Friday, May 30, 2008

Word Count Rules

Word count is one of those things that’s always a huge issue, for published and unpublished authors. I regularly have discussions about when a book reaches the point of being too long or how short is too short. Of course there are “rules” all over the Internet on the subject (including on this blog), but it never hurts to discuss the matter again.

Before going further I want to stress that there are no “rules” in publishing. Publishing is not like practicing law or medicine; there aren’t textbooks on the subject, and except for grammar there are few rules. What there are, however, are guidelines, rules that can and should be broken, but within reason.

I was asked recently, “How much do you focus on word count if the query letter is interesting? I'm not going to submit it to you with a 175,000 word count, but what range will you reject for word count, even if the query is interesting? How strictly do literary agents and/or publishers view the issue of word count when it comes to considering new manuscripts?”

I reject a lot based on word count, not strictly because I think the range should be 90,000-100,000 words and a 200,000-word contemporary romance is too long, but because a 200,000-word contemporary romance is probably overwritten. Most of the books you see published fall within the word counts I discussed in an earlier post for a couple of reasons. One is that that’s what readers’ expect and the other are costs. Readers want to pay $6.99 for a romance novel, and in order for publishers to meet that price point they need to keep the costs at a certain level; page and binding size feed into those costs. Therefore, word count is important. It’s also important that publishers aren’t charging $6.99 for a book that’s only 40,000 words (paperback). Again, while a long book is probably overwritten, a too short book probably doesn’t have enough detail.

So how far am I willing to stretch that? Within reason, give or take a couple thousand words. Face it, if I’m asking for 100,000 words then 150,000 is too long; it’s a 50% increase. I refuse to give you a range you can stretch to because I think you’re all intelligent enough to figure out what would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. Think of it this way: you ask a friend to bring over 50 eggrolls for a party you are throwing for 40 people and instead she brings 25 eggrolls, or brings 150. You do the math.

I’m going to ask the true experts on writing, my readers, what they’ve learned about word count in their writing process. How do you handle a book that’s too long or too short, and what do you see from the work of other writers when books are either too long or too short—what are the common problems?