First authors who love epics like Tolkien or die Outlander or game of Thrones Series, often ask me the number of words for their manuscripts. “I have 150,000 words,” a writer recently told me, “and I just can’t cut anything.” Another wrote to me this week about her ending – not sure where to stop, she continues. Dilemmas like this are common and I’ve encountered them in the design phase. Writing can be so satisfying and less cutting.
If you plan to self-publish this is not a problem. You don’t have to follow any rules, but your own and your story can be as long as you want if you can afford the cost. However, if you are hoping to find an agent and a publisher, knowing baseball numbers is good – which is acceptable in the industry today.
Agents are particularly straightforward in terms of their ability to sell initial manuscripts that are less than 60,000 or more than 90,000 words. One of my early novels was about 45,000 words; One agent I turned to loved the story but refused to represent me. “It’s just too hard to sell this size book,” she told me.
I also ran into the other extreme: my current agent sent revisions to my latest novel and advised me to shorten 10,000 words to get it as close to 90,000 as possible. “Look especially at the center,” she advised. “There is puff.”
I put the manuscript back in my storyboard and I was sure to find a good handful of unnecessary scenes. I loved writing them, they were good scenes but they repeated the same purpose as previous ones. My own literary indulgence had to go if I wanted this book to have a clear path to publication.
These weren’t my first books either, but the rules still applied. An agent told me it was a pure business decision for publishers. Books are printed in “signatures” of a certain number of bound folded pages, and the word count from 60 to 90,000 has made a decent signature package that makes the book inexpensive. Below or above it meant the publisher would lose money. Sounds simple and very factual.
However, these are difficult things to do as a writer. But publishing is a business, and to stay in business, publishers have to make money from most, if not all, of the books. If you’re a first-time writer and you’re hoping to get a spot on these contest shelves, at least these rules are good to know.
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