I received a query three months ago that will be the topic of my next three blogs. This is not because it was a bad query. In fact, we requested the manuscript and in my opinion the novel has great potential. It’s not because the author was unprofessional, which we unfortunately see far too often. It’s because the query serves as an example of three different topics that I want to talk about. The first topic is word count.
The proposed novel was an action thriller where the bad guys come up with an ingenious way to attack the US. The good guys respond by coming up with an even more ingenious way to thwart them. The plot was very clever, and while there were many ‘dead spots’ overall there was plenty of conflict and suspense. So why did I send a rejection letter? Simple. The original manuscript was 150,000 words.
In my letter to the author I pointed out that our upper limit for considering a manuscript is somewhere around 100,000 words and that I would be more than willing to review the manuscript again after the author took my comments about the length and a few other issues into consideration. I must admit I was actually excited when I saw we had received an updated submission. Unfortunately, the revised manuscript was 135,000 words. It arrived with a very nice letter from the author saying that this was as much as she could cut without doing damage to the story. As much as I like the manuscript I’m just not seeing how we can move ahead with publication.
Go to any blog which gives advice to authors and you will see the same thing: while it varies a bit by genre, the optimum word count for a novel is around 80,000 words with an upper limit of 100,000 words. “Query Shark” Janet Reid recently responded to a query that 200,000 words was “twice as long as you want something like this.” So why is word count so important, especially for a debut novel?
As the number of words goes up so does the cost associated with publishing a manuscript. For a debut novel where the author has no track record, the cost associated with publishing the manuscript and the popularity of the genre are really the only information a publisher has to go on (other than the quality of the work) when making a decision concerning publication.
Let’s use the above query as an example. Go to Amazon and do a search for the bestselling trade paperbacks for “Mystery & Thrillers” and you’ll see most of them are priced at just below $15.00 (this excludes mass market paperbacks, which are always priced lower than trade paperbacks) . Books of this type are generally priced in this range because this seems to be what people are willing to pay. At 135,000 words, the best I would be able to do when typesetting the book is to get it down to about 450 pages, which means my printing costs at a minimum will be $6.75 per book. Knowing that the average retailer discount is 40% of list and that I pay 25% of net on average for author royalties, editing, and cover art I can compute the profit I can expect from each book sold:
|Retailer discount (40%)||-$6.00|
|Royalties, editing, and cover design||-$2.25|
In short, we would make no money from publishing this book. In fact, given the size of the manuscript, the additional editing costs might result in the book losing money for every copy sold. There are other issues regarding the readability of a manuscript of this length that are addressed in the blogs I mention above that I won’t rehash here. But the above example demonstrates why most publishers will likely pass on a debut manuscript of this length.
So what is an author to do? In my opinion you have three options. The first is to self-publish your work. It is important to note that you will have the same issues regarding profit margins that I outlined in the table above if you try to publish the book as a paperback. Thus, unless you have a large amount of money to invest in a large offset print run this would most likely limit you to publishing as an eBook. The second option is to reexamine the manuscript to determine if it really needs to be the length it currently is.
If after an honest examination of the manuscript you determine there is no way it can be shortened and you decide that self-publishing is not for you, then no matter how great the manuscript is, it is probably not a good candidate for a debut novel. Your third option is to put the manuscript aside for now and begin working on your next novel. I know this is hard advice for most authors to hear, but it really is the best advice. If your goal is to become a published author, sending queries for a manuscript that will be rejected by most publishers and agents based solely on the length without even being read is probably not the best strategy. Sending the same manuscript to a publisher that you already have a relationship with will most likely at least get it reviewed.
I know one comment that will be made is that I can significantly reduce my printing costs (and thus increase the profits) if I just went to moderately sized offset print runs. While this is true, it would also introduce a significant new risk that I will discuss in my next blog. Regardless, there is a reason most publishers have word count guidelines. Following them is the best way for a debut author to avoid a form rejection.