How Important Are Word Counts?

I don't know about anyone else, but when I write I don't write to a target word count. I write to tell a story regardless of how few or how many words that story includes. But my research has shown that the average length of most modern-day books are between 80,000-90,000 words. Does that mean that your book needs to fit within that window to be successful? I can't say, but it does seem that some publishers do take word count into consideration when evaluating manuscripts.

How serious you may ask. Well, in the case of one publisher it would seem very. I won't name the publisher here but I will say that I submitted 3 different works to them. All 3 were for the same general sci-fi genre and all 3 contained very different word counts. The smallest of the three manuscripts clocked in with just over 68,000 words. The longest with a little more than 107,000. The third and final split the difference largely by containing roughly 79,000 words.

The reason these three very different words are important is because the first manuscript was rejected quite quickly with a the usual 'thanks, but no thanks' response most publishers send when they reject a work but in rare form this publisher went a step further and gave an explanation to their decision. Essentially, due to the high volume of submissions in that genre and my submission's 'low word count'. Just moments later I received a similar email regarding my second submission with that email pinning the blame on my submission's 'high word count'. Interestingly enough, the third manuscript is still in the running.

It would seem that nearly 70,000 isn't enough to peak this publisher's interest while 107,000 is too much.

Now, I'm not complaining that my works were rejected or that I think the explanations received are bogus. No. I can understand that publisher likely receives dozens, maybe even hundreds, of submissions a day and needed to define boundaries to efficiently process those submissions to see which may best suit their target audience and publishing goals.

But rather my point is, how many words does it take to determine if a book will be a masterpiece or even just a good seller?

Well, the answer may surprise you. Upon getting those rejections, which is the publisher's decision and I have no ill will regarding it, I did some research into the word counts of popular books in the general sci-fi genre. What i found was surprising to me. Below is a list of the top sci-fi books, their authors, and their word counts.

  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – 155,717 words
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury – 46,118 words
  • The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury – 64,768 words
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley – 63,766 words
  • War of the Worlds, G. Well – 59,796 words
  • The Time Machine, G. Well – 32,149 words
  • Nineteen Eight-Four, George Orwell – 88,942 words
  • Dune, Frank Herbert – 187,240 words
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin – 94,240 words
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phillip K. Dick – 79,360 words
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley – 74,800 words

(source: http://blog fostergrant.co.uk)

What I find most interesting about this list is the wide range of word counts. The low end of the scale clocks in with just 32,149 words (The Time Machine) while at the high end of the scale we see an impressive 187,240 words (Dune). The difference between those 2 word counts is astounding with a 155,000 word difference. But the average word count among the books on this list is roughly 79,900 words.

The point I want to demonstrate by calling out these classic works and their word counts is how few of them would have been given consideration by this publisher if word count alone was to have the author's submissions rejected. Only three books in the list land in the sweet range of words with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Frankenstein, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Every other book in this list would have likely been passed over and never given a chance to be published based on nothing but word counts which could have prevented a number of classic masterpieces and best-sellers from having ever been printed.

More to the point, while I can appreciate this specific publisher's view on word counts, I think the history speaks for itself. Good books can come in any shape or size. Just because a book is short doesn't mean it isn't good, just look at H.G. Wells's name appearing on the list twice with two of the shorter books and Frank Herbet's name holding the title with the longest book on the list. Dune has spawned 1 movie that is considered a classic and it has an upcoming reboot. How does a book get not one but two movies if its extreme word count would render it nonpunishable?

Sure, maybe the standards and practices of publishers have changed over the years and those books, at the times they were published, were considered average or word count not a factor but it does beg the question of how many other works have been passed over based on nothing more than how wordy they were and how many of them might have been able to achieve relative commercial success if they were only given a chance?

 

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