Word Count and Book Length

By Maeve Maddox

A novelist of my acquaintance insists that the only way to estimate the number of words in a book is to multiply the number of pages by 250.

That was the formula in the good old days when Courier was the only typeface and typewriters were King.

Now we have computers and word processing software. It’s no longer necessary to estimate according to the 250-words-per-page formula. All we have to do is use the WP tool that shows Word Count.

Publishers want to know the overall length of your book. An approximate word count (round numbers) based on what your WP tells you enables them to estimate costs and other factors involved in printing a book.

Novels for adult readers fall between 80,000 and 120,000 words. A novel of 50,000 would be the absolute minimum for some genres and, unless you are Ken Follett or some other established author, you should view 100,000 as the maximum. (Yes, exceptions for a first novel can be found, but writers who depend upon being The Exception are handicapping themselves unnecessarily.)

Every genre has its own length preferences. Novels intended for the adult market will be longer than those targeted at children and young adults. A young adult novel will run between 20,000 and 40,000 words. In terms of adult mainstream fiction, that length would be considered a novella.

TIP: Don’t compose your novel with skinny margins, single-spacing and some off-the-wall font and then make formatting changes when you’re ready to market the completed manuscript.

Draft your novel in standard format from the start:

12-point Times Roman or 12-point Courier.
Double-spacing
Margins set to 1-inch all round
Indented paragraphs

NOTE: Don’t put extra spacing between paragraphs unless your intention is to indicate a shift of viewpoint or passage of time.

When you are ready to approach an agent or a publisher, study their guidelines carefully and submit your work exactly according to their preferences.

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15 Responses to “Word Count and Book Length”

  • Geri

    I’m curious about your advice compose the novel in the standard format from the start rather than changing it later – why does this matter? Surely when writing the important thing is to get words on the page even if they’re in pink comic sans. What difference does it make so long as you change it at the end?

  • Belligero

    Ken Follett? Now there’s proof that quantity is not equal to quality. The Pillars of the Earth is one of the worst books I’ve read.

  • poch

    An excellent and very useful post for writers.

  • Acolin

    Some famous and popular novellas include Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

  • Mike Fook

    Since the paperback is going away, let’s look at more realistic lengths for books. I have 15 books selling in the Amazon Kindle store of varying lengths. I think the fewest words I have in a book is about 15,000. The most – 120,000. Most of my books are between 30-40K words.

    I’ve sold ebooks like this for the past 2 years. I haven’t had one reader, in thousands of sales, write to tell me that one of my books was too short.

    I did have a few write to tell me that my Cleansed fiction novel, at 120K, was too big to read on their computer.

    Word counts are shrinking… and that’s a good thing. It’s good because writers can write more books and consumers can read more books.

    Just like the days of Courier font and typewriters have passed, so too have the days of ink on paper. Time to move on – yes?

  • Derek Thompson

    Sometimes publishers have a much more esoteric formula for deriving a word count. Here’s a link about my experience with a conventional publisher in the UK – you’ll also see from the comments below it that some writers have faced a similar situation.

    Thanks,

    Derek

  • Omar

    Is garamond an accepted writing format for books?

  • Maeve

    @Omar
    Garamond is one of my favorite fonts. Many books are published in it.

    As for SUBMISSIONS, the only two fonts I see recommended are Courier and Times Roman.

  • PreciseEdit

    Excellent and useful (is that redundant?) discussion of word length.

    The comments seem to be discussing manuscript format as well as length. Here are three articles that discuss this issue.

    Daily Writing Tip post on manuscript format:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/16-manuscript-format-guidelines/

    SFWA article on manuscript format:
    http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/manuscript-format/

    Our post on computer skills for authors preparing manuscripts:
    http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/basic-computer-skills-for-authors/

    Specifically regarding estimating page counts:
    When one of our clients needs a page count, we simply apply the anticipated format for the final book (e.g., page size, font face and size, first-line indent, margins) and see how many pages result. Then we add 10 pages for inside title pages, copyright page, etc. This gives us a pretty close estimate. Of course, this process is more accurate for self-publishing authors because they have more control over the final format. Basically, instead of applying a formula for word count, we apply the final format and see what results.

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for the tips! I’ve been researching the word counts/pages of YA novels to make sure I’m not under or over. Of course, word count won’t matter if a story doesn’t ‘hook’ the target audience.

  • Jade

    When I started to work on novels I wanted to keep an estimate of how many words and book pages. I use Microsoft Word and a print page is different then a book page. I made some test text print outs and matched them to standard paperback versions. When I use 12 font size it looks too big, I found size 10 gives me a better estimate. But of course I’d follow whatever rules/guide lines a particular publishing company or writing magazine would want.

    Just wanted to add this…

  • John

    I agree with Geri – although she wrote that a while ago – that I can’t see the need to start out in the publisher preferred format; particularly as I often print off to edit/burn/slash, and prefer to read it in single spaced format.

    And the typical mass paperback – is there such a thing? – has a per-page word count of anywhere between 250 and over 300.

  • Anthony Price

    Hey. I’m just writing my first novel (20000 words done so far), was just wondering, would it be best to set Microsoft Words page set up to the size of a regular paperback book to see how that pans out or just leave it on A4 and guess how many pages would be done? Also, does word count for a novel include: About the author, forward etc?

  • B.L Alley

    Definitely not an article for self-published writers. You need the basic formatting in place first so the manuscript may then be copied and formatted for electronic and print easily.

    If you have a traditional publisher who will be paying for editing, then by all means follow these instructions.

  • James Passmore

    According to these instructions publishers don’t care how long their books are anymore.
    An 80K word novel with a lot of dialogue is going to be a third longer than one without. Think about it. No one cares how many actual words there are, its a measurement of page space. MS word is not going to help.

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