A Word on Word Count…

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:

List Price $15.00
Retailer discount (40%) -$6.00
Printing costs -$6.75
Royalties, editing, and cover design -$2.25
Profit $0.00

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.

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11 Comments

Filed under For Authors, Publishing

11 responses to “A Word on Word Count…

  1. Joe Mazzola

    I am actually having the opposite problem with my current novel. The draft I am working on right now actually includes an additional subplot that the first two did not because my word count was actually less than the requested. Thankfully, the new subplot actually opens up a whole additional side of the setting I could not have shown otherwise.

    I’ve always been a concise writer on papers and essays and suchlike, so I don’t think I’ll have this problem, but as for the writer in question, did she ever consider splitting it into a series, and do you have any sort of pre-existing protocols for authors whose first work ends with an obvious need for a sequel to complete the story, whether or not said sequel was already complete?

  2. We don’t have a protocol for handling sequels. When we see a manuscript that screams “trilogy” we do share our opinion with the author. 🙂 In the case of the above manuscript (and most manuscripts we receive with high word counts), the culprit is actually too much back-story. It turns out a lot of information which is essential for an author to understand their characters really isn’t necessary to reveal to a reader.

  3. Joe Mazzola

    I’ve actually had, over the course of my life, many stern talkings-to about backstory, along the lines of “how much to show, how much to imply, how much to hide,” things like that. I’ve been given quite a few examples of how it’s done right, and it usually winds up that the best solution is to show that there is a backstory without resorting to info-dumping and awkward exposition.

    But I can sympathize with the author in question. It’s only natural to want to show everyone how hard you’ve worked on the setting and characters and sometimes the main story can’t include all the ideas and bits of background a writer would have come up with.

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  9. Thank you for this note on word count. I have learned from this to plan shorter books in the future! However, I have a completed novel the result of twelve years full-time work, “Trial by Depth in the Grindstone Tavern,” set in the Dutch East Indies in 1674. I am a Renaissance and baroque scholar, and an expert on Colonial Indonesia, and I wrote this swift-moving adventure in seventeenth century English. Having an academic background, plus many years of experience in remote eastern Indonesia, prepared me to write this book. The original manuscript came in at 175,000 words. An agent made tart comments about its length. I cut the manuscript to 65,000 words, still having no luck. I then spent two more years, consulting four separate manuscripts of my original novel, carefully replacing and rewriting much of the material I had cut. I felt so foolish for having spent so much time devoted to this writing, and then to have just butchered it, throwing so many months of my professional life away for no good literary reason. The final manuscript came in at 130,000 words. It is a world-class masterwork, sui generis, and I stand behind it proudly: there is nothing like it. But too bad, it’s too unwieldy to make money. I have plans to self-publish this year, and two artists, one of whom is my son, painting a remarkable cover designed to please me down to the last detail. I will approach academic contacts, and other literary readers. I will not try to make money on this technically “experimental” literary historical novel. I will just try to get a few respected and highly-qualified friends to read it. That, I think is the future. My son is a film-maker succeeding as an independent, outside Hollywood; and now his pop will be a self-publisher, part of a groundswell taking literature back from the brutal forces of the market.

  10. Dwight Brooks again. I learned more from this post than was immediately apparent to me; I have a conscience, so I wish express further thanks for this enlightening “Word…” and withdraw the comments I made in my earlier letter-lament. It’s a crowded world. Too many even great writers write too much. 100,000 words sounds like a fair baseline for a first-time novelist, so I am going to cut 30,000 words from my ms. and although I still plan to self-publish this book this year, perhaps it will succeed and later interest a publisher. I will be glad knowing I have reduced it to a fair and reasonable length. Thank you.

  11. Dwight Brooks again. I learned more from this post than was immediately apparent to me. Too many even great writers write too much. 100,000 words sounds like a fair baseline for a first-time novelist, so I am going to cut 30,000 words from my ms. and although I still plan to self-publish this book this year, perhaps it will succeed and later interest a publisher. I will be glad knowing I have reduced it to a fair and reasonable length. Thank you.

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