Friday, September 4, 2020

How Long Can You Go? Word Count Limit for First Books

First-time authors who love epics, such as Tolkien or the Outlander or Game of Thrones series, often ask me about word count for their manuscripts. "I'm at 150,000 words," one writer told me recently, and "I just can't seem to cut anything." Another wrote me this week about her ending--not sure where to stop, she keeps writing. Such dilemmas are common in the drafting stages, and I've encountered them too. Writing can be so satisfying, and trimming not so much.

If you're planning to self-publish, this is not an issue. You don't have to follow any rules but your own and your story can be as long as you want it to be, if you can afford the cost. But if you're hoping to find an agent and publisher, it's good to know the ballpark numbers--what's acceptable in the industry today.

Agents are particularly straightforward about their ability to sell first-time manuscripts that are less than 60,000 or that exceed 90,000 words. One of my early novels was around 45,000 words; an agent I approached loved the story but declined to represent me. "It's just too hard to sell that size book," she told me.

I also encountered this on the other extreme: my current agent sent revisions for my latest novel and advised me to trim 10,000 words to get it as close to 90,000 as I could. "Look especially at the middle," she advised. "There's bloat there."

I took the manuscript back to my storyboard and sure enough, I found a good handful of scenes that were redundant. I loved writing them, they were good scenes, but they repeated the same purpose as earlier ones. My own writerly self-indulgence had to go, if I wanted this book to have a clear pathway to publishing.

These weren't my first books, either, but the rules still applied. One agent told me it was purely a business decision for publishers. Books are printed in "signatures" of a certain number of folded pages bound together, and the 60-90K word count created a neat signature package, making the book cost-effective. Under or over that meant the publisher would lose money. Sounds simple, and very businesslike.

These are hard things to take in, as the writer, though. But publishing is a business, and to keep in business, publishers need to make money on most if not all of their books. If you're a first-time author, hoping for a place on those competitive shelves, these rules are at least good to know about.

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