More times than I’d like, my office must send out letters advising aspiring authors that their manuscripts are too short or too long. Much of the time, the author is talented but hasn’t investigated the market well enough to know if the word count is right. Submitting a project that’s simply the wrong word count wastes everyone’s time – including yours. If we mention that your book is the wrong length, for us, this means that your writing and story tempt us, but you’ll need to do more work before we can pursue. By the same token, if a book that just doesn’t grab us and on top of everything else, the word count is wrong, that gives us one more reason to send a rejection.
Don’t let this happen to you.
Which market do you want to pursue?
Because I’m known to be successful with category romance novels, I receive many submissions for this market. Here is the link to Harlequin’s guidelines.
Scroll down that page and you’ll see all the boxes have the expected word count for each word count posted in huge numbers. The word count can be slightly over or under but please obey the instructions on word count as well as the other guidelines.
If you want to write longer novels, aim for a word count of about 90,000. I strongly suggest not going under 85,000 or over 100,000 words. If you are writing for a specialized market with different guidelines, let us know in your cover letter.
The layout of nonfiction books may have more white space, so your project could be viable at 50,000 words, and occasionally 40,000 words. I’d go for at least 60,000 words and no more than 90,000 words for commercial nonfiction. (Divide your word count by 300 and that is an estimate at the number of printed pages the book will have in physical form. 60,000 words ÷ 300 = 200 pages.)
But my book is special!
Yes, your book is special and so are you. But it still must be within a publisher’s preferred word count.
Even though creativity is important, remember that agents and editors still have to pursue books that are market-friendly. An author who knows the market and where her book will fit is a great help to an agent. That’s the author you want to be.
What is the most surprising element of this post?
Do you favor long books or short books?
Other than the Bible, what is the longest book you’ve read?
I like longer books where I can get invested in the characters. I used to read books by James Michener and they were really long.
I’m confused by this comment you made about Harlequin…
The word count can be slightly over or under but please obey the instructions on word count
Are you saying it’s okay to slightly ignore their word count or adhere to it?
Tamela Hancock Murray
Christine, I’ve been at a conference, hence my answer is tardy. Stick to the word count, allowing yourself only 1,000 words either way at most.
Thanks so much for your reply, Tamela. I wonder if that is one of the reasons my manuscript is being rejected–from Harlequin. They have encouraged me to resubmit, but repeatedly say to “follow series guidelines” when they reply to me. But there’s only so much written on their website for clarification (for each series listed).
Can it really make or break a writer, as far as getting published? By writing, say, 10,000 more words than they specify for that particular series?
Thank you for this insightful post. I like to read 400+ page books but only if I already trust the author enough to know I’m not wasting my time. Established authors have more room to write long books, but I think it’s safe to say that new authors should never go over 100,000 words. Read Strunk and White and be concise.
If the book pulls me in, I don’t mind the length so long as the plot doesn’t seem too circuitous or burdened down by details that don’t move the story along.
I prefer longer books, but I’ve read some category romances that I’ve LOVED. Novellas are fun too, but I tend toward longer books. What I love most is a story that pulls me in and keeps me thinking about it, regardless of its length.
I think the longest book I’ve ever read is, Centennial, by James Michener.
The longest book I’ve ever read would be either Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1024 to 1296 pages in two paperback versions at Amazon-must be a font size effect) or Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” (960 pages in paperback).
I much prefer a longer book where the author has time to develop rich secondary characters. The two-POV style doesn’t appeal to me as much as the 3-7 POV novels where the reader gets to explore the motivations and interactions of several major characters in some depth.
I’m writing romantic historical fiction with a thriller/suspense character for most. The average length is 108K ± 8K words. One that involved patricide, family intrigue, spiritual transformations, and two parallel but overlapping romances has 153K. I don’t think it would be possible to get even the ones that are about 110K to 90K without gutting the plot or reverting to omniscient narrator, which isn’t acceptable for new authors. (When I rewrote a 91K omniscient narrator novel into third person limited, it grew to 108K.)
If 90-100 K is the true upper limit for a novel, maybe I’m not a good candidate for a traditional publisher. Is that being overly pessimistic, Tamela?
Tamela Hancock Murray
Carol, rather than being pessimistic, continue to read books similar to the ones you want to write to get a feel for what works in the accepted word count. You should succeed after reading and then putting what you learn into practice.
Thanks for the encouragement.
Great post, Tamela. It is informative and helpful.
The longest book I’ve ever read is Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA. Awesome read!
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Tamela, thanks for that very helpful information! You have no idea how much I appreciate your post today! The longest book I have ever read…..Bleak House? Maybe it just seemed long because it has 74 main characters and I needed a flow chart to keep track.
Sheri, That’s how Anna Karenina was too. But in the version translated by Richard Pevear they provided a character list. I don’t think I would have made my way through the beginning without that list.
Budgets are a part of life. I may want to buy every veggie available at my farmer’s market, but I won’t be able to use them before they spoil. I think word counts help me keep a story sharp and concise. We all want the freedom to use whatever number of words we need to tell the story, but I’ve been surprised how much better my writing can be when I have to “weed the garden.”
Helen Hemingway Galloway
I like reading a longer book if it’s interesting. Normally I don’t wont it to end and would like to read more about the characters.
Helen Hemingway Galloway
I believe the longest book I’ve read so far would be Pretense by Lori Wick, at a little over 700 pages. I’m currently working on a christian fiction novel. It’s a love story and I have around 60,700 words. That would only be around 200 pages, but still it tells a complete story.
My taste in books is extreme. I usually only read books written by translators of ancient manuscripts. For the right author, I’ll read 1500 pages (and have) and will gladly pay more than $200 apiece (and have).
High quality information is all I need.
Letters to the King of Mari
The Amarna Letters
Early Writing Systems
So…I had an idea. After all the POV lessons I learned I started thinking like a cameraman, which lead me to think like a director. But a director of a TV series, where a short story (40K words) is followed by another, and then another each leaving the reader with a cliff hanger. Ya know, where the episode ends with “To be Continued.”
I thought it was a clever idea, but now I wonder. I have put my 40K first story out there with no response. And of course that lead me to wonder what is wrong with me or my story. Of the 40,000 reasons why an author doesn’t get noticed, could it be that 40,000 words is just too short for anybody to consider?