Book Proposals: Word Count

There is an important question that needs to be answered in your book proposal in the “Manuscript Status” section. What is the length of your book?

This information is important whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

How Long is Your Book?

Think carefully before you declare a word count in your proposal. I don’t know how often I’ve seen someone propose a 280,000 word manuscript…or on the other end a 28,000 word manuscript. (One zero can make a big difference!)

Your book may be complete and you are just telling the agent or editor its length. But your word count might be a reason it is being rejected!

Here is a simple rule of thumb. Take your word count and divide it by 300. The answer will be the approximate page count of a printed book. Therefore, a 280,000 word manuscript becomes a 900 page doorstop. And a 28,000 word manuscript is more like a booklet or novella ofย 90 pages.

Please don’t tell us “my book is 150 pages long.” We don’t know if it is single spaced, double spaced, in a teensy sized font, or in giant print. That is why word count is the measure.

You might say, “But with e-books the word count doesn’t matter!” True, to a certain point. But e-books are one format … and not the only one. Major publishers still sell more than 50% of their books in printed form. The longer the book, the more expensive it is to print.

If that is the case then what is the ideal length? It depends.

I can hear the cry, “Steve! That is a singularly unhelpful answer!”

There are exceptions to every example given below. So please take the advice as estimates and generalizations, not rules.

Fiction: It does depend on your genre and whether you are targeting a particular publisher. If you want to write for the Harlequin Love Inspired romance or suspense lineย your manuscript should be around 55,000-60,000 words.ย If you are targeting the longer form novel your story should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. There is often room for more than 100,000 words, but don’t go overboard.

If you are writing an epic fantasy and want Enclave Publishing to grab it, the length can go higher, because that genre lends itself to longer stories (hence the word “epic”). The top end for an epic fantasy can be up to 130,000 words in some cases. (But science fiction does not usually hit that length.)

If you send a fiction proposal like the one I received this week with a word count of 19,000 … it will be rejected. That is barely enough for a novella.

Contrast that with the other novel proposal I received this week with a word count of 540,000 words.

Makes the “no thank you” pretty easy to write.

Non-Fiction: Do the math above. A 90,000 word book is going to be about 300 pages. Is that a good length for your reader on this topic? Shorter isn’t necessarily better, but it can be an important consideration.

Recently an author proposed a 30,000 word book to a publisher. The publisher was enthused and willing to offer a contract but wants the book to be 42,000 words. [Yes, the conversation was that specific.] If you think about the “math” it changes from 100 pages to one around 140 pages. That extra length gives the book more heft and can be a “fatter” book on the shelf…thereby having more perceived value.

A “typical” non-fiction book ranges between 55,000 and 80,000 words. (180-260 pages in print form)

There is another “it depends” when it comes to devotionals. They tend to be shorter with some having each chapter/reading being only 300 words. If there are 90 readings then it’s a short book, but with artwork and interior design the page count is higher so the word count is only one factor. Or if its a 365 day devotional the word count is going to be very high.

Typesetting Magic

Yes, I know that with typesetting magic one can make a book short or long using different fonts and leading (the space between the lines). I also know that using right side of the page (recto) chapter beginnings can add space. We are not talking about typesetting, this is a general principle discussion.

Your Turn:

What issues are you having with estimating word count?

Why do you think publishers care about word count?

 

 

[Some of the above has been adapted from an earlier blog post and from a chapter in my free booklet (word count is 6,000)ย Book Proposal Tips and Tricks – it is free in PDF if you join The Christian Writers Institute newsletter list or 99 cents if you want to read it on your Kindle.]

19 Responses to Book Proposals: Word Count

  1. Rebekah Love Dorris May 7, 2018 at 4:58 am #

    Thanks so much. This is exactly where I am. Sure helps to know 42,000 words is a sweet spot for somebody out there. Now I have a target as I edit.

    Along these same lines: is there a preferred number of chapters for, say, a non-fiction book about the necessity of good sense conquering wild emotions as illustrated by women in the Bible?

    Thanks for your invaluable help! God bless ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Steve Laube May 7, 2018 at 11:10 am #

      No set rules for chapters.

      Decades ago a lot of non-fiction had 13 chapters because there were 13 weeks in a typical Sunday School quarter. That is no longer an issue with adult classes being less structured around a curriculum requiring that set up.

      You could have a 42,000 word book with one chapter. I don’t recommend it, but you could.

      Chapters need to be as long or short as they need to be. Use common sense…as if you were the consumer. One page (300 words) is too short. 25 pages (7,500 words) is probably too long.

      A long blog post is 900 words. (the above post is 765 words). But in a book that would only be 3 pages long.

      In other words: It depends.

      • Rebekah Love Dorris May 7, 2018 at 11:15 am #

        It depends, huh? Ha!

        That’s reassuring. I was thinking I needed to up it to thirteen for that reason. I can, but it works better as it is. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. Murray Grossan May 7, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    Thanks Steve, this is really great material and very valuable! Much appreciated
    Murray G

  3. Claire O'Sullivan May 7, 2018 at 9:51 am #

    Hi Steve,

    Over time and Google, passing through publishing house guidelines, I found some that differ, but for the most part, the word count is the same. Important.

    With a cover letter/proposal if the word count is not up front, the proposal (to me) is a, um, waste of time. Not being in your world, I believe genre, title of WIP and approximated word count must be in the first lines.

    I’ve scraped away unnecessary scenes, killed off darlings, reworded, and slashed those 43 words to kick from the manuscript (that was some article I read). After that, I did the process again. A beta group pointed out… great scene here but does it push the plot forward. Some of those ’43 words belong, otherwise the sentence/paragraph become choppy and confusing, but many can be swept away.

    Slash.

    Some–a lot included weeping on my part. However, I managed to slash a manuscript from 144,000 words to ~91,000 words. I’d be willing to bet I can rid more.

    Why would a publisher want to know the word count? To know what he/she is getting into, what the genre accepts, and if it is saleable. Getting into a promising project means time and money, and without a return on the heavy investment by the agent, writer, and publishing house, it’s a lost cause. The writer may or may not be able to land the agent first time, or second. Name recognition is a big one in the world of readers. If I didn’t like so-and-so’s book #1, I may not buy #2. I agree, a slim book on ‘sale’ for 20 bucks is not a buy, it’s highway robbery, and what agent wants to be associated with that moniker?

    Words count (pun intended). I’ve read some doozies with high word counts, verbs over the top, reckless use of overwriting to make the count. That is filler/fluff. And the agent will zing the writer for that, as well. Readers will skip entire sections wondering why they spent their money.

    ~ my 2 cents ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Judith Robl May 7, 2018 at 10:02 am #

    Thank you, Steve.

    These guidelines are essential for those who are just finding the writing world blogs. I think a word count article should be posted once every quarter for the newbies. And it doesn’t hurt those of us who have been around for a while to be reminded.

  5. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 7, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    Hi Steve:
    With my novels, I shoot for 90,000. My first novel, which I just completed a couple of months ago, is 89,995 words. My second novel, which is a sequel, is currently at 79,367, so I have a few more words (like 10,000 and change!) to go.

    Thanks for sharing these numbers- it makes things nice for newbies in this field. (Like me!)

    I appreciated the CWI course that I took, which talked about the importance of writing fast….which I do!

    Best,
    Sheri

  6. Olivia Smit May 7, 2018 at 11:28 am #

    Thank you so much for providing such valuable information on your website! As my novel is already finished, I don’t have to estimate word count … but it does help to know where the “sweet spots” are for each genre!

    Thanks again!

  7. Tracey Dyck May 7, 2018 at 11:36 am #

    Good to know, Steve! I’ve long wondered what word counts publishers are looking for in my genre.

    My YA fantasy WIP (although it doesn’t have to appeal to teens alone, as we discussed at Realm Makers last summer!) is about 70,000 words long. Going by your divide-by-300 method, that would be only about 230 pages. Seems a little short, but my next round of revisions may beef it up a little. I’ve also heard from some readers that they wish not all fantasy novels were big, fat tomes. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Kathleen Denly May 7, 2018 at 11:49 am #

    In the past I have struggled to find the most up to date and accurate information regarding word count online (some differ by as much as 30,000 words for the same genre). In the end, I have found the most helpful option to be:

    1) pick a publisher
    2) find their current catalog of upcoming releases
    3) note the page count and multiply by 300
    4) repeat for as many books as you can find in your genre from that publisher

    The result usually gives me a more accurate idea of the word counts their authors are currently publishing.

    It also has the byproduct of helping me keep on top of what is current in my genre which can help with tracking trends and filling out the comparables section of a proposal.

    • Kathleen Denly May 7, 2018 at 11:53 am #

      I should add, that I also multiply by 250 to give myself a range, keeping in mind that in the finished/published books (as opposed to manuscripts) there are the variables of font size, spacing, etc.

  9. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 7, 2018 at 12:04 pm #

    Great post, Steve.

    Guidelines are not a cage; they are a solid platform from which we can leap and catch the brass ring of our dreams.

    • Nicola Cameron May 7, 2018 at 7:47 pm #

      Andrew, this is profound. May I pretty it up with a picture and post it on Twitter? With all the appropriate credits, of course. Your permission is important to me.

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 7, 2018 at 7:51 pm #

        Nicola, absolutely! I am so honoured! ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Nicola Cameron May 7, 2018 at 8:00 pm #

          Do you twitter? My handle is NicolaLeoshine

          The honour is all mine. I have long admired your writings here.

          • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 7, 2018 at 8:24 pm #

            Nicola, you made my day! I just went to Twitter, and now am one of your followers. I’m BudekSchmeisser.

  10. Norma Brumbaugh May 7, 2018 at 3:45 pm #

    Appreciate this.

  11. Ann L. Coker May 16, 2018 at 8:15 am #

    Your post is very helpful. Thanks. You answered that a 13-week study for Sunday school classes is not the norm currently. I’ve found that true in our Sunday morning connection group, for the leaders use videos from Right Now Media and the length varies. Q: For a study/devo book, would 6 days a week for 13 weeks (78 days) be acceptable? With intro & closing material, that amounts to 24,600 words (300 words/page). I first aimed at 52 weeks, but that’s over 94,000 words total. Would somewhere between 13 and 52 weeks be acceptable for a study/devo book?

    • Steve Laube May 16, 2018 at 9:12 am #

      Ann,

      Hard to imagine many people willing to commit to six days a week of study.

      Better to think in terms of total days. 60 Days in Colossians for example. or 90 Days to Understanding Revelation (although you might need more than 90 days for that one!

      That way the reader won’t feel bad if they miss Tuesday.

      Remember that studies are done both in groups and individually. The individual may do the first three and abandon the study. A group has a measure of accountability and may stick with it for the entire period.

      Better yet…go to christianbook.com and buy a dozen different type of Bible study books and see how they are structured. Then you aren’t reinventing the wheel, merely using existing methods.

      Steve

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