Ask D.I.: How long should a book be?

How long should a book be
How long should a book be?

How long should a book be? It’s important to think about the length of your manuscript, both during the planning stages and the editing process. Whether you choose to traditionally publish or self-publish, the length of your book will determine how much your work will appeal to a particular audience. But how do you know how long your book should be?

This question comes from one of my readers via contact form. An excerpt from his message is posted below:

I’m planning out my first novel…it’s an epic fantasy that will [have] multiple books in the series. The first book is already estimated to be about 800 pages. Is that too long? How long should a book be?

Well, the honest answer is that it depends. Expectations for how long a book should be change depending on your audience (adults? young adults? children?) and your genre (sci-fi? romance? literary?). The best way to figure out how long your book should be is to compare your work to that of similar first-time authors.

Why first-time authors specifically? Veteran authors (particularly highly paid veterans of the field, like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and, Nora Roberts) typically get a lot more leeway with their work. If Stephen King ever wants to publish a 200,000-word tome about goldfish, he could probably get away with it.

The same can’t be said for an author who is trying to break into the industry. As I’ve said before, submitting a manuscript that’s too long or too short is one of the fastest ways for a new author to land in the reject pile.

In this post, I’ll talk about the different factors that impact the expected length of your manuscript. These are general guidelines based on industry standards on word count and book length.

Adult

Most novels for adults are between 80,000 and 90,000 words. Indeed, most of the manuscripts that I’ve read that have ended up being accepted by agents and/or publishers have fallen within this range. While this can be your aim, you can give yourself some leeway of about 10,000 words on either side of the spectrum—70,000 words at the very minimum, 100,000 at the very max. Any more or less than that tends to place manuscripts in more dangerous territory.

Most published adult books (both fiction and non-fiction) fall within this range. However, there is some variation depending on your genre. Some general guidelines:

Science Fiction/Fantasy. Because these genres emphasize detailed world-building and complex narratives, books in these genres can run quite long. For high or epic fantasies or for hard science fiction, your book can be anywhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words. Low fantasy or soft sci-fi can be shorter—between 90,000 and 110,000 words. Compare your work to books that are most similar to yours in terms of plot, theme, and scope to see where your book might fit in.

Beware: Readers of sci-fi and fantasy tend to recognize that these books are longer than books in other genres. As a result, first time writers have a habit of overshooting, making their books overly long. If you’re book is over 120,000 words, think very seriously about editing your book in a shorter, more compact manuscript or expanding your book into a series.

Romance/Erotica. Stand-alone romance novels (especially historical and paranormal novels) tend to run in the range of 70,000 to 90,000 words. However, novels that are published as part of a specific imprint tend to be shorter. Research the publishers you are interested in submitting your work to so that you can understand their particular guidelines. (For example, this page lists the requirements for submission to any of Harlequin’s imprints.)

Westerns. These books tend to be the shortest of all the adult fiction genres, ranging anywhere from 45,000 to 80,000 words.

Remember that your work is going to be situated with other books in your chosen genre. In order to make sure that your book falls within the purviews of your field, compare your manuscript to that of similar writers. When in doubt, 80,000 to 90,000 is a good range that fits most genres.

Young Adult

While young adult books as a whole do tend to be shorter than adult novels, there is a great deal of diversity in the YA category. Anywhere between 50,000 words (at a bare minimum) and 80,000 words is fine.

There is, of course, some variation by genre. Coming-of-age stories tend to be on the shorter end of the spectrum—think Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Books that require a bit more world-building—e.g. adventure, fantasy, sci-fi—tend to be on the longer end of the scale. (Actually, some YA sci-fi or fantasy authors can publish work that’s as long as 100,000 words.) Familiarize yourself with books in your genre in order to make sure your own work is comparable.

Middle Grade (or “Tween”)

The length of middle grade fiction (or chapter books) depends largely on the age of your audience. Younger readers (between the ages of eight and eleven) might be more interested in books between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Older readers (between the ages of eleven and thirteen) read longer works, which can be between 40,000 and 60,000 words. Any longer and you’re in trouble.

“But Harry Potter—” you begin to whine. Stop. That series is the exception, not the rule.

Children’s

Again, the length of your work will depend on the age of your reader. Picture books, which are intended for toddlers and early readers, tend to be between 300 and 600 words long. Chapter books (geared toward late elementary school and early middle school readers) tend to be between 5,000 and 10,000 words long.

The final verdict?

So how long should a book be? It depends on your target audience. Know what other writers in your category and genre are doing, and try to mimic them. You want your work to stand out from the crowd, yes—however, a bizarre word count is only going to make you stand out in a bad way.

Of course, these are only general guidelines, and plenty of exceptions to these rules end up getting published and admired. However, if your manuscript very far outside these guidelines—e.g. if your adult novel is much shorter than 70,000 words or much longer than 100,00—it’s time to be concerned. After all, while there may be plenty of exceptions to these rules, you should not count on your own work being one of them.

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *