Does length matter?
Get your mind out of the gutter, people—we’re talking about the word counts of your novels! Here’s the thing: if you are writing solely for your own enjoyment or with the plan to self-publish, word count does not matter so much. Write your stories as long or short as you want. However, if you’re writing with the goal to get published by a traditional press, length matters.
Why? Most significantly, because publishers say it does. However, they’re not just making these rules up willy-nilly. Their word count expectations are associated with the risk of publishing a new book. If you’re an established author, you can play around with these expectations much more freely (hello, 455,000 word novel by Brandon Sanderson).
If your word count is too high, it will be more expensive to produce (not just the printing costs, but shipping, storing, and time for editing are all factors; thus, the publisher is taking a bigger risk on it. If your word count is too low, readers might not feel like it’s worth their time. Novellas, though they are gaining in popularity, don’t sell as well as novels.
Below are some general word count expectations for seventeen genres.
Sci-Fi/Fantasy: 80,000 – 120,000
Thriller/Horror/Mystery: 70,000 – 90,000
Literary: 60,000 – 110,000 words
Historical: 80,000 – 100,000
Romance: 50,000 – 90,000
Western: 50,000 – 65,000
Novella: 20,000 – 40,000
General Nonfiction: 60,000 – 90,000
Biography: 80,000 – 150,000
Memoir: 70,000 – 90,000
Travel/Nature: 40,000 – 70,000
Self-Help/How-to: 30,000 – 50,000
Picture Books (ages 3-8): 50 – 800 words
Early Readers (ages 5-9): 200 – 3,500 words
Chapter Books (ages 7-10): 5,000 – 15,000 words
Middle Grade Books (ages 8-12): 20,000 – 50,000 words
Young Adult Books (ages 12-19): 60,000 – 80,000 words
You’ll notice between 80,000 and 90,000 words is the sweet spot for most of these genres. Sci-fi and fantasy tend to run a bit longer because of the worldbuilding involved. Writers know this and often try to push those boundaries to Robert Jordan-levels, which might hurt their chances.
There are always exceptions to rules. If you’re determined to query your 250,000 word novel or your 25,000 word novella, no one’s stopping you! But it’s good to understand the rules you are breaking and why. Not fitting in with word count guidelines won’t kill your chances, but it may make querying more challenging. Agents and editors go through hundreds of queries a week and have their eye out for anything that suggests an author doesn’t understand their target audience. A word count that is leaps and bounds above or below genre expectations may be a red flag to them.
Here are the word counts from some famous debut novels:
- A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin —Fantasy — 298,000 words
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger — Romance — 156,000 words
- Twilight by Stephanie Meyer — Paranormal Romance — 119,000 words
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman — Middle Grade Fantasy — 113,000 words
- Divergent by Veronica Roth —Young Adult Dystopian — 105,000 words
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — Young Adult Dystopian — 100,000 words
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling — Middle Grade Fantasy — 77,000 words
- Looking for Alaska by John Green — Young Adult — 69,000 words
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin — Fantasy — 111,000 words
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini — Historical — 107,000 words
You’ll notice that some of these lengths fit the guidelines and some do not. It’s good to know the publisher expectations, but the most important thing about your novel is the writing itself. Tell your story the way that it needs to be told. During the editing phase, cut out words and sections that don’t need to be there (or add sections that should be!). Make sure the structure and pacing feels right for its genre. Write what you love, and worry about the word count after.