I see many people asking how long should a book be, seeking guidance on the word counts of their novels and stories. Having compiled lists of publishers of short and long fantasy fiction I’ve noticed a few trends.
This article looks at the lengths publishers seek for fiction in their various forms: micro, flash, short, novelettes, novellas, and novels. But it begins with a few words of caution.
Forget word counts
A controversial start. Let me explain.
“A story is as long as it needs to be.”
This was the best bit of advice I received when querying how long my novel should be. Writing the first draft of any story with a word count in mind is stifling. At that stage of the process, you require unlimited creative freedom. You want to see where your characters take you and how the plot develops. A tight word count may dissuade you from exploring these detours, which may harm your story.
Then again, some of you may find that a helpful thing, a tool to keep you focused. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Why do word counts matter at all? If you write a book 500,000 words strong, few if anyone is going to read it unless you’ve got a reputation akin to George R.R. Martin. It’s a hard sell. You’re asking someone to invest their precious time in your book, and publishers know that. So if you want to get a look-in, you need to be aware of word limits. Let’s explore further.
Micro and Flash Fiction
As the name suggests, the word limit of micro fiction is minute, around 100 words, sometimes 150 depending on the publisher. Perhaps the most famous example is Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” It’s becoming an increasingly popular medium, so it’s worth having a stab at it.
The limit for flash fiction is a bit more gracious at between 1,000 and 1,500 words, again depending on the publisher. It’s similar to micro fiction in that it’s a hard format to master, but again, it’s popular, with most stories able to be read in around five or so minutes.
Short stories come in a range of lengths, usually up to around 7-8,000 words, but as many as 17,500 (though as we’ll see below this strays into the realm of novelettes). Since I have a fair bit of data at my disposal from my list of short fiction publishers, I thought I’d do a bit of maths.
The average word limit using the range in the table is 7,500 words, which tends to be the limit set by most publishers.
Out of the 80 on the list, 20 had limits of 10,000 words or above. The most common word count limit is 5,000. With 7,500 words being the average limit, the number of publishers below that figure is 48, which suggests the majority of publishers like their short fiction on the relatively short side. Who’d have thought it?
Novelettes and Novellas
A novelette isn’t quite a short story and isn’t quite a novel, usually lingering in the range of between 7,500 to 20,000 words. It’s for the short stories that you couldn’t stop writing. A word of warning: they can be hard to get published. Too long for a magazine, too short for a book. You may find a collection of three or four novelettes together.
A novella is a bit more of a weighty tome and lies in the realm of around 20,000 to 50,000 words, sometimes as many as 70-75,000. There are many dedicated publishers of novellas, and publishers of shorter fiction sometimes open their gates to stories of novella length.
An intriguing trend I’ve noticed from my list of publishers of longer fiction is that many publishers set their minimum, usually around 10-20,000 words, and do not specify the limit. This suggests you’ve got a fair bit of freedom when it comes to novellas.
The length of novels can range from around 70,000 words up to 150,000o or even more. The limit is dependent on the publisher, genre and your own stature as a writer.
YA novels, for instance, tend to be around the 80,000-word mark. It’s recommended
that debut authors aim for books around 100,000 word in length because, in the eyes of the publishing world, a reader will not take a chance on an unknown author with a wordy book.
The average length of fantasy novels, which my list of long fiction is based upon, seems to be around 100,000, though it’s worth noting that many publishers do not specify the limit. If a story is long but is engaging then a publisher may forgo a limit.
Raymond Feist’s The Magician is 315,085 words long. The Lord of the Rings collection is a whopping 527,040 words long. The Eye of the World, book one in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, is 261,290 words long. If a novel is good enough it will be published.
All this information may be fine and well, but what if you’re going down the self-publishing route?
Word Counts and Self-Publishing
When it comes to self-publishing your work, you are the master. You can set your own word limit if you set one at all. This is perhaps one of the best things about the self-publishing route.
While having unlimited freedoms, it’s worth keeping the industry standards in mind. The publishing industry knows the lengths readers prefer—it’s their job after all. When it comes to your own books competing in the market, a hefty word length may dissuade potential buyers. Food for thought.
More Help On Books and Word Counts
If you’re looking for more help and guidance, I’ve included a few useful tools and guides below.
- List of fantasy publishers
- List of book reviewers
- How to write a cover letter
- A handy guide on how to cut your word count
Thank you for reading this guide which explores how long should a book be.
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