Friday, November 16, 2007

Why I Reject

In a recent post on query statistics (which I will try to do more of), I mentioned that I would let you know some of the reasons I was rejecting books, and word count was something that came into play regularly. When does a book get rejected for word count? When it’s much, much too short or much, much too long.

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
Anything too far above or below these figures will often get an automatic rejection from people unless your query is unbelievably compelling.

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.



Anonymous said...

Excellent Post. I'm copying, pasting and printing it for someone who truly needs your help.

Anonymous said...

So if someone has submitted based on the MS Word word count, instead of the 250 words per page (which makes a huge difference), how would that factor in if you requested the work and it ended up being longer than originally thought?

Anonymous said...

Great post Jessica!

But when I was at a recent conference, the agent I pitched my book to said "70,000 words? Wow. And I guess you keep the reader interested that whole time."

I got the impression that she thought 70,000 words was quite long.

Precie said...

Thanks for this advice! I've seen lots of online forums try to tackle the word count issue...with lots of ambiguity and disagreement. What a great and concise explanation!

Anonymous said...

She might have thought the 70K was long for that genre. Was she under the impression that it was a short cozy mystery or a category romance?

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what you're saying about word count and Microsoft's word count and how that can mess a writer up. Even if you have 250 words on a page those 250 still have to add up to say 100,000 don't they? So what am I missing here?

Anonymous said...

The 70,000 was commercial fiction - women's fiction.

Anonymous said...


Obvious Assumption #2: When we talk about "word count," we mean the word count generated by your computer.
In MS Word, this feature is found under Tools---->Word Count. And yeah... we've heard all those crazy publishing urban legends about funky formulas for calculating manuscript word count. Our favorite? Multiplying the number of pages of your manuscript by "250"—the standard number of words on a printed book's page. Bunk. Are we still living in the typewriter age? We think not.

The 250 method is the most ARBITRARY way to calculate word count in existence. And here's an illustrative hypothetical to prove it:

You've got a 400-page novel, using Courier 12-point font. If you calculate word count based on the 250 method, your novel is 100,000 words (400 x 250).

However, if you use Courier 10-point font—for the same freaking novel—your novel shrinks to 350 pages, and so does your word count. Magically, you've reduced your novel's word count by 12,500 words (350 x 250 = 87,500 words).

Now, put that same novel in TNR 12-point font, and you'll shrink it even more: 325 pages. Same exact novel. Different word count of 81,250 words (325 x 250).

All we can say is, "Huh?" Based on how you format your manuscript, your word count changes?

The 250 method may be how publishers calculate word count, once they've perfectly typeset your manuscript with a proportional font to include 250 words per page. But heeeello?...agents aren't publishers or typesetters.

Anonymous said...

I've taken to including both the traditional 250 words/page count based on Courier New font AND computer count on my queries to agents and editors, unless I already know from posts like this one which count the editor or agent prefers. Harlequin is now going by computer count. Red Sage (one of my publishers for my pen name) uses computer count, but I've been told, for example, that a certain editor at Kensington uses trad word count, so if I'm subbing to her, that's the count I use. The two word counts vary widely! An 80K computer word count ms. could easily be above 100K counting the traditional way.

I like to write in TNR12 these days, so to figure out traditional word count, I just highlight the whole document and switch it to CN12. Velly simple.

jjdebenedictis said...

Anon 1:17 PM,

If you have a page containing a lot of staccato dialogue, that page may have--say, only 100 words on it.

However, as far as printing costs go, one page is one page, regardless of how many words are on it. Books that are either too skinny or too fat are difficult to print.

Thus, using MS Word's count can give a misleading impression of how many actual pieces of paper will be needed in the printed book.

Sally MacKenzie said...

On the post...well, yes, you can change the "word" count by changing the type face if you use the 250/page estimate method, but it is also true that a MSWord 80,000 word story with lots of dialogue is much longer than a MSWord 80,000 word book with lots of dense paragraphs--longer, that is, in number of pages in the published book--and, as Jessica says, that affects production costs, size of cover spine, etc. Space does matter when you talk printing. (Though of course the publisher can also manipulate type size in printing the book.)

My books are contracted for 95,000 words. They usually come in somewhere around 400 pages--double spaced Courier New--and somewhere in the high 80s, low 90,000 MSWord count, because I have lots of dialogue.

I actually think, at least once you're contracted, you can go with whichever method works for you. I do page count because it helps me get a sense of where I am in the book, how much more I have to write to make the story fit the space.

I think when Harlequin went to Word word count, they dropped the numbers, didn't they? So the books are actually about the same size? I don't write for Harlequin, so I might be wrong about that.

Anonymous said...

Excellent info, Jessica. I linked to this at my site, Flogging the Quill.

Question about issues, though: what if the way a novel addresses contemporary social issues can be seen as a marketing advantage?


Heather Moore said...

Thanks for the breakdown. Very useful.

Anonymous: I tried the different fonts on my ms. The word count all came back the same. Maybe my MS Word is supercharged.

bob said...

This stuff makes my head hurt.

There has got to be an easier way.

Anonymous said...

The 250 words per page is based on Courier New 12 point font with 1 in margins.

It only works if you are looking at that font and size because Courier will average about that many words on a page if you just filled the page up with words.

If you type in TNR, again, you have to have your font size at 12 and instead of using 250 words per page, you have to use 350 words per page because TNR is a smaller font and averages 350 words on a page if you fill it all up.

You can't just mess with the font and have that up the estimated word count. It didn't work in high school when you had a 10 page report due, and it doesn't work here either.

It is simple, Keep your margins at one inch, keep your font size at 12.

If you type in Courier, multiply by 250. If you type in TNR, multiply by 350.

In other words, with the format "standard," you should be looking at 360-400 pages of Courier text for a 90-100K novel.

Julie Weathers said...

Ugh, this really is depressing. I know I'm going to go over the limit for most people. There aren't a lot of ways to cut the count without killing something vital later.

Thanks for the insight about rejections.

Kimber Li said...

Word count is a tricky issue, especially when you write a story which straddles genres.

I always come in under word count due to a persistant delusion that my readers will all be telepathic and 'see' the story in their heads exactly as I do, making descriptions a frivolous addition to the story.

Anonymous said...

I thought that going over wasn't such a big deal because editors would just hack away at the manuscript anyways.

Anonymous said...

Sally & Chessie,
Thank you. I get it now--both of your posts were a big help!
One of the Anonymous Posters said...

Whether or not size matters has been a bone of contention with me since the first draft of my first novel weighed in at 222,000 words. Granted, it did need a lot of editing. I cut characters and subplots and finally got it down to a manageable size, but for a long time, I kept a list of debut novels that were well over the "preferred" word count. I can't pull it up at the moment, but I recall a few that headed the list were The Time Traveler's Wife at 155,255 words, Songs in Ordinary Time at a whopping 277,324 words, and a much smaller White Oleander at a mere 139,731 words. I believe they each sold a few million copies. I no longer worry about word count, and concentrate on telling the story the best I can.

Laura Elliott said...

I have to think the best method for query letters is to state the MS word count - the exact number of words. It sounds like as long as you have a word count between 80K and 100K, and have an interesting plot, you and your agent can figure out the number of pages later.

Anonymous said...

Jessica this is great news. But, what about counts for MG, Tweens, and YA?

Julie Weathers said...

Southern Writer,

Thanks, that gives me hope. I know Paladin's Pride will be sliced and diced, but I have a very bad habit of using most of the elements I put in the story. Yes, there really is a reason for the wizard's obsession with rebuilding his wife's henhouse he blew up.

Vicki said...

Great post! I'm loving your blog. Diana Peterfreund, one of my TARA sisters, sent me over to your blog by way of hers. Now I'm hooked. :D

Maybe I’m off here but word count is exactly that, word count. I use TNR 12 and I set my page up at 1-inch margins, exactly 25 lines per page, window orphan off, and first line of each paragraph by 0.5”. I’m still going to have 90,000 words when finished regardless of how many pages I have.

My current wip is at 67,859 words. Using TNR 12 I am at 223 pages. If I change the font to Courier New 12 I am at 303 pages. Which if I use the CN 12 it looks like I’ve added a whopping 80 pages. I haven’t. I still have 67,859 words. I think (again, I could be wrong) which ever of the two fonts you prefer to write in is fine. You still need the correct amount of words when you type “The End”, your page count will just be different depending on the font.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Glad I could be of help, Anon 7:12pm. I struggled with the concept at first, but then the light bulb went off.

The thing to keep in mind is that, unless you are writing ebooks, your published book is a physical thing that has physical constraints. It's an object that has to fit inside a cover--and book spines still jump in signatures, I think, so the publisher can't just add a few pages, they have to add pages in multiples of...8? 16?...I forget. Then it has to fit in boxes to get to the bookstores (My books are 48 books to a box.). Then it has to fit on bookstore shelves or--maybe harder--those metal racks in Walmart (if you are so lucky!) (PS--I'm not expert, so don't take my word as gospel, of course, and my field is mass market romance, so other genres may differ.)

I wouldn't get TOO hung up on the whole word count thing, though. You probably need to know at least in a ballpark way so you have an idea of the size of the story you can tell--a shorter series story might not fit a longer single title length and vice versa. But if your story or voice is compelling or fresh enough, an editor might still grab your manuscript. My first book, The Naked Duke, sold because it was a finalist in the (now defunct) Regency category of RWA's Golden Heart. That meant it was a shortish category length. My editor just told me to make it longer to fit the single title size. An interesting exercise.

I have had my editor tell me, long after a book was done and handed in, that it was too short--it wouldn't fit the spine--could I make it longer? Instead I offered her the first chapter of the next book. (A win/win--I made up the physical length AND got some promotion out there.) A friend told me she got the call to add x number of pages to her story in an anthology. She speculated someone hadn't been able to deliver a story at the last minute, so the remaining authors had to make up the space to fit the spine.

It's an interesting business. But the important thing is always...just write the best d#mn book you can.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it would help if people thought of this in two different ways.

You have your word count, i.e. the exact number of words in your document. In my case, it is 81,988. No matter what I do with the formatting, that is how many words I have.

Then there is page space. My book takes up 96,000 words worth of space on a page.

If I'm submitting to an epub that doesn't have the constraint of buying and formatting the paper this book will have to fit on, then they would only need the actual number of words. 81K and change.

But if I'm submitting to a publishing house that does need to worry about how much paper is being taken up by this book, they need to know that the book uses more page space than 81K. It uses the space of 96,000 words. That is a much fatter book than one containing 81,000 words.

Most publishers are concerned with how fat the book is, or the page space. I type in Courier because it is easier to multiply by 250 than 350 for TNR. I don't like math.

I've heard, and I guess Jessica just confirmed it. Agents and editors like to look at the page count and know automatically how fat that book is going to be when printed. They can't determine that if only given the exact word count. They can determine that if the ms has standard formatting. Then it is a just a quick and simple multiplication problem.

That is why there is standard formatting in the first place. If it didn't matter how fat the book was, we could write in Century Gothic font and no one would care. The standard is there so people can estimate the page space quickly.

Anonymous said...

You're right on this. But there are exceptions, of course, like with Eragon, which had to have 20,000 words cut and was still around 500 pages, selling 8 million in just 3 years.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, there are exceptions all the time, but your book has to be something that the publishing company believes in so strongly that they are willing to print it "special" and make allowances for it.

The first three Harry Potter books were all about the same length and about the size of most teen fiction, until Rowling reached book four and had enough clout to say, "I'm writing the book my way, and if you want to sell it, sit down and hush up."

Or something like that. LOL

Brandon said...

Ah, well, this would explain why I keep getting that big 900-page fantasy horror rejected, aside from whatever else may be bogging down the dastardly query.

This was a great blog, Jessica, and very helpful. Luckily, I have smaller works completed. I just figured the titanic piece was my first and looked better as the order I saw my novels getting published. Sacrifices will have to be made, it looks like. Thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a reader, I want a good read, and lots of words so that I can get my money's worth from a book. After reading quite a few agents blogs about which books (as manuscripts) "look Interesting" or " I am passionate about". I really wonder how many great books we readers miss out on because an agent is always looking for a new spin! I don't expect every book to blow me away, I just want some great characters whom I can love or hate with a good setting and some interesting facts about places I may never visit. Every book is original, even if the plot is similar to others.
As a reader with limited funds to buy books, give me lots of words.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but I'm also sure you want to have the book at a reasonable price. In order to keep printing costs down, it only makes sense to do all the books with one process. It is more efficient, and therefore, paperbacks can be sold for under ten dollars.

If all the books were different lengths, they would also be more expensive to produce, and guess who gets to pay for that. The consumer. This is just one of those things you have to know up front that it is a constraint, and work with it instead of lamenting it.

What if every script for a T.V sitcom had different lengths? My Tivo would be a mess. If you are planning to write genre fiction, there is an automatic expectation that the book will be a very specific length. So when you structure your novel, pay attention to the length from the very beginning, and voila, one less thing that "counts against you," as a new writer.

Julie Weathers said...

Well, at best estimate I am going to run 140,000 words for a fantasy. I'm not going to worry about cutting yet. I'll get the story finished and then enlist the help of friends with sharp pencils, knives and other slicing instruments.

Anonymous said...

I guess all bets are off for nonfiction, but is there a general rule in that area as well?
Memoir seems almost "novelistic" in its presentation, so I'd imagine the counts that apply to novels apply there. But nonfiction in general? Say, a craft book that will have some photos included?

Anonymous said...

I think that is why non-fiction books are usually sold on proposal. That way the publisher sees the proposal and can plot out how much they are able to invest in the production. Then the book is written into those constraints after the contract is already signed.

But I don't know as much about non-fiction books.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. My novel, Neitherworld, is over 200,000 words - that's 200,000+ words PER book one and book two. Perhaps that's why I finally went the pod route. Those intrepid enough to take on a James Mitchner-length story can check it out on Amazon.

or read the prologue here:


“Because my grandmother was a shaman, that’s why!” Orenda exclaimed, balling her fists in anger. “She healed people. Daddy said people felt…threatened by her. But she was just trying to help people.”
“But if she knew people were after her, why didn’t she go to the police, to someone who could make it stop?” Sam asked.
“Daddy said no one believed her. Well, I guess someone believed her - enough to run her and my grandfather off a cliff!” Orenda hesitated and looked down. “I never even got to meet them.”
“I’m so sorry Orenda. I wish there was something I could do. You’ve been through more than any child your age should ever have to go through. I’m sorry your great grandfather was crippled and your grandparents were killed…and most of all, that your father died.”
“Cal and the other Sky Watchers think he was murdered,” Orenda said bitterly, while staring at the trunk between them - her father’s trunk.
“Oh, Orenda, I don’t know if they’re right or not. If I did, believe me, I’d help bring the people who did it to justice myself. If Cal could only offer some sort of proof….”
“All the proof is in that trunk,” Orenda said firmly. “But I guess you don’t believe it either,” she sighed.
“Believe what, exactly, Orenda?”
“In Voice-in-the-Sky. That he could do all those things. That his…uh, descendants could too.”
“Orenda, I’ve seen what’s in the trunk.” Sam held her purse with the diary inside close. “Just tell me the truth.”
Orenda shook her head and stared into space. “You sound like Ron did. I’m sure you and he will be very happy together.”
“That’s nice of you to say, I guess,” Sam said. Her voice quavered as she asked, “By the way, Orenda, do you know where he is…or any of the others?”
Orenda didn’t answer. She took three steps toward Sam. Sam backed away before telling herself it was silly to be afraid of a ten year old girl. “You’re different from the others,” Orenda said in a strangely distant voice. “You…you see things too, don’t you?” Orenda took another step closer and against all reason, Sam backed away again.
“I don’t know what you mean, Orenda.”
“Now who’s hiding things?” Orenda asked, taking another step closer.
They were both on the wooden platform now, between the trunk and the subbasement wall. Orenda was close enough for Sam to see the brilliant shine in her green eyes, even in the dim lantern light. “You have dreams…visions, like me. We’re not that different actually,” Orenda said.
“Yes, Orenda, we have a lot in common, I’m sure. We should talk about that sometime. But I’m not going to run from you anymore, Orenda, no matter what you and your Gichi-mishoomis were talking about upstairs.”
“Oh, you overheard that too,” Orenda said disappointedly. “Then there’s really no choice, I guess.”
“Orenda, what are you talking about? What happened to Tim, Grace, Doctor Thompson and Ron?” Sam demanded.
“It won’t hurt, really,” Orenda said distantly, tears coming down her cheeks. Silvery dust swirled in the subbasement the way it did in the cave when... She knew it wouldn’t be doing so unless she was supposed to use it, unless it was providing her with an alternative now that her mother had forbidden her from going to the island. She was sure of that much. “By the way, Samantha, there’s a spider in your hair,” Orenda said.
Sam reached up to brush away the spider. Orenda suddenly grabbed her wrist. When Sam wrapped her stronger hand around the child’s arm, more in bemusement than fear, Orenda grabbed her other wrist. Sam stood still with a crooked smile, waiting; she didn’t want to hurt her. "Orenda?"
“Why didn’t you tell the police, or Jimmy about me?”
“Who says I didn’t?” Sam bluffed.
“No, I know you didn’t,” Orenda said, holding both of Sam’s wrists now.
“Alright, I…I have trust issues.”
Orenda nodded and sighed. “Yeah, so do I.”
“What do you mean…oh my God…”
The dark subbasement became even darker.
Oh, wait. Didn't James Mitchner sell a lot of best-sellers? Hmmmm...

Mary said...

Thanks for posting this. Obviously rejections are a part of being a writer - but I'm glad to know, when it comes right down to it, you're just looking for a great book! And that's what I hope we all strive to create.

Twi-sessed said...

This really touched base with me. I've sent out several queries but have received almost all "no thanks yous". I'm thinking the reason may be that my manuscript is 40,000 words.

I thought it could be marketed as a novella but knowing that manuscripts get turned away due to word count I will definitely get to fleshing it out.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Having started my publishing career in the production site of the business, I shudder to think you're rejecting manuscripts based on word count calculated by multiplying manuscript pages by 250. That's a "rough estimate" calculation that, if offered with any kind of authority, will get the person in trouble when final page count is calculated and their P&L explodes in their face.

There are some simple cast-off methods that take a little more time but are far more accurate, and of course the full cast-off method will create an even more accurate estimate.

If you've received good queries and rejected it based on 250 words x MS pages, you did both yourself and the author a disservice.

Anonymous said...

Man, this is great advice, but I'm just going to focus on writing a great story, compelling characters and put my word count in my query. As long as it falls within the required limit, I should be fine. I already type with a 12 size Courier in 1-inch-margined pages.

All this talk of calculating 250 words per page - do I have to ensure that 250 words fit into every single page??

Anonymous said...

Why are you making things difficult? For instance, if 100,000 words are okay for a given genre, then what you are really saying is that 400 pages is the maximum. Right? (based on 250 w/page)
So if I write a heavy dialog work 'only' 90,000 words long but with a mere 200 words per page, since that comes to 450 pages it would be rejected on length?
(All other considerations being equal, of course)

Brenda L. Foster aka Author B.B.Love said...

Wow! So much emphasis on word count. What about the story? The formalities you mention are important in the publishingg process however the stats in terms of actually being published regardless of word count, agent or editor approval, suggests that most authors don't stand much of a chance of being published by a major publishing house anyway. The whole traditional process of getting published is unappealing and I will continue to self publish!

Vincent J.P. Morrone said...

I'm part of a online writing group that help with this type of thing. My MS is 108k. Paranormal Romance. Some have said this was too long.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica, I'm new to all this so I'm not too sure who is actually going to read this message but anyway I'm going to risk it and ask the question and just hope I receive an answer, I have just recently sent an e-mail to an agent asking him if he would be interested in a book I have wrote which is a non-fiction I gave him a very short description on what my book was about and within three days I got an e-mail back from him asking me if I would e-mail him all my chapters, should I be over the moon and dancing around the living room because of this or is this normal for an agent to e-mail a person back just after three days, I must admit I'm off over the moon but I just don't want to build my hopes up too much, thank you for your time, Karen.

Anonymous said...

Price of book 10
Profit to publisher 1
Roaylties 2
Editors, labor 3
Jacket, artwork 1
Paper 3
Total 10

# pages 400
Cost per page 0.0075

Cost of adding 50 pages 0.375

Sell the book for 10.38