Average book word count: how many words should I write?

It’s one of the first questions new authors ask: “How long should my book be? How many words should I write?” Here is some useful guidance, from children’s books to fantasy novels.

First-time authors come to us for help to take their book idea to the next level. One of the first issues to address is the desired word count of the book. That determines everything from the ghostwriting fee to the outline they’ll need for their manuscript. We get questions like:

  • How many words make a novel?
  • How many words should your first novel be?
  • What should be a picture book word count?
  • What should be a fantasy novel word count?
  • What’s the minimum word count for a novel?

How many words should I write in my book?

There are no “rules” as to book length, although there are some publishing industry guidelines. What follows is best practice to meet those industry expectations. First-time authors are advised to follow them pretty closely if you want to get published. Pay attention to the average amount of words in a book of your genre. Once you have a name for yourself, it’s easier to break the rules.

If you plan to self-publish, you obviously don’t have to follow the guidelines. But you still might want to understand them. They might make you change your approach. For instance, you might want to transform one book into a trilogy. Or you might ask yourself whether you have enough in your story to engage the audience.

If you self-publish, you are in control.

If you have made a name for yourself, you might even be in control with a traditional publisher.

Place the Harry Potter series side by side and see how much thicker The Half Blood Prince is than all the others – almost three times as long as the first two books, in fact. After the first two books, the following volumes got progressively longer, as J.K. Rowling had made a name for herself by then.

But if you are just starting out, the publisher is in control. Here are the best practices for word counts in the publishing industry today.

In this word count guide

Word counts for children’s books

The biggest challenge in determining manuscript length is for young audiences. There are so many factors.

First, at a very young age, parents read to their children.

Then, children start reading on their own, but parents still read to them. Books they read and books read to them might be of different lengths.

As children learn to read, some leap forward, while others lag behind. Complicating matters is that children in the 8-12 age range might read both picture books and chapter books at the same time, often depending on the type of story or topic.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Board books (0-4)

Moo Baa La La La board bookIf you are wondering what a board book is, it’s small book of just a couple dozen ‘pages’, often fewer. Those pages are made from card stock a few millimeters thick. Toddlers can’t rip those pages (on purpose, or by accident). Neither can adults, by the way – get out your chain saw!

Some board books have no words at all. Some have up to 250 or 300 words. In most cases, board books have fewer than 100 words. That is so that parents can read just a few words for each picture a young toddler views.

Moo, Baa, La La La! by Sandra Boynton is one of my favorites. It runs 14 pages, and if my memory serves me well, about 60 words.

Picture books (3-8)

Picture books are often read to children by their parents. But older toddlers and kindergarteners have a bigger attention span and are more interested in hearing the story, not just looking at the pictures. As they start to learn to read, these are the books they practice on.

Cover - Simone B and the Magical MirrorSome picture books target toddlers, whereas others target early readers. Many children learn to read on the very books their parents read to them earlier, so picture books often double up for both purposes.

Perhaps the most famous book to fall into this category is The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. It’s 40-48 pages (depending on which edition) contains 1,200 or more words.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are runs just 338 words.

Let’s say that a typical picture book for younger children would be about 500 words. That’s roughly the length of Simone B and the Magical Mirror by Dr., Denita Bottoms.

Picture books for older children (6-10)

Older children who can read a bit, but are still very much learning, might like a few more words.
Perhaps I should have included The Little Engine that Could in this category.

There is so much overlap, especially since different children learn to read at different paces. This is particularly noticeable as they move from picture books to chapter books.

I saw this discrepancy in my own children. One had read the entire Harry Potter series in both English and French before entering grade four – before they began teaching English at the school. Meanwhile, my other child was sticking mostly to picture books at that age, and sometimes struggling with them.

Where there was no discrepancy was in their love for Robert Munsch’s books. They range from 500 to 1,000 words, and it was many years before either kid grew tired of them.

The same goes for The Berenstain Bears, which range from 1,000 to 1,200 words. Let’s call this category 1,000 words, give or take a few hundred.

Early reader books (5-9)

These are the books kids reads once they know how to read, but still have a very limited vocabulary. Through these books, they learn to read faster and build a bigger vocabulary.

These books often have pictures to support the story. That’s the evolving difference between picture books and early reader books. They move from words supporting pictures, to pictures supporting words.

Still, early reader books aren’t very long, typically 2,000 words, although they might range up to 3,000.

Children's book - Flying Cowboys and Confetti Rain: Dreams of a PBR Bull

Early chapter books (6-10)

By age 6, some children are reading a significant amount. By age 10, most children are. Early chapter books of 4,000 to 12,000 words give them something to keep reading, without being so long as to discourage them.

Early chapter books are designed to keep a young mind’s attention. For instance, Captain Underpants books come in at about 5,000-6,000 words. Flying Cowboys and Confetti Rain: Dreams of a PBR Bull by Debbie Felkins Tamez comes in over 10,000 words.

All in all, 8,000 words would be a good average for this category.

Middle grade (MG) chapter books (8-12)

This is where young minds start getting serious. Word counts for middle grade chapter books range from 20,000 words to 60,000 words. And that is a length that many adults find comfortable, too.

I grew up on Homer Price books by Robert McCloskey, which were typically just over 20,000 words. The Goosebumps series is often associated with this reading level, and author R.L. Stine says they run about 23,000 words.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a classic by by C.S. Lewis has 38,000 words. The full series of seven books has almost 350,000 words, or an average of 50,000 per book.

And the The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, another classic I grew up on, runs 42,000 words.

So 40,000 words is a good guideline for middle grade chapter books.

Young adult (YA) novels (12 and up)

Frankly, young adult starts becoming indistinguishable from adult as far as word count is concerned. When kids under 12 were reading the first couple Harry Potter volumes, both around 80,000 words, it almost makes you throw your hands up in the air.

Paper Towns, by John Green, is also 80,000 words long. His The Fault in Our Stars is 65,000 words long.

Magical Mountain fantasy bookAnd The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas runs over 110,000 words.

So when I say that YA novel word count is 40,000-75,000 words long and even more, the “even more” part is perfectly normal.

However, not every young adult book can be that long. It takes an exceptional manuscript to get accepted outside industry norms. A 60,000-word manuscript is much more likely to get accepted by a publisher than one that is much longer or much shorter.

Asmaa Jamil’s Magical Mountain fits this perfectly, with a word count of 50,000. It’s a fairy tale, so it could also have been considered middle grade, even at this length.

The exception to the rule, as with adult books, is YA fantasy word count. Fantasy books can always be longer. That is likely because the reader has the world-building to absorb in addition to the characters and the plot.

Hi-lo books

This is an interesting category, and one that most people have never heard of. These books offer adult or teen stories and topics at a grade school reading level. They serve three primary niches:

  • struggling or reluctant readers in high school
  • adults who might not read well because of a learning disability
  • adults who are just learning the language

What these niches have in common is that they represent people whose interests are way above their reading levels. Most books at their reading levels are written about subjects that interest little kids.

Have you ever tried to learn another language, and found that the only books you could read in that language were children’s books about children’s topics. Not very interesting to an adult.

The “Hi” in Hi-lo refers to highly engaging, age-appropriate content. The “lo” stands for low reading level.

The length of these books depends on a person’s reading level. They can be anywhere from 500 to 20,000 words. I won’t even try to identify a typical word count for the infographic below.

General fiction novel (mystery, thriller, crime, historical, etc.)

As you can probably guess by now, books come in such a wide variety of lengths, that it is hard to generalize on words in a novel. The minimum word count for a novel is 40,000 words, although some people in the industry will scoff at a book that short.

I won’t.

How long should your first novel be? Each November, NaNoWriMo hosts a novel-writing challenge. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and the goal is for up-and-coming writers to create novels of 50,000 words. That’s not a bad length for your first novel, regardless of genre.

The most important thing about your story is that you include every single word you need to make it the very best story possible. The second most important thing about your story is that you don’t add in a single word that doesn’t make it better.

What if the ideal length of your story is 30,000 words? Then, it’s a novella. Anything 15,000-40,000 words is a novella. They can be harder to sell to publishing houses, but if your story is perfect that way, don’t add in another 10,000 or 20,000 words that only make the story weaker.

So, how long should a novel manuscript be? The average word count by genre is almost impossible to define. As with Hi-lo novels, I won’t try to identify the average word length of a novel for the infographic below. Romance novel word count and fantasy novel word count are exceptions that I address below.

Your novel length should be exactly the number of words needed to tell your story.

Romance novel word count

Romance novels are often short and sweet (and steamy). A typical paperback romance novel runs 50,000 words. Harlequin, the most famous purveyor of romance novels, even specifies that they look for 50,000-word long manuscripts.

That is not to say that romance novels can’t be longer, even epic, especially historical romance or other sub-niches. But if you plan to get published by a mainstream publisher, best follow the guidelines and meet the expectations.

Fantasy novel word count

The longest books are fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is famous for being almost 600,000 words long. That’s spread over four volumes, including The Hobbit. Still, that’s an average of 150,000 words per book. You’ll have to draw a lot of baths to get through those volumes.

Similarly, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman runs 400,000 words across three volumes.

The minimum I would write for a fantasy novel is 75,000 words, but I would say that 100,000 words is a good length. Obviously, the sky is almost the limit, so don’t be shy with your fantasy novel word count. But keep to good story telling. Remember what I wrote above:

The second most important thing about your story is that you don’t add in a single word that doesn’t make it better.

 

Amateur writers tend to add a lot of unnecessary words. And fantasy writers tend to add in a lot of additional words on top of the unnecessary ones.

Climb your stairway to heaven

Self-help and how-to books

Looking at non-fiction, my Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: the 9 habits of maximum happiness has a word count of just over 60,000.

ON the other hand, Mary Banda’s From Chaos to Contentment has just over 30,000 words.

Both self-help books and how-to books are practical texts. People buy them expecting to learn something, so they have to be short to avoid intimidating the reader. Let’s face it, nobody wants to get lost in a how-to book.

Self-help books typically range from 30,000 words to 70,000 words. I would say that 50,000 words is a good typical self-help book length.

Memoirs and business books

Unlike self-help and how-to, people buy business books and memoirs to be inspired and to read stories. They still want to learn something, but they want to learn through stories rather than through lessons.

Business books and memoirs can be longer than self-help and how-to, but a lot depends on the topic.

Black Veil of DeceitYour autobiography might not have a high word count. Readers are not be ready to invest weeks reading through the life story of somebody they don’t know.

Marina Kaye’s memoir The Black Veil of Deceit has about 40,000 words. While on the short side, that is not unusual for a person who’s story is interesting, but whose name is unknown.

On the other hand, biographies of famous people can be quite long. I’ll never forget seeing Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography many years ago. I just stared at this huge, think book. I have no idea what the word count was, but I would estimate a gazillion, give or take a few pages. And it sold well.

Your autobiography would typically range from 40,000 to 80,000 words, unless you have a very special story to tell. Let’s split the difference at 60,000 words.

Wall Street Kitchen - investment book for beginnersBusiness books would be a similar length, unless they are how-to topics. For instance, Victor Chiu’s how-to finance book Wall Street Kitchen has just over 50,000 words.

This is an ideal length for any how-to book: long enough to be of substance, but short enough to not intimidate potential readers.

On the other hand, a business book promising the inside story on a business development or how a famous entrepreneur disrupted an industry would warrant a much longer manuscript.

Average book word count by genre and age – infographic

Average book word count by genre and age

Add the image above to your website or blog.

Should your book follow the average book word count?

So how many words should your books be? As many as you like.

Frankly, this guide is just for information. Use it to improve your story if it helps. Use it to make your book more saleable. Use it to make creative decisions and business decisions, if you wish. Or use it simply to laugh at how silly the guidelines are and at how many well-known books break them every day – because there is no “average” book word count.

About David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, a published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

Read more about David Leonhardt



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