Isn’t that a silly question? Surely, your novel is as long as . . . well . . . as long as it takes to tell your story. And you’d be right—sort of. In the publishing world, there are conventions as to how many words a novel should contain—and it all comes down to genre.
Yes, depending on its genre, your novel will ideally contain a word count that falls between two averages which publishers know from industry statistics have most commercial appeal. That’s because, for publishers, the high cost of book production offset against potential sales is the prime consideration.
So, authors seeking a publishing contract, especially debut authors, can benefit significantly from sticking to the genre-related conventions publishers expect. It can make the difference between your book being picked up for publication . . . or being consigned to the slush pile.
Of course, the era of self-publishing has given authors pretty much free range to write and publish novels of any length they want. But could self-publishing a novel in a specific genre that flouts word count conventions adversely affect sales?
The answer is yes. It may seem crazy—what does book length have to do with the literary process?—but publishers talk about books in terms of word count, not the number of pages, as readers naturally do.
These conventions matter to publishers for good reasons. For example, authors whose manuscripts wildly exceed them cause publishers concern about stuff like pacing—is the novel flabby, with lots of unnecessary description, too little action? If so, it’s likely to turn readers off. It might need a lot of expensive editorial work to knock it into shape. Only novels with exceptional promise warrant such an investment, when there are plenty of others to choose from that hit the mark. Conversely, if it falls too short, it hints at a novel needing further development, again requiring extensive developmental editing work before it reaches market standards, so that readers don’t feel short-changed.
So, how long is a novel? Well, around 50-70K is where your novella becomes a novel. As a rough guide, a novel in paperback form will usually be about 300-400 pages long, usually between 80 –100K words.
But it’s surprising how much variation there is among genres and age groups in successful books across the board. For instance, for commercial and literary adult fiction genres, including women’s fiction, romance, crime, and thrillers, anything between 80-100K is the benchmark. For epic literary and historical novels, anything from 100-125K is within the industry range.
Yet, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has only 47,094 words, while Ian McKewan’s Atonement has 123, 378.
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain has 161,511 words, yet Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has only 49,459.
In publishing, books that buck the conventions tend to be written by the heavy-weight authors guaranteed to sell literally millions of books. They are the publishers’ golden geese—guaranteeing profits that enable publishers to invest in launching debut novelists with market potential.
For the fantasy and sci-fi genres, anything from 100-125K words is acceptable, but the trend for genre-busting doorstops has long been established by behemoths like George R.R. Martin. His novel A Storm of Swords, part of his Game of Thrones series, comes in at a monster 424K words.
Here’s a few more to give you an idea of the word count range in these two wildly popular genres:
Frank Herbert’s epic Dune—187,240
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness—94,240
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales of Earthsea—128,960
Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles—64,768
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—308, 931 Philp Pullman’s The Golden Compass—112,815
It’s noteworthy that these authors were all well-established best-sellers at the time of publication, so length conventions matter less. It just goes to show, when you’re a success, your novels can be as long as you like! Nevertheless, debut author Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a genre-busting 155,717 words, was still picked up.
The convention for young adult fiction (YP) is around 55-80K, with fiction aimed at the 9-12 age range, known as middle-grade fiction, anywhere between 30-55K words. For 5-8-year-olds, around 20K is about right, with picture books for very young children often containing less than 100 words and not exceeding 1K.
Of course, this is a snapshot of a much wider spectrum, but there’s no doubt debut authors can benefit from heeding industry conventions and reassessing the length of their manuscripts before seeking publication.