Friday, October 27, 2006

The Word Count Controversy

Many people have written me to ask why I put in my notations in an earlier post about word count in new fiction needing to be in the 70K - 100k range, with certain genre exceptions. Yes, it is true that a lot of fiction violates these rules. Yes, some stories take longer to tell. Yes, famous authors have written much shorter stories. The real reason behind it is not about us but about the current demands of the publishing company. I'll explain it as best I can.

There's a certain overhead for publishing a book. There's costs for the binding, the cover, any editorial work, the cover art (usually done by an in-house artist or contract employee), and publicity. These range from book to book (especially in the publicity area) but stay the same regardless of the size of the book, but it is very expensive to publish a book. The overhead is huge.

If you talk to publishers today about why the price of books always seems to be skyrocketing, they will go on and on about the rising cost of paper and ink, the two things that are affected by word count. If the book is too short, they can't charge as much for it (because it's small) and may not recoup their basic overhead costs. Oh yeah, and they have to give a portion to that writer too, or something. They have to consider the public, which often feels cheated if a book is too short, the same way people feel cheated if a movie is an hour long.

On the other hand, if the book is too long, paper and ink starts becoming a major concern because the cost of the book to print will go up and exceed the price they can reasonably sell it for. This doesn't count for Harry Potter, as everyone will buy the 8oo-page volumes the day they come out anyway, but if you look at the first three books (before JK Rowlings became a major success in the States), you'll notice that they are much shorter than 4, 5, and 6.

So, the publishers have a comfortable range that they think a book belongs within, which varies based on genre, and if you want to get published, you should stick to their rules. Once you're a famous author, you can do whatever you want, but let's take it one step at a time.

30 comments:

Kimber An said...

Word count standards seem so subjective and differ so much for agent to agent to editer and so on. I just looked at the guidelines from as many as possible who work in my genre and made my best possible guess, trying to keep it at the lower end of the spectrum.

Anonymous said...

As a sparse writer, I really appreciate knowing this. I have not read anything like this before and it helps. Time to beef it up, baby.

Time to go watch The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.

LadyBronco said...

I have always wondered just how long my book should be. I was actually aiming for around 85K, and I am waaay relieved to know that this is about right. Yay!

Anonymous said...

Considering 100K is 400 pages, I guess the reason fantasy novels often exceed that is because the writing is good. LOL.

Simon Haynes said...

It's funny, because my publisher has been bringing out literary works for over 25 years now. My SF/Humour series is their first foray into genre fiction, and at one stage they remarked how 'big' my books were. At 80,000 words each.
The joke is, I thought I was about 30-40,000 short of a full length novel, when compared to fantasy titles, but as a sparse writer myself I find 80k just right.
I also discovered the original Hitchhiker's Guide was not much more than 50,000 words. Big fonts and wide margins have a lot to answer for.

Sir John said...

I have a novel I just completed and it is 67,000 words. Would you suggest going back and adding more just to get the count up, or start marketing it as it is. This is assuming everything else about the book is very marketable. If you are interested in seeing more on my novel, my web site is www.sirjohn.us

Kimber An said...

After having done crituques for many other writers, I have discovered that most of the time the reasons for too-short or too-long novels are simple. Too-Short: Not enough dimension. The writer is naturally a short story writer, but is trying to write a novel. She can learn to write a novel, if she wants to. She should join a writers' group, on-line or in real life, and visit her local library for books on the subject. Too-Long: There's just too much 'stuff' in it that does not propel the story forward. I always suggest a 'Slash & Burn' revision, which can be hard for the first-timer to take. However, once complete the writer is astonished at how sharp her story and characters come into focus as a result. 'Weed & Polish' comes after that. For perspective, the novel I'm currantly seeking representation for took two months to write and a year and a half to revise enough for submission.

Anonymous said...

The urban fantasy novel I wrote took 7 months to write and a few more to edit and re-write. It is about 65,000 words and 356 pages (12 pt. New Courier). It is the first in a series. I had advice from some super friends who are already published authors in the horror and fantasy fields. They told me to query and see what happens. Four days after I sent my queries out (10/20/06), I received a request for a partial(10/24/06) for my first 100 pages. Good writing trumps all!

Kimber An said...

Yeah, anonymous 12:22! But, now, I have to go check my font. I have about 75,000 words on about 300 pages and I thought I was using 12 point also. 'Course, I'm not the most computer literate person in the world. The first time I sent a query I was off my word count by about 5000 words! I feel sorry for the first few agents I queried.

BuffySquirrel said...

Even at that, HHGTTG was longer than the publishers were expecting, which is why, in the first edition, the text ends on the very last page and there are no "other books you might enjoy" or other spare pages at the end.

A big difference with Douglas Adams' situation was he didn't query the book; publishers approached him.

Manic Mom said...

I like your blog name because it reminds me of The Terminator!

srchamberlain said...

I'd really like to smack Sir John for posting this comment spam on every agenting blog out there. (See Rachel Vater's latest posts.)

STOP! NO AGENT IS GOING TO CLICK THROUGH TO YOUR GEOCITIES WEBSITE, READ YOUR GENERIC 'QUERY,' AND DECIDE TO REPRESENT YOU. UNLESS, OF COURSE, THAT AGENT IS BARBARA BAUER.

I apologize for the caps, but I had to get that out of my system.

Craig Steffen said...

Even at that, HHGTTG was longer than the publishers were expecting, which is why, in the first edition, the text ends on the very last page...

That's interesting, because the story that Douglas always told about the finishing of that novel was that the publisher had called multiple times, and he wasn't done. Finally they called and said "a courier will be at your house in half an hour; we'll publish what you give him."

I think he pretty much worked that way for all his books. The first edition of "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" was typeset on Douglas's Mac because he was so late that he cut into the typesetting time allotted. Thus the first edition is very different in look from all the others.

Nicholas Borelli said...

If literary agents and acquisition editors were skilled at selecting books to sell, the cost of ink and paper might not be such a critical decision. 70% of what's on the shelves does not sell well enough to make a profit for publishers.

What to do?
Regards, Nick Borelli

Simon Haynes said...

The 'courier at your door' was for a later book in the series.
(I have a biography of Douglas Adams written by none other than Neil Gaiman.)
One thing about DNA you get from the bio - he really seemed to hate writing.

Termagant 2 said...

Well, I for one wish the pubs in my little corner of the market would make up their minds. My ex-agent drove me crazy with this. "Now, we'll send it to ABC, but it's a tad bit too short at 73K. Can you beef up the scene starting on page 22?" Then, "We'll send it to XYZ, but it's a trifle long for them, they like 'em 70K, I suggest you take out the scene where the...blah-blah."

Nowadays I just write 'til I've told the story and worry about where it will fit later. If I were working toward pubs' length guidelines, I'd have 6 different-length versions of every single book I write.

Life's too short for that.

T2

John Anthony Sperling said...

Ditto on the "Sir John" comment. Especially if one of your sentences reads, "Vincent is the pillow of the local Baptist church..."

So the local parishioners drool on Vince and then flip him over to the cool side? Could be interesting, in a magical reality/ Italo Calvino way.

donroc said...

But what about lines per page? I've seen them in published books from 32 to 48. Surely, an increase can accomodate longer worthwhile manuscripts, even from unknowns.

BuffySquirrel said...

The cost of ink and paper is always going to be an issue for publishers. Businesses that don't pay attention to their costs tend to go out of business.

Michele said...

How do you count words? MS Word? Or something that will better equate to number of pages (for example, an average of words/per page of full pages multiplied by the number of pages)?

I find the difference in the two methods changes my wordcount by over 5,000 words.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the reasons published authors get away with longer books is editors get soft on them. The last Harry Potter book was too long. I skimmed lots of it. It needed a damn good edit. Great story - don't get me wrong. But would have been much better without the waffle.
I am currently reading a long book by a crime writer I love. I am again skimming large parts of it. Bits that don't advance the story.

A big book is not necessarily a great book. Even if the author is both fabulous and famous.

Sandra (UK)

Virginia Miss said...

What Michele said: How should word count be calculated?

Some sources say to use microsoft word's word count, others say to calculate by putting your ms into courier and multiplying # pages by 250.

The results vary by around 5k in a manuscript of around 80-90k words

Anonymous said...

I figure 100K to 120K for my fantasy epic. Yep, I know I'll probably have to trim, but I keep seeing 450-500 page fantasies, even for new authors. So I figure it is worth a shot.

susan said...

"Once you're a famous author, you can do whatever you want."

Oh good. Something to look forward to, on top of the fame and fortune.

Simon Haynes said...

Counting standard ms pages will give you a higher 'word' count if you're heavy on the dialogue. And lots of dialogue will make the book longer than simply counting the words would suggest.

Anonymous said...

The difference between those two methods creates a 30,000 word gap for me. That can't be right, can it?

BuffySquirrel said...

Well, anon, it does sound a little excessive :).

Did you put your ms in 12 pt Courier with double line spacing?

Is your page size letter?

Do you have one inch margins all round?

That setup should give you roughly 250 words per page. Count the number of pages and times by 250. See if that works out better :).

Anonymous said...

"Once you're a famous author, you can do whatever you want."

Marisha Pessl *cough*

Anonymous said...

Rejecter,

According to you, the minimum practical length these days is around 70k. (Up from around 50k in the 1960s, judging from the SF paperbacks on my shelves. And that in any series, each novel in the series gets thicker and thicker.)

Has anyone considered reviving the old Ace Double format for slightly-shorter works? Two novellas or short novels (35-55k each) bound together into a single volume?

You'd probably have to abandon putting them back-to-back inverted with two front covers like the original Ace Doubles. (Which could lead to a fight over which of the two appears first.) Ideally, both works in the volume should have some sort of similarity to appeal to the same reader.

This could also have potential as a breakthrough medium for newer authors, with the noob's work doubled with a similar but more established author.

Anonymous said...

It all makes sense and it's another reason why you should never waste your time reading contemporary books.