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Guidelines for Word Count

Word count matters. As much as we would like to think we will happily read 250,000-word books or plunk down $16 for a 25,000-word book (really a novella), the truth is we tend not to. We, as readers, feel most comfortable reading books within the range we’re used to–the length of time it takes to read 80,000-100,000 words.

It’s true, agents will reject a book based on word count, but not just because we’re too lazy to read long books. It’s our experience that leads us to those rejections and in our experience, a debut author writing 300,000 words hasn’t yet mastered the art of editing.

Knowing word count requirements for your genre not only helps you write a stronger query, but it’s part of learning the business. You need to know word count in the same way you need to know where commas belong and what genre is.

Reaching out to the Agents of BookEnds, I’ve come up with a word count cheat sheet. Use it and use well.

  • Picture Books: 0-1000 words; ideal length around 600 words
  • Chapter Books: 5,000-15,000 words; ideal length around 10,000 words
  • Middle Grade: 20,000-55,000 words, ideally 35,000 words
  • Contemporary YA: 60,000-85,000 words, ideal length 80,000 words
  • YA SFF: 70,000-100,000 words, ideal length 90,000 words
  • (Most) Adult Fiction: 80,000-100,000 words
  • Category Romance: 50,000 words (might vary by line)
  • Adult SFF: 100,000-120,000 words
  • Cozy Mystery: 70,000-85,000 words
  • Historical Fiction 80,000-120,000 words

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22 comments

  1. I feel like these numbers are always changing. I love having an update, so thank you.

    Another reason I have heard agents reject longer books is because regardless of if they love a story, it’s difficult to get published. It costs a lot more money to get it edited and printed, and publishers are wary of taking on that commitment for someone who doesn’t yet have a following.

    I think of this, because sometimes I hear writers debating that if their writing is good enough, a long debut will be OK. Even if their writing / editing is fabulous, if the novel is long enough, it’s still likely to get rejected.

    So… good to have guidelines!

  2. I hadn’t thought of children’s books being shorter, it makes perfect sense and my word count is leaning that way. I just hadn’t thought anything about it.
    Wouldn’t the less complex story lines naturally lead to a smaller word count?

  3. You haven’t listed early readers of 2000 – 2500 words. Does that mean there is currently no market for early readers? ( examples Mercy Watson, Toad and Frog, Magic School Bus) There are one off books that do well. Hyperion’s “Thomas Paine and the Dangerous Word” by Sarah Jane Marsh (award winner) is around 2500. Gary D Schmidt’s “So Tall Within” is 1700. Maybe some people get away with varying word counts because they have a name (brand)? THANK YOU

  4. What about the emerging ‘New Adult’ genre (18-35 yr olds)? Do you have a word count for that? Do you have an opinion on this new genre? Thanks 🙂

    1. Laura: With new adult I would follow the standard adult guidelines. Around 80,000 words. That being said, it’s a tough sell right now. There hasn’t proven to be much of a market for it.

  5. I’ve just spent three hours of my life hunting for the accepted debut word count in Urban Fantasy. I’ve read a range of 60k to 120k. I’m an avid reader in UF – most books in the genre run 375-450 pgs. well over the usual “sweet spot” of 80-90k. I don’t want to screw up with a word count that’s too high when querying agents. What would you suggest?

  6. I’ve just spent three hours of my life unsuccessfully hunting for the accepted debut word count in Urban Fantasy. I’ve read a range of 60k to 120k. I’m an avid reader in UF – most books in the genre run 375-450 pgs. well over the usual “sweet spot” of 80-90k. I don’t want to screw up with a word count that’s too high when querying agents. What would you suggest?

  7. I’m working on a cozy mystery. You have 70K to 85K. What if I come in at 65K. Would you reject my query and/or manuscript?

  8. Thank you so much for these helpful guidelines! I do have a question about Historical YA–since Adult Historical has a similar range to Adult SFF, is that correlation the same in YA? Would 70K-100K be an appropriate range to have in mind?

  9. Google says cozy mysteries “should be quite a quick read—take as many words as you need to tell the story and no more. 50K-60K words is typical, but if it’s shorter, don’t add extra words for the sake of it.” If you got a cozy mystery that was 60K words would you rep it?

    1. If I love the book I’m not afraid to offer rep on any length book. However, the author and I might have a serious discussion about the possibilities to change the word count. I think it’s possible to add extra story and not just extra words.

      1. Thanks Jessica. I’m at 30K now. I’m a journalist so I’m used to dealing with word counts, deadlines and editors. I’m shooting for 70K and you’re my top agent pick so I really want it to be as close to perfect when I send you that fated query to you.

  10. Not to be rude, but doesn’t saying everything you feel you need to say (message) matter just as much? I understand having guidelines, BUT, if that were all that mattered, some great books were probably never meant to be written. If every book is supposed to stand alone, having a series may not fix the issue. I feel like turning away a message that may be needed just because “people are lazy” doesn’t fix anything. For that matter, there are tons of self-help books that people don’t seem to read, but it seems like one of those comes out every month.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

    1. Also I think it’s important to look at this as a business. Jessica is giving us these word counts because this is what sells based on her experience. We can all write books for ourselves that are however many words, but will those books sell? Maybe yes, maybe no. Jessica is trying to provide the best GENERAL business advice here

  11. This is super helpful.
    What about prescriptive nonfiction? (I mean specifically self-help books from an academic/research based perspective. More The Body Keeps the Score than How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
    Are there word count expectations depending on which field of self-help we’re talking about (for example, parenting vs. physical health or diet)?

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