Debut Novel Word Count

Word count was never something I concerned myself with during the first decade I wrote.  I focused on pages then.  It wasn’t until I got serious about daily production that I started thinking in terms of word count.  I’m not sure precisely why I set 100k for myself as the end goal.  My last finished novel came in at 98.7k.  That was the not cut down version.  It probably would have come in around 95k had I not changed directions with it.  The assorted projects I’ve worked on since were aiming for 95-100k.  I always guestimated that most of what I read was in that neighborhood–between 350-450 pages.

Then I happened to read this post by Jill Myles today.  She directs readers to this post at Editorial Ass, this post at The Swivet, and this post at Romantic Reads.  Everybody’s talking about word count.  Apparently anything over 100k for a debut novel (in terms of submissions, not what’s actually published) is practically a death knell.  Really anything over 90k is pushing it (depending on genre).  This has less to do with what people are willing to read and more to do with how much space your book takes up on shelves (can they fit 3 or 6?) and the general cost of paper and production.  Shorter books cost less to produce and therefore take fewer sales to make up production costs.  And with smaller books you can fit more on the shelf or rack and stand a chance of making more of those sales.  All stuff I’d never thought about.

I was concerned until I read the other three articles and there were people talking about submissions with bloated word counts 135k, 200k, even a whopping 2000 PAGES.  Comparatively, I feel like even if I come in right at 100k, I’ll be doing well.  Regardless, I know that a lot of beginning writers have issues with manuscript bloat.  Refining isn’t exactly something most of us excel at when we start out.  That is something that I have, thankfully, gotten better at, particularly now that I’ve crossed to the dark side and become a plotter.   I’m much better at eliminating the deadwood in the plot, and I’ve always been a pretty good copy editor.  As I’ve gone about axing stuff from my outline, Hunted in Shadow has gotten shorter than I originally anticipated.  The first draft is going to come in around 87k.  Once I do a bit of fleshing out and cleaning up, I’m betting it’ll hit around 90k, which seems to be either the magic number or the ceiling for a debut.  So yay for that.

Now to go back to the idea that the cost of paper and production has gone way up.  You have to go back to the ebook revolution now.  Ebooks eliminate the cost of paper and production.  Once you’ve paid for the cost of layout, copy editing, cover art, and the like, everything above and beyond is profit (which is a pretty damn good reason to retain the e-rights to your work, I’d think), not to mention that the backlist never goes out of print.  So for people who can’t seem to debut or find a home at 100k +, ebooks ay be their final frontier.  Or perhaps it’s a way to debut, prove to agents or publisher that they can garner a following, and get a more traditional contract.

Food for thought.

4 thoughts on “Debut Novel Word Count

  1. one aspect that we are seeing though, apart from production cost, is simply that readers want quicker reads. 400 pages+ for fiction seems to be asking a lot of readers in certain genres, not that there are not those who will read this, but when targeting a mass reading demographic, 300-350 page range seems accessible.

    the trend in readership seems to be leaning toward brevity…

  2. Correct. Phone novels in Japan have worked so well that a new genre was created with short chapters that could be read quickly and maxed out at perhaps 100 pages.

    There are editors even now looking at this model for future project development.

    1. I cannot express how much that horrifies me. I’m just waiting for novels to be commonly written in textspeak. :shudder:

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