How long is a book?
Now, the retort to this seemingly stupid question is ‘How long is a piece of string?’ but it’s really not that simple. Unless you’re a famous writer, agents and publishers have fairly set ideas about what a ‘book’ is. And one of the key parameters is length.
(BTW, in case you’re wondering, I’m cross-posting here and on The Bone Dragon. As a rule, I won’t be doing that but as having a specific bearing on TBD,this seemed like an issue of general interest [going from comments on other people’s posts on this issue].)
Novellas don’t sell (unless you’re super-famous). Short stories don’t sell very much (unless you’re super-famous or win a major award). Short novels don’t tend to sell (unless you’re super famous). I hope you’re sensing a theme here.
Unless an author is already a well-established brand, then agents and publishers will put a black mark against a submission that doesn’t fall within an acceptable word count range. The black mark may not count your project out… but it might. And do you really want a black mark before the agent/publisher has even got to the synopsis, let alone your sample material?
The ‘acceptable’ word count range for a book depends on its genre. But it’s generally wise to be wary of brick-like tomes. Why? Because they’re expensive to produce: there’s more editing involved, more page-setting, more pages… And that means that publishing the book is a bigger risk. To get a ‘yes’ on a very long book, it needs to be better than an average length book to compensate for the extra risk. The reverse is not true with short books because readers want to feel they’re getting their money’s worth: they don’t want to spend the same amount on something that’s half the size.
So book length is an area in which you really do want to aim to be average: for once, that’s the ideal.
Now, The Bone Dragon has proven contrary in many ways. It took me a very long time to write it – not in actual writing hours, but in how many years it was gradually written over. Usually, once I have a really detailed plan for a novel, I sit down and write it in under a month. The Bone Dragon took several years. Other things kept on getting in the way (including the rib in a pot that was the inspiration for the book in the first place)… but more on that another time.
The Bone Dragon also took a relatively short amount of time to edit. And when I did finally finish writing and start editing, my main goal was to make it longer. Longer!
Usually I set myself a word count target for how much I’m going to slim a manuscript down by in order to push myself to remove the ‘flab’. But, with The Bone Dragon, I needed to build the manuscript because for some reason that still escapes me the word count on the first draft (no matter how many times I rechecked it) told me that my book – the most intricately plotted book I’d ever written – was less than 47,000 words!
I still think the only explanation is that some of the words are hiding behind each other… because of the Dragon, you understand.
Anyway, thanks to many wonderful friends I started identifying what was missing. This was critical because I was determined that, having finally written a book that really did have little to no flab, I wasn’t going to edit in unnecessary material. On the other hand, the word count was a big, thorny problem: no one was going to want the book at that length. And there was no reason for me to risk having it rejected purely because of the length.
There was plenty of plot, even in the first draft. So why weren’t there enough words? (out, out, cowardly words! Stop cowering and show yourselves!)
Learning to identify what was missing instead of trying to spot what wasn’t needed was an interesting challenge. But gradually the word count crept up. I reached the 50K milestone… The 55K milestone… Praise be, the 60K milestone!
At this stage, I started doing some reading to figure out the lowest word count I was likely to get away with. Here are some of the most useful sources I found:
The consensus seems to be that for any ‘adult’ genre, 60K was the absolute minimum number of words, while 70K was a happier minimum and 80-90K (or even up to 100K) was ideal. Now, romance novels generally do better on the lower end of this. Thrillers vary: light thrillers (‘cosy murder mysteries’ for instance) tend to lower end, while spy thrillers and big airplane-read action novels tend to the higher end. Literary fiction has greater flexibility. Chick lit comes somewhere in the middle (though it tends towards the short end of the scale). Fantasy and sci-fi can go really, really long if you’ve got an epic enough story (NB: series are generally what agents and publishers want, so make sure you shouldn’t be splitting your enormous tome into a trilogy… unless you’ve got a trilogy of tomes anyway). Young adult starts at about 45K and goes up to 80K (usually).
As for The Bone Dragon… Well, it’s not immediately clear what genre it belongs in, though I’m hoping this is because it has cross-over potential rather than because it falls between two camps. I think it would market best as a literary crime novel or as young adult. Generally cross-over books start as young adult/children’s and move over into the adult market, so that’s been worth bearing in mind as I struggled to work out what to do about the length.
The final word count is under 68K. This means that it’s happily above the 60K bare minimum and verging on the OK lower limit for an adult novel though it is still short for adult fiction. It’s just fine for young adult, however.
So that has helped to dictate my submission approach… After all, while an author should theoretically be free to make a book as long or as short as it needs to be, a writer who wants to get published needs to face facts: agents and publishers care about length. So I do too. I don’t want agents/publishers to look at my cover letter and be ready to bin my synopsis and sample chapters simply because the word count isn’t what they’re after. If I’m going to fail, I definitely want to fail at a higher bar than that!
So there you go. Word counts don’t make a book. But they can stop a book making it on to the shelves.
And, after all, there’s nothing to stop you asking your publisher if you can add/cut down once you’ve already sold them on your story. Get a contract with a book that’s within the right limits and then, if the word limit has been hampering you, see if you can negotiate to adjust the manuscript to be the length that is needed to tell the story your way. You have to be willing to accept a ‘no’ – I wouldn’t advise taking this path if you’re prepared to tear your contract up if the publisher decides not to negotiate on this point – but if you are willing to make a ‘no’, then the worst the publisher can say is ‘We like it like this.’ You’ll still have a book on the shelves after all. Not exactly a bad result.