How Many Words Are in a Novel?

woman reading a big long book

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

How long should a book be? At first glance, this question might appear to be a koan. You might as well ask: If a page turns in the forest and no one is there to read it, does it make a sound?

However, looking at the question more deeply reveals some different considerations. In terms of the length of a book, the indie writer can confidently answer, “as long as it takes to tell the story.” This is true in cases where the literary value of a work is foremost and the artist’s vision is the primary driving motivation. But even this answer can be deceptive.

For example, if you plan to publish both an eBook and a print-on-demand version, there are a bunch of factors that will inevitably affect the cost of the final product in physical form, including the number of pages, hardcover or softcover, and so on. If sales of the print version are important to you, all these cost factors need to be considered.

Perhaps you plan to offer print copies of your book following a book reading or public appearance. In some cases, there may be value in having a smaller, more compact (and lighter) book. Or, maybe you want to pursue bulk sales, so shipping costs are a critical factor.

Market expectations

On the other hand, there are typical market and genre expectations to think of when you consider the potential commercial success of a title. For example, a fantasy novel is typically longer than a romance novel. If you deviate too far from these expectations, your book is unlikely to find a publisher, or your self-published work may be doomed to failure.

Publishers, in particular, fixate on market expectations, and it takes a lot of leverage to shift their viewpoint. At over 1,100 pages, Stephen King’s The Stand was initially considered too long by his publisher (Doubleday) and they oversaw trimming it to 823 pages (much to King’s chagrin).

Got massive book sales? Different rules apply.

Republished in 1990 as The Complete and Uncut Edition of The Stand (after sales of 470,000 were tallied for prior versions), the fiction book reached 1,152 pages, making it King’s longest work. At last count, the book has sold 4.5 million copies. Get famous, sell a ton of books, and you can dictate the length of your work.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling has achieved a degree of success that makes the normal rules of book length irrelevant. Rowling started out initially targeting a younger audience with shorter novels and intentionally planned for her audience to increase in age and for the books to grow along with them. Later titles run 700 or 800 pages. Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) and Scholastic (US) aren’t complaining as the sales of the popular series have continued to grow along with the audience.

Think word count, not page count

As a rule of thumb, think in terms of word count rather than page count. Publishers and editors typically deal in word counts, and this measure is a more reliable guide. Page count, of course, will vary depending on the print format and trim size of your book, and is completely irrelevant for ebooks as they don’t have pages.

If you want a ballpark assessment of how word count translates to page count, a typical range is 225–300 words per printed page. By that measure, a 75,000-word manuscript at 250 words per page works out to 300 pages.

But that also depends on the trim size (book size) and font size you choose. Here’s a chart to use as a rough guide for converting average word count to page count.

word count and your books trim size

How many words are in an average book?

Juliet Mushens, a literary agent for Mushens Entertainment, suggests 80,000–100,000 words as a workable standard to follow for novels geared to adults (young adult novels clock in around 50,000–75,000 words). Mushens is quoted on the Penguin publisher UK website as saying:

I do think one of the reasons we get hung up on this standard word count is because there is a sweet spot, in terms of giving us enough world building, but also making sure that the pace doesn’t slow at any point. So in a crime novel, you can kind of pull all the twists and turns, the suspense, the kind of red herrings, together in around 90,000 words. In 150,000 words, on the other hand, it could read like, “Okay, well, we’ve got so many subplots or you know, I’ve kind of forgotten about this red herring, because 50,000 words happened without them being featured.”

Guidelines to help determine the ideal length of a book

Depending on the genre, you can find typical lengths of books based on reader expectations and the market. Consider everything spelled out here as a guideline, rather than a rule, but having a target number of words in mind when you’re writing any kind of work helps shape the narrative flow. This is a very wide parameter, but it encompasses a wide span of types of novels, each with its own place in the market.

Fiction

  • Horror and mystery novels: 60,000–80,000 words
  • Crime and thriller novels: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Romance novels: 40,000–80,000 words
  • Science fiction novels and fantasy novels: 80,000–200,000 words
  • Literary novels: 60,000–180,000 words
  • Children’s books: 500–2,500 words*
  • Young adult fiction: 50,000–75,000 words**

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book Launch* In Children’s books for early readers, the pictures carry the short story and text is usually minimal. It’s unusual to find a book with more than 2,500 words through the early grade school years. Children’s picture books have far fewer words than that.

** Several famous novels and popular book series have been released in this genre, such as Stephanie Meyers Twilight Saga series, and these types of books often win over readers older than the targeted teens and tweens. The Harry Potter series is another example of books that found a wide audience beyond the one intended. Middle-grade fiction is a smaller category but occupies a similar range for word counts: 40,000–70,000 words.

Nonfiction

  • Biographies and memoirs: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Popular nonfiction: 80,000–120,000 words
  • Self-help books: 35,000–55,000 words

How to adhere to word count

To meet the designated word count, authors must establish clear writing goals. Self-editing is pivotal, requiring the removal of extraneous content while enhancing narrative conciseness. While word count is vital, the focus should always be on prose quality and narrative integrity, as these elements underpin a novel’s literary merit. A careful blend of creativity and discipline is the key to achieving the requisite length while preserving narrative strength.

Don’t obsess over word count

When considering how long your book should be, these target lengths are just rough guidelines. As a writer, you shouldn’t dwell obsessively on word count.

In an article for Writer’s Digest, Chuck Sambuchino says, “You have agents like Nathan Bransford (now formerly an agent) and Kristin Nelson who say that you shouldn’t think about word count, but rather you should think about pacing and telling the best story possible — and don’t worry about the length. Yes, they’re right, but the fact is: Not every agent feels that way and is willing to give a 139,000-word debut novel a shot.”

Writing is one of the freest forms of self-expression we’ve got, so be aware of the ideal book length and then write the best book possible you can, whether it’s historical fiction or fantasy. Your book might be a genre-blurring masterpiece, so don’t let conventions stymie your creativity. In addition, the world of self-publishing opens up the market to works that don’t always fit into traditional expectations. Write your best book and enjoy the freedom to launch it into the world on your terms.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. What a precise essay . I’ve only written one full length novel partly as a tribute to an uncle who died in the Great War Research and rewriting became something of an obsession . I simply wanted to get the novel out there given advancing years. ‘ Matterhorn ‘ about the Vietnam War is about the seme length as my novel ‘For a Dream ‘ I was blessed with a very good editor who checked distances in Google Maps . I’m very happy that kdpamazon accepted my novel in early March . I’m nine chapters into a ‘roman a clef ‘based on my day job over forty years in the hospitality industry. It’s a much easier form of writing with little research involved.
    A much loved and prolific writer Maeve Binchy advised me to do this .

  2. I consider my novel as a sequence of characters/dramatic situations. Each has potential for unlimited digression describing progressively less essential detail. I think mainly of tempo keeping a metronomic pace drawing the reader forward using only 10-15% of detail enough that the reader can imagine a fuller vision without word salad or dragging through inessential wordage. The pace of dramatic tempo captures or loses reader interest. A short but varied series of scenes delivered at high tempo makes 100 pages feel like 300 to readers. Quality not quantity as it were.

  3. I just wrote my first book, “ Shaloha Gems” a novella of around 35k words, 154 pages.
    It is a fast paced comic cross-cultural romance with a historical fiction background with a smattering of international crime culminating in an emotional happy ending.

    I thought of adding more chapters but that would have diluted the impact of the story & ran the risk of losing the readers interest in the process.

  4. The correct answer, the only answer is “However long it takes to tell the story” the other “rules” were made by people who got there first and gatekeep, thinking they have their thumb on the pulse of every reader. You don’t. Plain and simple.

    The goal post moves constantly. Look at Of Mice and Men, The Time Machine, The Old Man and the Sea and a PLETHORA of other books and tell me today’s standards aren’t garbage and overlook so many artistic visions. The stringency is absolutely ludicrous.

  5. I’ve written several novels, including The Burden of Tomorrow, Crime City Nights and A Fighting Chance. I think get lost in the story, write what you see and hear and don’t worry about anything else. Let the story write itself. Currently, I’m working on two novels that will be books and audiobooks. I write under the pen name J Razor-Backstrom. I asked AI for a good pen name and that’s what it came up with, so I decided to use it.

  6. I have to say that I just love when I first wake up in the morning, grab my coffee and open my email. “I wonder what’s going to be waiting there for me?” “A friend?” A doctor’s appointment reminder?” “Trash?!” “I DO have a lot of deleting, but as I continue to check everything out, what really brings a smile to my face is finding “Book Baby” with another wonderfully interesting and enjoyable article for me to read. You see, I’m planning to write my memoirs. Actually I’ve been planning to write my memoirs for over five years?!” I’ve really been procrastinating for far too long and so I’m hopeful that Book Baby will give me that “push” to get started?” “I’m ready”! I’m just so thankful you came along.

  7. I found in writing my first book, which was a novella, my goal was to write to the style I had selected. It meant shorter chapters with more action balanced by the most necessary dialog. My goal was 75 pages. Once I had it bound, it went about 100.

    With my second, a children’s novel meant to be read aloud with parents, my goal was flow and and character arc. I was more sensitve to chapter length with this one but not total page length. I think the first draft ended up in the 220 page range, but again, chapter length and readabilty came before word or page count.

    So in the end, knowing the goals of your work is more important than counting pages and words.

  8. Great article, great advice! My genre is historical fiction. I just published a trilogy series – each novel being about 70,000 words which translate into about 250 printed trade pages. In my case, that’s 14 chapters but that is immaterial to the discussion. My characters tell me what to write so they are really the drivers for page count. Really enjoy these BookBaby blogs.
    — Dick Brown

  9. Thanks for an excellent article. I have books ranging from 60,000 words to 125,000 words and have received positive critiques based on the story, not the length.

  10. If you are counting words and pages you are not a writer you are an actuary. Writing is an art you start on the first page and tell your story. The story tells you how long it is Ramond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett books are around 200 pages or less. You can discuss the quality of the writing but you can’t criticize a story told by a writer who tells his story honestly with a voice. Art by its nature is a transgressive act and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling the more devastating the punishment. Writers that count words fill their stories with fluff and are boring but that doesn’t mean they will not be successful. If you want to write a successful book just write the Snow White story. Guaranteed to be best seller. A real artist doesn’t write to be a success he writes because he must write art is not counted it is created and there is great difference between craftmanship and artistry.

  11. I’m working on my book and not yet a published author, but as an educator I think the same advice I give to my students when writing a research paper or essay applies. Just focus on writing and producing the best work possible. When you’re done and going through the editing phase, then let the word count guide you.

  12. I think your article was spot on in regards to word count… as a mystery/romance writer I got great advice to keep my novels to 45-60000…. But you neglected to tell the novella word count. My published friends told me as a guide keep the book to 25-30000 words… and don’t think you don’t need a professional editor. My editor took out two chapters and helped insert into others dropping the word count to a smoother reading book…

  13. When Art is subjected to the whims of business and profit… Everyone loses. When a writer plays it safe and adheres to all the written and unwritten rules you’ve outlined, he or she typically sticks with a formula and churns out cookie cutter books. It can be profitable, of course, but at what cost?

    All the advice you have given is helpful if you just want to write for a niche market. If you just want to be a published author… But if you make that bargain, you will find yourself cut off from the true flow of creativity. The artist within will wither.

    In the end, each person has to choose. Just be aware when you make that choice of the true cost to your soul.

  14. I plan to illustrate my memoir/ethnography (a non-traditional memoir) with photographs.
    They don’t affect word count but they do affect page count.
    Do you have a rule of thumb for those books?

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