Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Count Elusiva

When someone comments on one of our posts, we try not to answer right away. Our reasoning is in hope that others will answer the posted comment and thus get help with other viewpoints beside ours. You might have noticed that we don’t know everything and hearing another side to an issue is very refreshing, in our opinion anyway.

For this post, there is an issue that I’d like to broach and that’s word count.

Many times recently, I’ve rejected books for low word count. Because this issue can be very confusing--as requirements vary so widely--we no longer post exact word count limits on our Web site. Publishers define word counts differently because they look at finished books rather than raw manuscripts. But, if you are a beginning writer and plan to have any kind of shot at finding a publisher or an agent, it would behoove you to understand word count and especially the difference, word count-wise, between a novel, a novella, a novelette and a short story.

Publishers try to get as close to 250 words to a published page (book page, not MS page) because that makes it very easy to convert word counts into page counts. I’ve found, however, if you use the rough estimate of 250 words per page, you come very close just by looking at a manuscript as to how many words are contained within. For example, a 320-page MS is about 80,000 words and this seems pretty consistent. Of course, itty bitty quirky things like narrative-rich versus dialogue-rich manuscripts throw this off, but on an average, in manuscripts in which narrative and dialogue are fairly balanced (as should be the case) then the 320 page equals 80,000 words formula works fairly well. However, nothing beats using a word processor word counting tool. Although this method is not entirely accurate, it’s closer than nothing at all.

Where this really comes in handy—this page to word count stuff—is when you are wandering through a bookstore and you want to see where word counts are for recently published books so as to gauge your own. Knowing this will allow you to understand about where certain publishers like their word counts to be, and this understanding might just move you beyond others vying for those coveted spots on your favorite publisher's list.

This may be a detail, but professional writers have a sense of how many words they need to fit a certain market. Details make a difference and separate those who want to be writers from those who are writers.


Scott Jensen said...

The normal whine ... errr, I mean ... the normal concern is about having too small of a word count. However, I wonder about the opposite. Too many words. Have you guys rejected novels for being too long?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Oh yeah, most definitely we see manuscripts that have too many words. I'd say anything over 110,000 is pushing the limit. Occasionally we get books that are over 200,000 words and Robert received a query once on a 400,000 word monster. But mostly word count is too low--around 50,000 or 60,000 words. Normally we like word counts for popular genres to run around 85,000 words. That gives publishers a nice sized novel of around 320 to 350 pages, the average hardcover book size. For some reason thin books don't sell well nor do those that are too fat. Fat books are hard for readers to hold up and thin books seem to get lost on the shelf.

Patrick McNamara said...

I've found the machine's word count tends to be quite a bit off from the calculated word count. I set my page up to give 250 words/page but I don't think the machine counts the spaces.

Scott Jensen said...

Then the logical solution for too thin of books is BIGGER font size! :-)

Actually, this worked well for One-Minute Manager. ;-)

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Go with the machine word count--it's close enough unless you're a publisher and want to convert MS to printed book pages.

pagecrazy said...

If you actually get an MS that is 200,000 or even 400,000, couldn't it be split into a series or sequels?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Hi Pagecrazy:

Splitting a large novel into two or three novels is not up to the agent to figure out as the writer should have already been aware of this. Agents expect works that are publisher ready. so it's up to the writer to do his or her research to find what is marketable and what isn't.

Scott Jensen said...

Just out of curiosity, what is the word count per page for "large print" books? What point font size is "large print" books? My public library has an entire section for these novels and it has quite a following of senior citizens. How much of a market is it?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Don't have any idea as to the word count per page for large print books.

Large print is usually sold as a secondary right rather than a primary. In other words, the book is published in another form (hardcover, trade paper) and then the large print rights are sold as a sub right. Some large print contracts do specify the font size limits, but, because the original book was printed in another format before being published in large print, apparently words per page is a non-issue for everyone except the publisher.