Wordpreneur Notebook • June 15, 2020

Book Word Counts: How many words should you write?

The real answer to the headline question is: As many words as you need to communicate what you wish to communicate with your book. That’s it. But there are market realities, and although there are no universal book word count standards, there are guidelines you’ll want to keep in mind. Just like everything else in life, of course you can deviate from the norm if you want, but best be fully aware of what’s at play here.

It’s all about what the market has been trained to expect. If you’re new to the game without an established following, toeing the line is likely the most sensible approach, at least until you’ve developed enough market oomph to start fiddling around with your word counts.

There’s a lot of information out there on this topic. And they don’t all synch up. Like I said, there are no word count standards. But the good news is, their numbers are all pretty much in the same ballpark, give or take.

Here are what Wordpreneur has decided will be its book word count guidelines for whoever asks. And don’t miss the Great Books That Are 50,000 Words or Less section at the bottom of this webpage!

Info+Reference

Word Count Guidelines

Fiction General
  • Novel: 40,000+ (see Genres)
  • Novella: 17,500 – 40,000
  • Novelette: 7,500 – 17,500
  • Short Story: Up to 7,500
    • Flash Fiction (and subcategories): 1,000 or less
Non-Fiction
  • Standard (Business, History, etc.): 70,000 – 80,000
  • Biography: 80,000 – 200,000
  • How-To/Self-Help: 40,000 – 60,000
  • Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000

Are 40-50K words enough for a novel?

You may not know this, but up to the 90s, novels were commonly in the 40-70K word count range.  They’d been creeping up until then, which I suspect was influenced by bestselling authors like Stephen King who’d started releasing massive books with great success. No doubt other authors took note and followed suit. But still, those thicker books were more the exception on the bookstore shelves, not really the rule quite yet.

Don’t believe me? Let’s drag Stephen King back out. His first novel, Carrie, was only around 60K words. Toeing the line normal. A few years later and now an author megastar who could write whatever he darned well wanted, his word counts consistently reached well into the six figures, including massive tomes like IT (about 450K) and The Stand (470K).

Yeah, I’d say it’s a safe bet that King’s numbers helped influence the market. Probably one of the “real world” justifications for the shift to thicker novels in the 90s. And that actually happened for a really, really simple reason: Publishers just wanted to raise book prices. Significantly. To make more money, of course!

They anticipated serious market resistance to that kind of price increase. The solution? Thicker books. More pages and words for the higher prices! Very legit-looking, and consumers went along with it. That publishers’ paper and printing costs didn’t really go up that much (maybe you’ll remember “economies of scale” from Economics class), well, that’s what made it a pretty slick move.

The bottom line for authors, however, is that word count expectations have also moved north. Publishers obviously are looking for thicker manuscripts for the thicker books they want to print. So naturally, to increase the likelihood of being allowed to play in their playground, the prudent author will try to deliver what they’re looking for.

Notice that none of that meant that you must write those thicker books. Pump out a high quality product that they think they can sell, they’ll buy it, even if your manuscript barely makes it to 40K words (or even less!).

What’s that you say? You’re an indie author? Well then, do anything you want! Sure, there are market expectations that you need to be aware of, and there is no doubt whatsoever that working within the parameters of those expectations has less obstacles. Book marketing will be tough. But you know what? Book marketing’s tough even if you stick within the parameters. So, assuming a quality product (which is always a constant; without that, nothing I say will be of much help), short book or not, what the hey, I’d go for it.

Word count is not a measure of quality nor of success. It’s just a thing.

Want a motivator? Here you go ; below is a sampling of a dozen great books in the short book range (by current “standards”), critical and market successes, many I’m sure you will recognize. And there are lots more! I just got lazy after adding on a dozen to this collection. Have fun!

Great Books That Are 50,000 Words or Less

46,118

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury

49,962

Fight Club

Chuck Palahniuk

43,617

The Giver

Lois Lowry

47,094

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald

44,660

The Invisible Man

H.G. Wells

31,465

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck

21,460

The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway

48,523

The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton

49,459

Slaughter-house-Five

Kurt Vonnegut

46,591

Speak

Laurie Halse Anderson

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