I’ll See Your Word Count and Raise it by 20,000

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 17 2022

Whenever I discuss word count, whenever anyone discusses word count, there always has to be a challenge. I get it. There are a lot of books out there that don’t match suggested word counts. What I don’t get is when industry professionals have to blast other professionals on this subject. Word count varies, as we all should know. Much of it is dependent on genre and on the agent. It’s okay to set word count guidelines. Authors ask for guidelines and should know the expectations of the market. Professionals should also know that there’s a huge difference between what a mystery editor seeks v. literary fiction. What fantasy expectations are v. category romance. And we should respect it.

In the past, at the request of readers, we’ve done some very thorough word count blog posts and videos. I stand by all of those. Believe it or not, one of the great consistencies in my career in publishing has been word count.

When I share how word count plays into my decision a lot of it has to do with the genre, the book, and my expectations as a reader. It also has a lot to do with your experience as a writer. A 250,000 word romance is going to be a tough sell. Readers tend not to want that. They enjoy their 80,000-100,000 word books. In fact, that’s pretty standard across most adult genre fiction. MOST. Of course, in word count, as in publishing, as in life, there will always be exceptions. Those books that were so beautifully perfect in an unexpected word count.

A first-time writer penning 30,000 words or 300,000 words tends to need editing of some sort. That’s my experience and of course, sometimes I’m proven wrong. If the idea is amazing enough and the writing in the query grabs me, I’ll request something no matter the word count. If however, the book doesn’t feel extra special, the word count can help be a deciding factor in passing.

Exceptions to the Rules of Word Count

After posting our YouTube a viewer reached out to ask about those books that were well beyond expected word counts.

On a future episode could you add context to the following. 

Assembly was a 2021 first novel by British Jamaican author Natasha Brown. It’s 33,000 words. That same month the Love Songs of W.E B. DuBois was released. 240,000 words. Another first novel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent was 148,000 words although it’s author Isabel Wilkinson is proven. Her award winning first novel, The Warmth of Other Suns was 180,000 words. 
Are these exceptions? Or are their fragile boundaries to word count?
One thing to note with all of these books is none of them was genre. All of these books are literary or, in the case of Caste, meant to be large tomes. Also, not all of them were first novels. Which makes a difference.
All I can say about this is, somewhere along the line, an editor decided these books worked as is and these books, at these word counts, were acceptable. There is no exact anything in publishing. No exact way a title has to be written, dialogue has to be done, or, no exact word count. But knowing the guidelines can help an author shape their book. If you’re confident that the word count you’ve finished with makes the book the best it can be, then go with it. Find that editor who will support you and get that book published.