Part of writing for the purpose of publication is understanding word count. Whether an essay, short story, article, or novel, word count affects the financials behind publishing. Journalists are given cut-offs for story length depending on the topic, outlet, and audience. Similarly, authors of books are constrained by length, which is based on the content, publisher, and market.
Despite the many variables that affect word count, it ultimately all comes down to money. Paper is expensive, as is ink. Printing (especially in colour), card stock quality, and embellishments such as embossing or spot lamination all factor into the price of publication. Especially in our post-pandemic world of shortages, supply chain issues, and inflation, where shipping and fuel costs further increase the price of doing business. With these considerations in mind, we understand that the length of a book isn’t just what the story needs, but what the publisher can afford. You’ll notice that longer books, in general, are on subjects with a reliable readership: the next book in a blockbuster series, the newest release from an author whose work has performed well previously, a celebrity memoir, tell-all, or cookbook. The example most often used is how the length of the Harry Potter books increased over time—as the readership grew, so did the publisher’s ability to print longer books.
Unfortunately for the rest of us who are not J.K. Rowling, we need to work within the reasonable limits of word count established by the publishing industry. Other than subject matter, the length often depends on the audience and genre: picture books are frequently 500 words or less; middle grade titles can range anywhere from 20-80K words, but the sweet spot for 8-12-year-olds is considered 45-65K words, at the most. (Yes, the original Harry Potter is 77K words, and only lengthens from there!); young adult novels generally fall between 65 and 90K words; and genre novels for both teen and adult audiences are largely “allowed” an extended word count between 90 and 130K+ words. There are, of course, many exceptions to the rule, but these are typically considered standard. Again, these numbers are determined by financials: who is buying the books, and what they are willing to pay for them. Voracious readers of genre fiction often want and expect a heftier volume. Picture books are limited in length both because of the attention span of the audience, and the price point for the parents or other purchasing adults.Even this blog has an ideal word count of 500-750 words, based on you as its audience, and the time-cost analysis of writing and posting it!
Where word count becomes important for you in your writing is showing your understanding of the business when querying and submitting. If you’ve written a literary debut at 230K words, it is unlikely that an agent or editor will take it seriously on submission—it’s just not viable at that length. Publishing professionals expect that writers have done their homework on the word count for their subject, genre, and audiences, and are writing within the acceptable ranges. If your middle grade fantasy adventure is 120K words, perhaps what you’ve actually written are two books that can be divided for publication? If you’ve written an adult novel at only 35K words, perhaps you are working in a novella space, and you’ll need to combine several works for publication?
Funnily enough, the less-is-more rule for print word counts gets thrown out the window in other markets, for example audio, where the longer the better for readers! And in certain parts of the world, the market prefers weightier texts, giving the impression of value for their purchase.
Find out what the average word count is for your work, and keep that writing goal in mind!
*And don’t forget to round your word count in query letters to the nearest 5K words for long-form texts, and 100 words for short texts! For example, a 63,452-word young adult novel may be listed as ~65K words, whereas a picture book of 512 words would likely be listed as ~500 words.