Do word counts matter?
If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ve probably asked yourself this question: how long should my book be? It’s a fair question because if you connect with any authors on social media, you’ll eventually come across threads about how agents and publishers have rejected their manuscripts because their stories is either too long or too short.
Which leads to the question: do word counts really matter?
While I stand firm with the idea that stories should be told in exactly as many words as it takes to tell it well, regardless of whether that’s 60,000 or 250,000 words, the honest answer to the question is unsatisfyingly vague: it depends.
There are a number of variables that go into how long a story should be. The first of which is choosing what publishing route you want to use. If you’re going to self-publish, no one will tell you how long or short your story has to be. This freedom is one of the perks of self-publishing; it allows you to maintain creative control of your work. However, if you’re looking to unload all the extra responsibilities of a self-published author (sales, marketing, etc.) then getting an agent and selling your manuscript to a traditional publisher is the route you want to take. But you should know up front that they have specifications you need to adhere to if you want your book to land on bookshelves one day.
The biggest reason traditional publishers have requirements on page lengths is because they want to minimize costs — particularly on new authors (it’s said that 99% of published books will never make enough money to recover their production costs). And this all makes sense when you think about it. Printing books costs money. The longer the book, the more paper and ink it requires to print, which means they need to sell it for a higher price to recoup those costs. They also need to pay advances to the author, pay staff, and dish out cash for marketing and advertising.
This doesn’t mean a publisher won’t accept longer books, but in order for them to take on the additional risk of printing a larger book, they need to guarantee they can make a profit on it. I think the best example of this is the Harry Potter series. The first book in the series, which I believe was J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, has just under 77,000 words. However, each book in the series got progressively longer with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix being the longest book with more than 257,000 words.
Why did the publisher take that risk? Well, the first novel sat on the New York Times Best Seller’s List for 79 consecutive weeks (or 18 months). Even in 2022, 25 years after it come out, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone still makes appearances on the Amazon best seller’s lists. In the United Kingdom, it sold more than 300,000 copies in its first two years. And let’s not forget that Rowling was the first author to become a billionaire from writing and writing alone. In other words, her books were a guaranteed cash grab.
So how long should your book be? Each publisher is different, but here is a list of common lengths based on genre and age group:
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, you may be looking at your manuscript and thinking self-publishing is the best route for your book because you don’t have to pay the cost of printing if you use a service like Amazon KDP or Barnes & Noble Press, right?
Well, just because you’re not incurring the cost of printing doesn’t mean it’s free. If you use a print-on-demand service, you’ll see that you get a royalty percentage based on each sale, but the minimum sale price is still dependent on the cost of printing. This means that if you have a long book, you’re either going to have to hike your prices up to make money or you’re going to make a marginal royalty (maybe just a few cents). You might think this is unfair, but these businesses have zero investment in you, they’re not willing to lose money on your book just because you think it’s the greatest thing since Frodo dropped the one ring into Mount Doom.
So let’s circle back and ask our initial question again: do word counts matter? Yes, yes they do. That doesn’t mean you can’t write a 300,000 word epic, but if you do, you’d better make sure every word either moves the story forward, builds the world, or develops the characters. Cut the fluff. Your readers will appreciate you for it.
What do you think about word counts? Let me know in the comments!
Originally published at http://authortimkoster.com on February 8, 2022.