Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The ‘how long?’ question has to be one of the most commonly asked by new authors – perhaps even experienced ones, too. It was certainly one of the first to pass my lips when I met my editor to discuss my first children’s book.
“What’s the age range?” she asked me when I broached the subject.
“I’m thinking of aiming for older children,” I told her.
“That would be ages eight to twelve, then. In that case, it should be between 30,000 and 50,000 words.”
The precision of her answer was satisfying, but it also piqued my curiosity.
“Why that particular length?”
“It’s just considered to be the ‘right’ length at the moment for that age range,” she explained. “Not too long, not too short.”
This ‘Goldilocks’ principle is good general advice to keep in mind, but there are also more specific factors to consider that will help you nail the ‘right’ length for whatever kind of book you’re writing. While you should work to your natural style, it’s advisable to be aware of and (as much as possible) write to the length that publishers and readers expect.
Type of book and target audience
Just as I did in my discussion with my editor, you can hone in on a rough idea of ‘how long’ simply by categorizing what kind of book you’re writing and its target audience. Clearly, any six-year-olds without the miraculous intellect of Roald Dahl’s Matilda aren’t going to want to read something the length of War and Peace. Similarly, most adults won’t be very interested in a 40-page picture book. And if they are, maybe they’re not challenging themselves enough.‘How long is a book?’ is a question without answer, right? No, not really. Click To Tweet
Children’s picture book: 500–600 words over 32–48 pages.
Children’s chapter book: 1,000–10,000 words.
Middle grade: 20,000–50,000 words.
Young Adult (YA): 40,000–70,000 words.
Flash fiction: 500 words or less.
Short Story: 5,000–10,000 words.
Novella: 10,000–40,000 words.
Novel: Anything over 40,000 words. Anything over 110,000 words is an ‘epic’.
Adult literary and commercial fiction: 80,000–100,000 words is considered to be the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, though you could get away with 70,000 words minimum and 109,000 words maximum if you’re feeling daring.
On the subject of feeling ‘daring’, a lot of conventional wisdom on book length advises against it, particularly if you’re an unknown author. “We cannot count on being the exception,” Chuck Sambuchino warns in his Writer’s Digest piece, “we must count on being the rule.” Editor Kit Carstairs elaborates that – from a commercial point of view – agents and publishers simply don’t have time to wade through every ‘this-could-be-the-next-Game-of-Thrones–esque’ tome that lands on their desk. “[Agents and publishers] need reasons to throw your manuscript in the bin and move onto the next one,” she explains, “not because they are horrible people who want to force people to ‘fail’, it comes down to time pressures really.” It’s also worth remembering that the bigger the book, the higher the production cost.
This isn’t meant to scare you away from reaching the dizzy heights of Tolkien, more to warn you of the issues you may encounter down the line when trying to sell your manuscript.
Again, when considering the authority of agents and publishers, Carstairs recommends that, “adhering to the expected word count demonstrates that you understand your market.” The ‘right’ answer to ‘how long should my book be?’ is dictated by the audience’s expectations. If you picked up a sci-fi or historical novel from a bookshelf, you wouldn’t be surprised if it was pretty hefty (and probably had a dragon on the cover). You might be more surprised if a YA novel required Olympian-level arm strength to lift.Genre has more influence on book length than you might think... Click To Tweet
Here’s a guide to the recommended lengths for genre books.
Sci-fi/Fantasy: 90,000–120,000, anything over 150,000 words might be testing for your readers. As I just touched on above, books in these genres are allowed and expected to run longer than others. This is due to the amount of world building required to introduce a reader to a fictional setting, but be careful not to let this expectation manipulate your natural style too much. Just remember: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? clocks in at just under 65,000 words. You don’t necessarily have to write an epic to write a masterpiece.
Historical: As above.
Romance: 50,000–100,000 words. The wide range for this genre is because of the amount of sub-genres that it can divide into: supernatural, erotica, historical, ‘chick-lit’, etc. It’s also worth bearing in mind that longer romance novels seem to be the trend du jour, with bestsellers Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey both comfortably over 100,000 words.
Crime/Mystery/Thriller/Horror: 70,000–90,000 words. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that suspense is key to all of these genres. Pacing is vital in creating suspense, which means it couldn’t be any more important to nail the word count.
Comic books and manga
These deserve a category all to themselves, as there are quite a few variations to consider. Comics and manga are written as scripts, and as such, a page count rather than word count is used to define their length. Unless directed otherwise by your publisher, there’s the possibility for near-infinite flexibility here. Comic book writer Kelly Thompson helpfully provided most of the data here.
One-shot/single issue: 20–22 pages for either a standalone short story or single issue as part of a series.
Anthology/mini-series/maxi-series: A collection of single issues, either different short stories or one series. A mini-series is usually 4–6 issues and a maxi-series is usually 9–12 issues.
Ongoing: Exactly as it sounds. Most superhero sagas like Batman started long before most of us were born and will likely continue long after most of us are dead.
Trade Paperbacks (TPB): Either collects an ongoing ‘run’ of a single creative team or a completed mini-series as one volume. There’s no set length and TPBs often include additional ‘behind-the-scenes’ material and variant covers from single-issue releases. Don’t let the name fool you – they can be hardcover too.
Graphic novel: Essentially, ‘graphic novel’ is a fancier word for a longer comic book that is released as one volume rather than being segmented into issues. There’s also no set length.
Manga: Manga stories are usually serialized as ‘chapters’ rather than issues and printed in anthology manga magazines that run 200–850 pages long. Chapters of each individual series are then collected into volumes called ‘tankobon’ – the equivalent of TPBs.
The lengths vary hugely from title to title, but chapters released weekly seem to average 16–20 pages while chapters released monthly average 36–50 pages. Volumes are usually 180–250 pages. Most manga stories run for as long as their ‘mangaka’ (manga author) wants them to, or as long as their readership demands. The longest running manga, Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koen-mae Hashutsujo, began in 1976 and finished just this month (September 2016) with nearly 2,000 chapters and 200 volumes under its belt. (See, I wasn’t lying about that flexibility.)
While you should certainly keep the data I’ve provided in mind, being too prescriptive about sticking to word counts will only impede your personal writing style. Rather, use them as suggestive framework to help your editing process. If you end up way under the standard word count, you know that you either need to slow the pace a little or flesh out some underdeveloped areas. If you end up way over it, you know that you’ve probably upset the ‘filler to killer’ ratio.
Your natural pace was almost certainly shaped by the genres you enjoy reading and writing anyway, so you’ll probably find it’s not as hard as you might think to adhere to standardized lengths.
Don’t try to reinvent the wheel
You’ve probably noticed that when it comes to the ‘right’ length for every convention, there’s a contradiction, much like the English language itself.
To illustrate this further, the editor I mentioned at the top of this article told me in the same conversation that J.K. Rowling initially sent Harry Potter to publishers as one, monstrously long epic. Brevity was clearly always the enemy of creativity for her, as even after the book was serialized, it became spine-warpingly huge from the fourth installment on. By that point, however, all assumptions about preteen attention spans had gone up in a cloud of Floo Powder.
When it comes to book length, don’t try to be the next Tolkien or Rowling. Click To Tweet
Without sounding too ‘glass-half-empty’, fate is set against you being the next J.K. Rowling. It’s far less risky – especially as a new author – to focus on being on the ‘rule’ rather than the ‘exception’ when it comes to how long you want your book to be. Find the right balance between what’s been tried and tested, your personal preferences, and your natural writing style, and you should end up with your ‘Goldilocks’ length.
How does your word count measure up to industry standards? Let me know in the comments, or for more questions that authors can’t stop asking, check out 5 Things You Need To Know Before Pitching Your Book and The Four Questions You Need To Deal With Criticism.