists Yearbook (2020):
Children’s Picture Books: up to 500 (absolute maximum 1,000)
Short Stories: 1,000 to 8,000
Children’s Chapter Books: 6,000 to 10,000
Novellas: 20,000 to 50,000 (some recommend a maximum of 40,000)
Novels: between 40,000 and 100,000 but typically 90,000
Young Adult: 50,000 to 80,000
New Adult Novel: 60,000 to 85,000
Horror, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller: 70,000 to 90,000
Mainstream Romance: 70,000 to 100,000
Literary Fiction: 80,000 to 110,000
Crime: 90,000 to 100,000
Science Fiction: 90,000 to 125,000
For a new writer it is advisable to keep within wordcount guidelines as it is less likely to succeed as an exception than by conforming, although there will always be some exceptions.
Hill, B. (2016). The Magic of Fiction: Crafting Words into Story: The Writer’s Guide to Writing and Editing. Atlanta: Title Page Books
Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook (2020). Writer’s and Artist Yearbook 2020 113th ed. London Bloomsbury Yearbooks