How Long Should A Novel Be?

A lot of agents have been complaining about queries with inappropriate word counts recently. If you're getting a lot of form rejections, this may be why.

Today Fineprint agent Colleen Lindsay has posted an update of contemporary word count rules on her great blog, THE SWIVET http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html. She’s concerned that many writers’ sites have been giving out wrong or outdated information. Word count guidelines have been trending down in the last decade. She says most editors won’t look at a debut ms. longer than 110K, even if it’s epic fantasy—which wasn’t true ten years ago.

Like everything else, it’s all about the economy: fat books cost more to produce, and publishers make more on two short books than one long one.

Word counts are generally agreed to be the count provided by MS Word’s “Word Count” tool. Some extremely old fashioned agents prefer that you use the formula of 250 words per page (double spaced, 12 pt. font) and calculate it yourself, which seems a silly waste of time to me, but always check agent websites for guidelines.

Here is a summary of Colleen’s new word count guidelines by genre. She points out there are always exceptions, especially for sequels and established literary stars. But for debut authors, following these rules will much improve your chances of publication.

MG fiction = 25k to 40k

YA fiction = 50k to 80k

urban fantasy / paranormal romance = 80k to 100k

mysteries and crime fiction = cozies: 60k to 70k; others: 80k to 100k.

women’s fiction and chick lit=80k to 100k

literary fiction=65k to 120k, trending away from the higher numbers. “Spare and elegant” is the mark of literary chic these days.

thrillers=90k to 100k;

historical fiction=80k to 140k and up (you can still wax verbitudinous in this genre, apparently.)

science fiction and fantasy=100k-110k (definitely down from the epic tomes of yore.)

She doesn’t mention romance, so I’d say check websites. Word counts for specific romance lines (usually 60k -75k) will be posted with publisher guidelines.


Around 80k seems to be the magic number for most adult fiction. So it may be time to put on your editor hat and get ruthless.

But what if wordiness is not your problem and your ms. comes in under 50k words? Unless it’s MG or YA, you’ve got a novella, not a novel, and it’s going to be really hard to place. Low word count is one of the main reasons for a form rejection, says agent Kristin Nelson, who has a good post on the subject at Pub Rants. So work on fleshing out characters if it’s literary, weave in another subplot if it’s a thriller, or kill off a few more characters if it’s crime fiction.

And if that 50k worder is a NaNoWriMo effort, it probably needs more work, anyway. Don’t query until it’s ready. Really ready. That usually means letting it sit for 6 weeks, then reading the whole thing out loud before you send off that query.