How Many Words to Make a Book?

The other day I wrote a post about perhaps not finishing a book I’d started. Multiple people told me about what they do when they don’t finish reading books they start.

One person said if she makes it to page 200 and still doesn’t like it, then she won’t force herself to continue. Which is fine, no one says you have to finish every book you start. But she proceeded to say that her reasoning behind writing a review for the book she didn’t finish and also including it in her list of read titles is because 200 pages equals 50k words, what she called the “rule of thumb for the length of a novel”.

UH NO.

Before the advent of NaNoWriMo no one would actually believe 50k words is the magic number in which your words and chapters become a novel. And just because people say it doesn’t make it so.

There’s a site I once discovered (I can’t remember it now) that would tell you the word counts of books. I played around with it for a bit and found just about every title I entered was well over 100k words. What if your favorite authors actually believed this. “Oh, I hit 50k words. ALL DONE!” It’s laughable that people believe this nonsense.

I just read an article on Writer’s Digest about word counts and the author of the article identified a good word count range for lower Middle Grade as 20k-55k words, but said anything written for a 12-year-old or older should be higher. Every other genre should have significantly higher word counts, in his opinion. Some well over 100k words.

Do you think 50k words is the “rule of thumb for the length of a novel”? I definitely do not. And have never heard an author or publishing professional identify it as such. But what do I know, right?

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17 thoughts on “How Many Words to Make a Book?

  1. I head for 75k – gives you a ‘hacking’ buffer at editing stage 😉

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  2. Haha, this great! Glad to become the impetus for a blog post!

    I should say that 50k is the generally accepted minimum length of a novel. Some sources will drop it as low as 40k. And, of course, the bulk of published novels are well above this. A lot my favorites are above 200k words. I’ve done some research (nothing too extensive) and this is the consensus I’ve arrived at. Obviously, books are not as simple as their word counts, and thinking about word count to much is a good way to kill your own writing habits, at least in my experience.

    I’ve also never written a review of a book I haven’t actually read cover to cover, but I’m OK with writing a general “yay or nay” review for a book I didn’t finish, but gave the old college try. Obviously, it will most likely be a “nay”, since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

    As a reader, I was finding it difficult to gauge when to “give up” on a book. In an attempt to read as many books as possible, when do I call it? How much time is too much to suffer through a book? The 50k word/200 page mark was a simple way for me to draw that line, while still giving myself credit for the effort.

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    • I agree about not focusing on word counts as you write. It’s in line with my entire philosophy about having definitions for everything because I find it rather difficult to believe that any well known author writing today was extremely focused on word count when they first got started. Also, I’d just add that word counts mean nothing to a typical reader. I don’t have a set way of stopping a book. I just go with however I’m feeling.

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  5. I am a reviewer and blogger, but I do not write much outside of the blogosphere so I cannot comment credibly on a “rule of thumb” for novels. I just read and look for a story that feels complete.

    I think I may have mentioned I struggled with DNFing titles because I have this weird obsessive trait, but would consider 20% a fair go 🙂 Of course each experience is so personalized and individualized, we probably have our own goals.

    I couldn’t review a title I did not complete. I have learned that sometimes I solid ending is all it takes to changed my entire experience. I could however, write a post of why I was unable to push through.

    Interesting topic as always!

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  6. Every writing guide I’ve read – and a fair few agents and publishers guidelines too – seem to set 80k as the minimum for a novel aimed at an adult readership, though I believe this figure is changing as more people buy books electronically. It’s economics – it’s not that much cheaper to make a short hard copy book as it is to make a longer book but people don’t want to pay the same cover price. With ebooks the word count makes little difference to the cost of production.

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    • That’s more in line with what I’ve read. You’re definitely right about ebooks. There really us no difference in cost since it’s just a tiny file being downloaded. But I’m in the crowd you’re describing. I think it’s insane for a publisher to ask me to pay the same price for an eBook as I would for the hardcover. In many cases the retail price is actually more for the eBook.

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      • I understand why you’d balk at paying so much for an ebook and I suppose I would too. But let’s hope the writer’s get a larger slice as a consequence – they, after all, are often the ones who lose out when it comes to the money side of publishing

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      • Which is why authors who have leverage often negotiate print only publishing contracts and keep the rights to their ebooks. Then they dramatically reduce the price and sell many more books, while getting all all of the gross from eBook sales rather than a fraction. I know an author who published a number of books and at the end of his contract simply didn’t re-sign with his publisher. All of the rights reverted back to him and he self published them. His publisher had offered a six figure advance on a multi-book deal and he ended up making that every month.

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  7. Most of Agatha Christie novels are 40-60K words. And she is still an overall best seller despite not having put anything out in 50 plus years. smiles. It’s the content, not the word count that matters in my opinion.

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