by Caroline Hiley, editor
There is no rigid rule about how long a novel must be to get published. Indeed, length trends come and go in the industry like hemlines do in fashion. Currently shorter is better, with a commonly accepted range of 40,000 to 120,000 words for commercial fiction.
Novels of 40,000 to 50,000 words tend to be easy reads in category fiction—romance, men’s adventure, mystery, young adult—often published by large-volume houses. Sometimes short novels are episodes in a series or under an imprint specializing in certain subgenres.
Most genre and general fiction runs 60,000 to 90,000 words. Longer lengths are more acceptable in science fiction/fantasy, women’s fiction, and literary novels—stories that involve heavy world building, history, or character complexity—but any long works cost more money to produce, so traditional publishers want them to be either extra special or divisible into volumes. Long debut novels, in particular, must have high commercial potential. Many best-selling novelists launched their careers with short books and have been allowed longer, meatier ones because they’ve established a readership. (Self-publishing authors need to be sure of their readership before they release a long work.)
Word count is calculated automatically by the word processor a writer uses, typically Microsoft Word, or by hand based on number of lines per page within one-inch margins using specific fonts. Each method produces a different number, which varies again if headers and footers, or front matter and back matter, are included. These numbers can be thousands of words apart, so it helps to tell the agent/editor that a novel is approximately XX,000 words by electronic or manual count if the length is close to that person’s limit.
Before sending a manuscript to an independent editor to clean it up for submission, writers should investigate the preferred lengths for the genres they’re writing in and publishers they plan to submit to. That way if the novel needs fleshing out or paring down, the editor is best positioned to help them, and can give accurate quotes before the job begins.
The one thing everyone seeks is a good story. Making sure yours is as tight as it can be will produce a viable length estimate and give the novel its best chance for publishing success.
Caroline Hiley specializes in copyediting novels and works of nonfiction.