Here is a rough guide of what agents and editors expect when it comes to word count. And yes, there are exceptions to every rule.
- Most novels are roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. Anything I don’t mention here should be within that range, give or take 5,000 words. And by the way, when I think word count I think 250 words per double-spaced page with one-inch margins. That’s the way most publishers look at word count. Using Microsoft Word’s count could mess you up since three words of dialogue technically takes up a full line, and word count is about production costs.
- Cozy mysteries: 70,000 to 90,000 words. Usually on the short end of that.
- Category romance: Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 (note this is Harlequin/Silhouette only)
- Fantasy: Can run longer, up to 120,000 words
While I do frequently reject based on word count, it’s not even the most common reason I reject something. I would suspect that the biggest reason something gets rejected from me is because it just doesn’t sound that different or interesting. Your writing might be great, but the story sounds ho-hum. Nothing really stands out or, even worse, you tell me about the issues your book addresses. Trust me. No one cares whether or not your book discusses love and forgiveness or is a social satire. In the end we all just want a really great book—great plot, great characters, great writing.
When going through rejections I often see queries that sound like good ideas. The concept was interesting, but the plot description was so horrible that I passed. If that’s the same writing that I can expect to see in the book, then I don’t want to read any further.
At other times the plot was too slight. The query was very well written and I didn’t doubt that the author could write, but the plot sounded so boring and linear that I had to pass. In other words, if you couldn’t make the book sound different or interesting it wouldn’t matter to me, to editors, or eventually to readers how well it was written. No one would get past the first few chapters.
Any time an author mentions that the book probably still needs an edit, I run. If you don’t feel your book is as near to perfect as you’re going to get it, then I don’t feel it’s ready for me to send around yet.
Essentially, though, your query has to have two things to make me ask to see more. It has to have an interesting and different concept and it has to be well written. It has to give me a sense that when I get the book I already know the writing is going to be solid.