Chip MacGregor

May 25, 2012

How do I estimate my book’s size?


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.

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  • Max says:

    I’m writing epic fantasy for my first novel. Woukd 160000 words be too long?

  • Michael Kmiotek says:

    Hi, I came here for the word count question, but am also wondering about the audience I wrote for, which is probably no audience. I have a 98000 word novel called, “Ye Shall Kill, Murder Mania and Good Times.” It explores various facets of mental illness and parts of it are not very family friendly. Who would read something like that?

  • Gavin says:

    What’s the average length for a first detective/thriller novel?

  • Chip, at the ACFW conference last fall, one of the CBA publishers told me that once you got over 90,000 words (mine was 118,000) that the cost of production skyrocketed. Other editors told me similar things – keep it near 90,000.  Other lines, such as LIH, I was told are pretty strict with the 70-75K policy, especially for submission by a debut author. Published author friends told me that their big MSes were picked up (>120K) but their editors weren’t especially happy with the high word count.  Thanks for the post.

    • Chip says:

      Again, it’s a case-by-case situation, Carrie. I can tell you two houses have recently told me they’re moving toward longer novels — 100k to 110k words, and were even open to 120k. It’s a “value” decision. But at the Blue Ridge conference last week, one editor said they’re moving toward shorter novels. So it depends on the house and their cost structure. 

  • Mary Curry says:

    Wow! Such great information. I knew the basics, but it’s really interesting to read the reasoning and history.  Thanks for sharing this.

    I was recently analyzing a couple of debut books and had noticed that they were running toward the longer side. Thanks for confirming and explaining why.

  • Thanks for the great information–school is out next week and I am almost ready to actually write my novel. I’ve spent a lot of time working out details ahead of the writing, and knowing how long the novel should be will help me gauge the amount of detail to include. 

    • Chip says:

      I was at a conference last week where one editor said they were moving toward longer books (100,000 to 110,000 words), and another that said her house was moving toward shorter books (85,000 words). So… who knows what is right anymore?! 

    • Sort of like Goldilocks, isn’t it? I’m going to start by just writing my story and then making it better.

    • Chip says:

      That will NEVER work, Patricia…  :o)

    • Chip, I have read this (bigger books) and it is interesting to hear that editors are now saying this to agents.  Curious who is going shorter.  Thanks for sharing!

  • Hey Chip, fyi – I mentioned on Facebook awhile back that your posts had mysteriously disappeared from my Google Reader, but they’re back now just as mysteriously. In fact, they’re coming in duplicate now. But heck, I’m just glad they’re back 🙂

    • Chip says:

      During our change from Typepad to WordPress, we lost our Feedburner capabilities, Cheryl. Sorry. I’m told it’s now fixed, so I’m hopeful. Thanks for staying with us!

  • Last paragraph was amazing. Thanks for that!

  • Dawn Heart says:

    wow. and that’s why there are random blank pages in the backs of books

    • Chip says:

      That’s correct. And with the growing cost of paper, publishers are trying to create as few blank pages as possible. (Editors hate it when a book slops over by 3 pages, since it means so many extra blanks.) 

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