My novel is not about Santa Claus, nor does it address the question about whether or not there is one. It is not about the famous query from Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897, nor is it about The New York Sun newspaper. The thought appeared in my mind because I am extremely concerned about my book’s length.
I was positive that after editing my book for the third time, that the word count was down around the 150,000 word mark. I was shocked, upon doing a recount, to discover that it was closer to 200,000 words! And why does this even matter?
Well, if you’re a new, previously unpublished author, you have almost zero chance of having your debut novel published if it exceeds 120,000 words. I say ‘almost’, because there are always exceptions to the rule, such as Elizabeth Kostova, for example. Kostova’s long literary novel, The Historian, was published in the United States on 14 June 2005 by Little, Brown and Co.
When talking about ‘word-count’ for novels, people refer to Elizabeth Kostova, among others, simply because there are so few other examples out there of first-time novelists having a book published that exceeds the limit the market insists upon. Another recent example is City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.
So are there rules dictating word counts for novels of various genres? Absolutely. And a debut novelist such as myself had better abide by them. Hoping to be the next Elizabeth Kostova, or the next Garth Risk Hallberg is like hoping to win Lotto. 99% of manuscripts submitted to an agent or publisher won’t even be looked at if they don’t conform to this word limit. There are tens of thousands of budding authors sending off their manuscripts for publication every year, all desperately hoping to achieve their dream of becoming a published writer. I’m one of them. And to help my chances, I will have to cut my novel down to the required length, or risk having it discarded before it is even read.
My novel involves not just action and romance, but is set in an exotic location (Japan: Osaka, Okinawa), includes history as part of the story, and showcases Japanese language and culture as well. Should I take the chance and send it off at its current word-length? Well, I could, but I risk alienating that particular agent or publisher. Having sent them an over-long manuscript once, and thus ignoring their rules, the odds are high they might ignore my manuscript should I send it to them a second time, albeit 50,000 words shorter. Why create a bad name for myself at such an early stage in my career as a writer? Better to play the game.
Here are the recommended word-counts per genre for book publication, as suggested by Writer’s Digest:
Adult Commercial (Mainstream) Fiction - 100,000 words
Sci-Fi and Fantasy Fiction - 110,000 words
Middle Grade Fiction - 20,000 to 50,000 words
Young Adult Fiction - 60,000 words
Westerns - 50,000 to 80,000 words
Memoirs - 80,000 words
Why is word count so important? Isn’t it the story that counts? Well, that’s true if you’re Stephen King, John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, J K Rowling, or any successful author who sells millions of books for the publisher. But for untested debut authors, it’s more about the cost of physically publishing a book, and it is also an issue for bookstores. Only so many books can fit on a shelf, and if it’s by a popular, multi-million selling author, then that’s not a problem, as the books will move quickly. But if it’s by an unknown author, and sits on the shelves too long, not only is it costing the bookstore owner money, it’s taking up too much space. Having said all that, it’s interesting to look at authors and/or novels that have defied the rules and proven to be successful. Here are some for your perusal:
Gone with the Wind – 418,053 words
Memoirs of a Geisha - 186,418 words
The Da Vinci Code – 188,000
Jane Eyre – 183,858 words
Catch-22 – 174,269
Watership Down – 156,154 words
I guess if there were no ‘word limits’, almost every book would be bloated and overly long – straining the patience of readers. Hence I will attempt to cut my novel down as strictly as I can while trying to leave the story intact as much as possible. Hopefully, that won't take long. Wish me luck.
See you on the shelf!