How long should your novel be?

by David Cathcart

David Cathcart - Christian Book Editor and Screenplay Editor

Determining the proper length for your novel is a key consideration when honing it for publication. On the one hand, you don’t want it to be too short, because that lowers the book’s perceived value. Although many readers are now opting for e-books, those still clinging to hard copies want to feel a certain weight when they heft your book off the shelf. Alternatively, you don’t want your novel to feel too long, because people have shrinking attention spans, and the longer your novel is, the fewer readers you will entice. That said, how long is too long, and how short is too short?

Before I answer that question, let me bring up the burgeoning e-book market once again. When you publish a book electronically, there’s really no physical limit to how long the book should be, because the digital files are so small, and it costs no more to publish a 200KB e-book than it does a 300KM e-book. So when we’re talking about limits, it has far more to do with the reader experience and the cost of manufacturing physical books. Now that we have that straightened out, let’s look at typical word counts for various literary categories.

Adult Fiction

Novels for adults should run somewhere between 70,000-110,000 words. Genre fiction—such as romance, mystery and Westerns—should stick closer to the low end of this spectrum. Literary fiction can run a little longer. The exceptions in terms of genre fiction are sci-fi or fantasy. Readers of these genres won’t mind if you run a little longer, but you still should be wary of breaking the 110,000-word limit. If your story is running long, consider how you might break it down into a trilogy of novels instead, which is also very common within these genres.

Young Adult Fiction

Novels for young adults should be somewhere between 50,000-70,000 words. Once again, you can push this a bit at the upper end, but not at the lower end. And if you’re just starting out, it’s always safest to stay within the ballpark. Trilogies, or a longer series, are common within young adult fiction.

Middle Grade Fiction

In this category, we are looking for somewhere between 20,000-50,000 words. Of course, a few exceptional writers like J. K. Rowling can get away with writing longer books. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was nearly 77,000 words long, and the books got longer from there. But remember, people like Rowling are the exception, and you would do better to play by the rules, at least at first.

Children’s Picture Books

This is a category you don’t hear much about. However, as the father of four children, I can say that shorter is better. I used to go to the library with my kids and quickly rifle through dozens of books. If the art was good, the next consideration was word count. If I saw great art but a huge paragraph of text on each page, I skipped it, because it told me the author was likely telling rather than showing his or her story. That said, you should be looking at somewhere between 500-1,000 words for a typical 32-page picture book, and, as I noted earlier, the shorter, the better.

All of the above are merely recommendations, of course. Every publisher has its own preferences. But as long as you stick pretty close to these guidelines, you will definitely improve your chances of at least having your novel considered.

About the Author

David has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, journalist, screenwriter, blogger, copyeditor, copywriter, art director, and proofreader for almost 20 years. He has written, co-written and edited over 40 published books, both fiction and non-fiction. He has also written, co-written, and/or directed a dozen films and has shepherded dozens of writers through the editing and publishing process.

David’s areas of specialty include Christian fiction and nonfiction, sci-fi and fantasy, literary fiction, screenplays, creative nonfiction, business writing, how-to/self-help, autobiography and historical fiction. His clients appreciate his extensive knowledge of story structure, his attention to detail, his knowledge and experience of the marketplace and his friendly, honest approach.