How Many Words in a Book?

Video transcript with bonus content




How Many Words in a Book? That’s a question many new authors ask.

The Main Principle

When it comes to word count, there is an over-riding principle. That is, you want to tell a complete story, not over-or-under tell it.

Book length is about reader experience, not writer ambition.

Readers always know when a book is the right length. How? By the sense of satisfaction they have when they read the last page.

This principle applies to both fiction and nonfiction books.

Word Count for Novels (Fiction)

Novels are getting shorter. Novels are entertainment. Before movies, radio, television and the Internet, the only entertainment was novels for the literate and stage plays for the less literate.

Since entertainment options were limited, people wanted long novels. As people began to have more diverse entertainment opportunities, novel length went down.

Here are some selected samples that show the trend.

  • War and Peace (1869) by Russian author Leo Tolstoy is 565,146 words in the English edition.
  • American author John Steinbeck used 179,148 words to craft the classic Grapes of Wrath (1939).
  • The Di Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown is 138,380 words.

There are still long novels today, of course. Take Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace, for example. I’m not sure how many words it is, but it is 1,079 pages and it’s a tour de force.

How Many Words in a BookUnfortunately, in this day of self-publishing, many writers try to mimic his genius, but they fail and their books are just long, boring and self-indulgent.

With a few exceptions, however, the trend is clear: “Shorter is better.”

Kindle Singles is one of the fastest growing categories at Amazon, and to be accepted into that program, eBooks must be between 5,000 and 30,000 words.

The prime rule: Authors want to write for readers, not to meet their own ego requirements.

Nonfiction Book Length

Nonfiction books have a wider range, from 25,000- 150,000 words. They type of nonfiction book is what makes the difference in the word count.

For example, a “how-to” or “self-help” book might have as few as 25,000 words and the reader will think they received good value for their money.  On the other hand, if you’re writing history or biography, your book is likely to be in the 60,000-100,000 word category. Science books tend to have an even higher word count in many instances.

When it comes to nonfiction, it is best to explore other books in your exact genre. What is the typical length for the subject and for the target audience?  You want your book to fall within the ranges of those books.

Book Word Count Guidelines

Publishers ultimately decide what length is proper for a particular book. However, here are some guidelines you will find helpful.

  • Fiction – Novel – 40,000 – 150,000
  • Fiction – Novella – 18,000-40,000
  • Nonfiction – 25,000 – 150,000
  • Young Adult books (YA) – 25,000 – 75,000
  • Children’s books – 250 – 1,000

You want to keep a certain type of book in these ranges. For example, newbies think they’re doing something earth-shaking by writing a YA book that’s 150,000 words. But to a young adult, it’s likely to be a long, boring book and not an earth-shaking one.

Profit Shrinks If You Get Too Wordy

Self-publishers don’t want to over-write for economic reasons.

The cost of production and the sales price is determined by length. To make a fair profit, longer books need to priced higher. If they are not competitive with normal length books in the same category, you’ll lose sales.

If you lower the price to be competitive, profit margins shrink to nothing.

Are Ebooks an Exception?

Books with a high word count are a bad financial bet. You might get away with a long book for a cheap price as an ebook, but you’ll fail in print. The economics are that bad.

Shorter books are better than longer books from a marketing perspective.

From a literary perspective, long books are often a sign of sloppy writing. If you have seen the movie, “Wonder Boys” (2000) starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire, you’ll appreciate my point. There are many important lessons for writers in that film, but this is an important one about making choices that’s worth viewing.

If I were King of the Universe, I would require all writers to watch that great movie before being allowed to write a novel over 100,000 words. The self-published limit should be 75,000 in my view.

If you’re self-publishing a novel over 100,000 words, I suggest you break it down into several smaller books.

That makes more sense from a reader’s view, and it’s good for book profits too.

Know Your Readers

Word count is important. Shorter books meet market needs because they meet reader needs. Understand your market and write for that market.


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