The following started out as a response to Scott’s comment on the post It's Really Not Personal, but it got too long so we’re making it a post. :)
Robert or Sharene (not sure who wrote the last reply),
Your list of authors doesn't count. You just said in a previous reply that established authors go by different rules. What about newbie authors? What is the average word count for them?
And, yes, I'm yanking your chain. LOL
I’m used to getting my chain yanked, Scott, that’s why I have two chains. LOL One is attached to a large iron cannonball that Sharene yanks on a regular basis, and the other is continually yanked by writers who can’t or don’t want to believe there are rules and/or guidelines we ALL must follow, including agents. If you would like to have some idea of how the rules are established, read below:
Established authors and their agents help set the rules, therefore they can break them. Yes, their word counts range around the 90,000 word average most of the time, but when an established author decides to write something shorter, longer, or out of their original genre (like Grisham’s A Painted House), they usually get away with it without too many scars.
Not so for new writers. New writers have NO power (reading audience=power) and therefore MUST follow ALL the rules. This also applies to new writer's agents. Word count ranges are derived from a variety of factors, but you have to consider a major aspect is what the reading public wants and how publishers respond to that need.
Genre also has an impact on novel length. This is why historical romances and speculative fiction can run longer—their audience like a longer read. Highly literary works can run shorter because it is so difficult to maintain the literary element for 90,000 words, although there are some authors who can do this. Cost is a major factor as well. The longer the book, the more it costs to print it, and therefore the higher the investment and risk to publisher. Aversion to risk turns many publishers away from untried writers and longer books from new writers add to that risk. Shorter books can get lost on the bookstore shelf, so uniformity is key in not hampering sales.
If you're curious as to what the an average word length is for commercial fiction novels, take your calculator to the bookstore, pick a group of newer books, at random, from major publishers (newer books because the established range changes over time) and use the formula supplied, i.e. total print pages x 250 (hardcover only) and then average that total (add together then divide by number of novels).
**Note: Smaller publishers have their own word count guidelines. Search for their individual guidelines prior to querying those publishers. If you want the word counts of the major publishers and don’t want to take our word for it, try the method above.
The bottom line for us is that we don’t set guidelines. We find an average word count range by researching recent sales. The average is what the average is and we represent clients whose works meet that average. It's that simple.