One subject that I often see pop up in areas frequented by aspiring writers is that of word count. I know it’s something myself have often wondered about, and so when I ran across these two great blog posts about the subject, I thought I’d pass them along to those of you who are hard at work on your first masterpiece.

The First is courtesy of Nathan Bransford, a literary agent (and great blogger) working for Curtis Brown Ltd., who, by his own admission, is a little lackadaisical about word count:

Within reason. If your (adult) novel is less than 40,000 words you’re in novella land (where publishers worry about how a bookstore is going to stock your book when it will have such a skinny spine). Children’s novels are generally shorter, but shouldn’t be TOO short. If your novel is going to be over 150,000 words and your name is not David Foster Wallace, Leo Tolstoy, or Vikram (Chandra or Seth), there had better be a darn good reason for it.

You can read the whole thing HERE.

The nameless scribe of Editorial Ass is a little more stringent when it comes to taking a look at submissions:

Either way, I have to admit my personal taste is toward shorter books. I really like submissions between 60 and 80k words. I’m relatively open-minded, but anything shorter than 60,000 words usually proves to be a little half-baked. (This is not always true, of course, but often it just comes up short–a good novel needs cohesive structure and enough development to pull a reader in, and often this can’t be accomplished in fewer than 60,000 words.) I also cringe whenever an agent tells me she’s sending me a 200,000-word debut novel. I think the upper limit of my patience for books I edit–even genre books–is about 120,000 words. I like all my books to cast off under 400 pages when they are typeset (and I like pretty spacious font so my readers don’t have to develop glaucoma over my titles).

You can check out the full post HERE.

Hopefully this shed’s a little light on the mystery!

  • Joe Abercrombie February 27, 2008 at 12:54 am

    Hmmmm. Gollancz published three successful fantasy debuts in 2006, and The Blade Itself was, I think, the shortest at 190,000 words (the others being The Stormcaller and The Lies of Locke Lamora). Patrick Rothfuss had about the most commercially successful fantasy debut of recent years (epic fantasy anyway) with The Name of the Wind last year, which looks to me like it’s a good deal longer than that, certainly well over 200,000.

    Looking at the epic fantasy commercial heavyweights – NYT bestsellers like Jordan, Goodkind, and Martin, they all write huge books, regularly 300 or even 400,000 words. So short books may be to the taste of these particular agents or publishers, but they aren’t necessarily to the taste of the readership, whether debuts or not, and I’m sure there are plenty of agents and publishers who will consider longer manuscripts, particularly epic fantasies. Given what sells already, they’d be mad not to.

  • Tia Nevitt February 27, 2008 at 3:07 am

    I read the Bransford post as well and immediately thought of The Book of Joby, which is quite a doorstop as you know. However, that IS the exception; most of the debuts I’ve covered have been no longer than half its length.

  • Joe Sherry February 27, 2008 at 4:48 am

    Looking at those NYT authors mentioned by Mr. Abercrombie – Martin and Jordan were established writers and published authors before they wrote the big epic fantasy. Martin had published a good 4-5 smaller novels plus collections of short fiction. Jordan had some Conan and those “Fallon” novels so he was a published author before The Eye of the World.

    This isn’t to disagree with the overall point, because I don’t. The cream will rise to the top and if you’re damn good and wrote a big fat book you can still get noticed and published.

    I suspect, though, that it is *easier* to get your book published if you’re shopping a 300 page novel vs a 600 page novel (relatively speaking)

  • Brian Ruckley February 28, 2008 at 4:12 am

    I think there’re transatlantic and genre differences re: wordcount that lead to much confusion. Certainly my undestsanding is that as far as UK publishers publishing epic fantasy are concerned the estimable Mr. Abercrombie is, unsurprisingly, spot on. The big book phenomenom is not remotely restricted to established authors.

    Of the six fantasy debuts put out by the major UK publishers in 2006 that spring immediately to mind – JA, me, Tom Lloyd, Scott Lynch,Alan Campbell and Hal Duncan – every single one of us, as far as I can tell, came in way over 150,000 words. My book was 180,000 or so, which from the sound of it makes me on the short end of the range. I’m clearly not trying hard enough.

    Anyway, in this particular case – UK publishers, epic fantasy – there is an expectation, and a preference, that a book will be long. My less informed impression is that long sf books are also becoming more acceptable – possibly even preferred in some sub-genres – in the UK (due to the resurgence of space opera), but I might be wrong about that.

    I suspect that the US market is slightly different, or at least more diverse. I certainly have the impression, which may be wrong, that many more shortish fantasies are published in the US than the UK (maybe because there’s more variety of sub-genres?).

    General point is that there’s lots of variables: in the particular case of epic fantasy in the UK, it may well be easier to sell a 600 page manuscript than a 300 page one, just because it’s what the market expects. For a high-speed, hot-lovin, vampire-staking paranormal romance, or an urban fantasy, or whatever they’re being called at the moment, submitting to a US publisher, the 600 v 300 bias is probably reversed.

    The only general advice for aspiring writers that makes much sense is (a) scour the bookshelves and work out for yourself roughly how long the books in your particular target genre or sub-genre are, and (b) make sure you check their websites for any specific advice on word count from any particular agent or publisher you’re thinking of submitting to. You can’t go too far wrong then, I don’t think.

  • Chris (The Book Swede) February 29, 2008 at 6:48 am

    Cool article :)

    It also depends on what a word actually is. Certainly in short story writing there are lots of different ways the word “word” can be taken — and great financial incentive for knowing the differences.

    A normal Word spell checker thingy would put “Supercalifragilistic” as just one word.

    A magazine editor would probably count it as just under 4.

    It’s all about the space it takes up in the magazine or whatever it’s published in. (Don’t think this applies to novels, just short stories.)

    More words equals more money — they’re not going to tell you that, to them, you could have written many more words than you think you have.

    A word is 6 characters including spaces. Which really can bump up your word count, and earn you more money!

    A really good article on the SFWA’s website: explains it all, much better than I have. LOL!

    The Book Swede

  • Gabe July 18, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Of course, both of those agents (from what I can tell) do not primarily represent SFF, which is really a publishing phenom all to itself with its own odd quirks and rules.

    In fact, in SFF, I’d say the trend has definitely gone toward longer and longer books over the years. Anyone spend much time looking at a bookshelf full of paperbacks from the 60s to the 80s? There’s *quite* a distinct difference….

  • aidan July 18, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Having recently begun to get back into Science Fiction, I’m always amazed by how slim all the old SF classics are – barely scraping the 200 page mark.

    In all honesty, I don’t actually mind that trend and love to see author’s like Tobias Buckell (Crystal Rain) and John Scalzi (Old Man’s War) writing relatively lean novels.

    I’m working on an interview with a couple of the folk from Solaris, so I’ll try to throw this subject their way.