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Ask Agent: Does word count really matter?

Do you have a publishing question for a literary agent? Send it in here, and we'll try to answer!

This month's question from @w4freedom on IG:

Does word count really matter? If so, what are some general guidelines?

Aida Lilly's answer:

Yes, to an extent. There are times when a published book’s word count may be below average or above average, but for most writers, a word count is something to keep in mind.

Most agents or publishers are not going to automatically reject a query that is 48k long when the expected word count for the genre is 50k, but falling within the correct wordcount can signal to publishing professionals that a writer understands their genre and can do the work of editing themselves (so their work is neither too long nor too short).

If a book is too short, an agent or publisher may not feel the work is developed or fleshed out enough (and many agents and publishers do not work with novellas). On the opposite side of that, if anyone sees a startlingly high word count (think 250k+), it sends a different kind of message. If an author has a 250k word manuscript, a couple of things might be happening: too many unnecessary details or information to slog through that doesn’t propel a story forward; OR maybe they’ve actually written more than one book but don’t realize it.

If I see a query for 300k words, I’m most likely going to pass very quickly. It’s not easy to be a debut author and be an outlier with word counts on the way-too-long side (or the way-too-short side); usually the outliers are more established authors (unless they’ve done something that is truly extraordinary and unique). Manuscripts that are this long usually need trimming in one way or another, and it’s a LOT of work to rewrite/pare down something that long.

On that note, these are my opinions. There could be someone out there who disagrees and does things their own way. That’s publishing.

For more info, here’s an article that goes into greater detail, as well as gives the average word-count ranges by genre (I've pulled some of his answers about word count for you below as well).

Novellas: 30,000–50,000 words

Novels: 50,000–110,000 words

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words

  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words

  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000 (and sometimes 150,000) words

  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000

  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words

  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,00

  • Picture Books: 300–800 words

  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words

  • Standard Nonfiction (Business, Political Science, Psychology, History, etc.): 70,000–80,000 words

  • Memoir: 80,000–100,000 words

  • Biography: 80,000–200,000 words

  • How-to / Self-Help: 40,000–50,000 words

Aida Lilly, The Word's Program Coordinator and an associate agent at KT Literary provides monthly tips via @wordisdiversity on Instagram and wants to answer the questions that are most pressing to you! Fill this out and we'll try to answer your question in our monthly "Ask Agent."


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