Today’s question is from Sheila, who says, “An agent just requested my novel proposal, and asked about the word count. I told him it’s roughly 150,000 words, but that I’ll be cutting it to perhaps 120,000 by the time I’m done. He asked me how many pages it is… But is there an appropriate way to estimate a book’s size?”
Sure there is, Sheila… the rule of thumb with most publishers is to average about 300 words per page. So a 100,000-word novel will run about 300 pages. (That’s not exactly true, but it’s a good general guideline.)
That said, let me speak to a couple other things you mentioned…
First, while it could generally be said that most books run between 240 and 300 pages, most NOVELS tend to run toward the longer side. Frankly, nobody is buying 30,000-word novels. The shortest that routinely gets contracted is the category romance, which runs about 55,000 words. Historical romances at Harlequin will run to 75,000 words, but everywhere else they’re longer. Most stand-alone novels run between 80,000 and 95,000 words. And now we’re seeing some publishers produce book that run from 100,000 to 120,000 words.
I frequently get authors sending me 150,000 word novels (they always seem to be scifi & fantasy writers, who must all be longwinded), and once received a 180,000-word tome. Could it get published? Maybe. Occasionally somebody puts out a huge novel on a chunk of dead trees, but it’s rare. My thought? Unless you’re writing for a category publisher, shoot for the 90,000 word mark. People in a bad economy want value for their money — which means a big, thick book for their cash.
Second, while most books from new authors tend to be shorter, that’s not a hard and fast rule. When I was an associate publisher with Time-Warner, we released Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN, which was a huge book… AND it was the very first time a book from a debut novelist started out at #1 on the New York Times list. My advice? Instead of thinking “I need to keep it short,” think “I need to write a great book,” then get all the help you can to make it a great book.
Third, remember that most books are still created in signatures — that is, in 16-page blocks of text. (You can see these by looking at the top of any book — a group of pages that are folded together.) That means if you count the pages in the front (the half title, the title page, the copyright page, the acknowledgements page, etc), add the numbered pages of the book, then include any blank pages in the back, they will add up to a multiple of 16. Frankly, in today’s economy I think it’s tough to sell any book short of ten signatures (160 pages). And it’s tough to bind any book longer than twenty signatures (320 pages). If you keep your word count between those, you should be okay.
And fourth… the agent asked how many pages it was? Really? Nobody cares anymore how many pages your manuscript is. With a few clicks the editor can bump up the font or increase the leading to make it longer, or she can reduce the margins and shrink the font to make it shorter. Nobody really cares much about page count these days — it’s word count that matters.
By the way, do you know who came up with the notion of the signature? Johannes Gutenberg — the same guy who came up with movable type. He was the one who figured out it was cost-effective to take one large sheet of paper, print pages in various positions, then fold it four times to create a section of a book. Printers still produce books that way, using 16-page signatures. That’s why every good editor can rattle off the correct page counts — 176, 192, 208, 224, 240, 256, 272, 288, or 304 pages.