Why Your Word Count Matters
By Terry Whalin @terrywhalin
Good writing and storytelling is foundational in every submission. I’ve been in publishing for many years and in a few minutes, I can read part of your writing and see if the writing and storytelling is there.
Throughout my writing life, I’ve been encouraging writers to gain this writing and storytelling skill not in the book area but in the magazine area of the market. It is easier and faster to work with the shorter form and you will likely reach more people than with a book.
If you have passed the hurdle of good writing, what other factors are important in your book submission? The one I want to emphasize today is your word count.
Recently got a novel submission from a New York agent who has not worked in the editorial area. I liked the writing and storytelling from these authors. It was unusual for this agent to submit something to me. I knew that it was likely she could not sell it anywhere else and that I was a last resort submission. Because I’ve worked in the editorial area of publishing for years, I could instantly spot the challenge of this submission: the word count. This novel was 213,000 words.
To be fair to this agent, she didn’t come from an editorial background. She probably has never focused on the importance of the word count and how that detail translates into the production costs of the book.
I knew instantly the word count would be a concern to my colleagues. I reached out to one of them for clarification. This colleague confirmed my suspicion about the projected size of this book. A 213,000 word novel will be 700 pages in a 6 x 9 format and have a retail price of $49.95 (Yes, $50). The sales for this book in this length are going to be dismal and it explains why another publisher had not decided to publish this book.
I explained the details of my discovery to this agent and I recommended the authors find a couple of places in the story to halt the action and end the book. I suggested the single story be split into three 70,000 word books. Then the retail price could be normal and the page count would be much more attractive to the readership--which sells books.
There are some additional reasons for making such a shift. In recent years, the price of paper has increased and this increase drives the increases in the retail price for books. Also in terms of a trend, people are reading smaller and shorter books. These factors play into your pitch to a literary agent or an editor and your word count may be one of the deciding factors.
During a recent marathon pitch session with multiple authors, I spoke with several authors who had novels with a 200,000 word count. I encouraged them to divide their story into a smaller novel. To a person, they instantly responded the story had no division point and was one piece. It is a common experience that I’ve had with authors. They either are open to guidance, follow it and increase their possibility of success. Or they are doomed to search for some publisher or agent to take it and when that does not happen, they self-publish (with likely dismal sales). As an author, you either listen to experienced advice or reject it.
Whether you are aware of it or not, the word count is used to calculate the finished book size and this detail figures prominently into the decision. I wrote a different author last week with a 107,000 word book to see if he can divide his book into two (or hire an editor to help him). Our upper limit for fiction used to be 100,000 words but now it is closer to 80,000 because of the increased retail price. This author was open to my suggestion and even pointed out a natural place in the story for the division. I liked this author’s “coachable” attitude and passed this positive information along to my colleagues who are still in the throws of deciding whether to offer a contract or not to this author.
As editors and agents get increased submissions, even the smallest details like word count can be a reason to reject the author. It takes time to coach or explain to them the reasons for a smaller book. Rather than spend that time with the author (and maybe not succeed), it is easier to pass on it and press on to the next submission.
As you write your books, are you aware of the importance of the word count? Let me know in the comments below.