Book Trends Blog

May 28, 2011

Word Counts by Bob Spear

Writers who do so for a living have been focused on word counts over the years. During the hey days of pulp fiction and pop magazines, writers used to be paid by the word. This sometimes led to excessively wordy books and articles. Today, with the internet’s space and attention constraints, writing tends to be much more tightly structured. This has led to articles for a set fee within certain word-count boundaries.

Today’s book recompense is basically focused around a percentage of a book’s retail or net price, depending on the terms of the publishing contract. Various genres tend to have different standards based upon what the reading public is accustomed to. Generically speaking, if a book is less than 50,000 to 60,000 words, it’s creeping into the novella region. Most publishers (and therefore agents) have submission requirements, which are based on the pragmatic realities of the bottom line.

An unknown, first-time author should try to stay within the 60,000 to 75,000 word range. Why? To keep the publishers’ pre-production and printing costs down. They are taking a major risk on an unknown entity–a gamble that the book will at least break even. I once had an editing client, who at the ripe old age of 20, had written a 3,000 page tour de force military thriller. Mechanically, he was a good client. He learned from his mistakes and caught them in future self-edits. His stories were gripping and accurate. He would never be able to sell such a book until he had established a major reputation and fan platform. The book would be way too huge to  risk its initial costs.

First-time-authored books often become self-fulfilling failures. Since the publishers are unwilling to take on the risks of production and marketing, everything is cut back or eliminated. This results in a low-cost cover that won’t attract anybody’s attention. few will get the word because the ad campaign just isn’t there. The bottom line is, there is no bottom line–no profit. Constraints on the word count also contribute to a dismal prediction.

What To Do

So what can you do word count wise to improve the chances your work will make it through the agent/publisher submission process?

  • Know your genre of interest in regard to writing styles (tight? not so tight?)
  • Know your genre agent/publishers’ submission requirements in regard to word counts
  • Pre-plan your word counts and be flexible about what goes into your story

Let me expand a little on this last point. Sometimes, especially if you don’t have much experience) you will write your story and suddenly discover it’s not long enough. Oh oh, what now? Go back through the story. Look for places where scenes that create more tension or more emotional quandaries might be added without creating a sense of padding. This approach is one of the best ones I know to expand a story while adding to its interest.

Of course, if you can plan for this ahead of time, it will make your life a lot simpler. Let’s say you’ve created scenes, chapters, and acts or sections. You’ve arranged them into a logical outline and you suddenly realize, “Hey, all this ain’t long enough!” I faced this while outlining my new fantasy. I’m accustomed to writing snappy little mysteries of 50,000 to 65,000 words in about 42 short chapters. My new fantasy only had maybe 25 or so chapters, which definitely won’t cut it these days. What could I do to lengthen the work while increasing its tension?

I made two lists. The first was all the dangerous animals my questors might confront and what might happen if they did. I then did the same with a list of all the natural and man-made catastrophes they might encounter while traveling on their quest. I then when through the outline seeking logical places where items such as these might be placed in order to increase tension and make the reader think, “My gosh, what next?” You want to give the reader encouragements to keep on reading, even if it takes all night.All this hails back to when I was a lonely little boy on my grandparents’ farm without playmates. I would tell stories out loud to myself for hours on end. The most common phrase you might have overheard from me was: “..and then…, …and then….”

Another way you can pump up the word count is through the use of additional or expanded subplots and characters. I have used these to good effect in the past. I have found one of the easiest methods of doing this is to add a scene. One way to identify or mark these places is with a break symbol of three asterisks centered or with a new chapter designation

There you have: the importance of word counts and how the plus them up if need be..



  1. Hi Bob,

    Good advice for new writers. Many tend to write too long, but when the opposite occurs, now they have ways to flesh out their story without padding it.

    Danek S. Kaus
    Produced Screenwriter/Book Adapter

    Comment by Danek S. Kaus — May 28, 2011 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  2. You’re right on the money, Danek, although I have had so many agents tell me they get too many great books that are just too short. That’s why I thought this might help.

    Comment by bobspear — May 28, 2011 @ 11:17 pm | Reply

  3. with ebooks these days, is there really such a thing as “too short?” i mean, folks are seeing success selling short stories.


    Comment by m3mnoch — May 31, 2011 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

    • You are so right. All my mysteries, which are smaller than the average, are on Smashwords, as well as in print at my bookstore.

      Comment by bobspear — May 31, 2011 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  4. I am a new writer and these words are gold. You have answered so many of my questions in this first part already. Thank you so much.

    Now I need to know what you charge to edit books and your services. I would love you to edit and read my book.

    thanks Susan

    Comment by Susan — June 1, 2011 @ 2:09 am | Reply

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