Sunday, June 8, 2014

Word Counts and Debut Fantasy Novels

Two recently-purchased "fat" fantasy novels, with Leo for perspective
Most writers have word count on the brain. Conventional wisdom has it that a typical novel is around 80,000-90,000 words long, but that's a lot shorter than most of the fantasy novels I've read in recent years, particularly traditional fantasy set in secondary worlds or any fantasy with an epic flavor.

First-time authors are usually cautioned that excessive word counts are off-putting to agents or potential editors. This source is commonly regarded as word count Bible for people trying to sell their first novel in the US. Even writers of traditional or epic fantasy are advised to keep their word counts below 120,000 words, and the closer to 100,000 the better.

This makes sense, because it's expensive to edit, print, bind and distribute a longer book, and those fat fantasy books that fans love take up a lot of room in warehouses and on bookstore shelves. I always suspected publishers of fantasy had a bit of a catch 22 situation going on, actually. Fans of secondary world fantasy want to get lost in long tales and explore exotic worlds with the characters. But they don't want to pay 2-3x the price that one pays for a more typical-length book. So agents and editors have to weigh the pros and cons of a lengthy manuscript from a complete unknown very carefully indeed. It's rare indeed to see a fantasy novel that has fewer than three hundred and some odd pages, and longer page counts are very common. But page counts don't correspond tightly to word counts. A 120,000 word manuscript could have anywhere from 300-480 pages, depending on the line spacing, margins, font size and so on.

Another piece of advice given to first-time fantasy authors is to write a stand-alone book. An editor doesn't want to commit to more than one, I've been told, because if it doesn't sell well, they don't want to be roped into publishing more duds. Again, this makes sense, but it seems a bit unfair, given that very, very few writers produce a bestseller their first time out. It can take a while to attract the attention of fans and build a readership, and it's often hard to predict when and whether a debut will hit the market's sweet spot.

This places an aspiring novelist in a difficult position if she wants to write the kinds of fat fantasy series she likes to read. Should we skimp on world building, limit the number of characters, and reduce our plot to a bare-bones minimum in order to make it fit? Should we avoid traditional adult fantasy completely until we've sold something shorter, maybe geared to a YA or MG market even?

This got me to thinking. It's certainly not impossible to sell a debut that's considerably longer than 100,000 words. Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself was close to 200,000 words, and it is the start of a series. But he's a British writer, and it's said that the British markets run to longer books. But what about Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind? He's an American, and his book is close to 250,000 words. That puts it in the territory of George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, and other established writers. But on a more sobering note, he won the Writers of the Future contest with a short story based on an excerpt from the novel. Most of us aren't going to accomplish this.

In any case, bestselling debuts are exceptional. An agent or editor would make allowances for a debut they think has a better than average chance of becoming a bestseller. The question I have is whether or not long debuts ala Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Lynch and Weeks are the norm over the past decade or so, even among writers who have more ordinary sales.

So I decided to do a little poking around to see whether or not most fantasy debuts are really as short as people say they need to be to attract the attention of agents or editors. As it turns out, this is a difficult task. Word counts seem to be jealously guarded. There are some writer's forums that have provided them for some famous and bestselling works, but it's much harder to find them for mid-list fantasy titles. There is allegedly a feature on Amazon's website that allows you to access text data for some titles, but  they don't seem to have it for any of the books I was investigating.

A few people helpfully suggested sites like these:

But they're primarily concerned with children's books or with well-known or classic titles, and they didn't have data for most of the traditional adult fantasy titles that have been published over the past twenty years. Some authors mentioned word counts on their blogs or in interviews, but more often than not, googling word count for given titles came up blank.

So I was forced to estimate word count with many of the titles I listed. And it's been a painstaking process. This is not by any means a representative or exhaustive list. And these are all books I've heard of or have had recommended to me based on other books I've read. So there's little chance this list represents a random slice of traditional fantasy either.

My criteria for inclusion were:

1. Written for and marketed to a primarily adult readership (because YA and MG fantasy tend to be somewhat shorter)
2. Traditional fantasy set in a secondary world or an alternative world with a fairly epic scope. These are the subgenres that are most inclined towards longer word counts. So no UF or contemporary fantasy.
3. published during the past 20 years (to see if there are any trends)
4. A debut novel, or at least, a debut epic/traditional fantasy novel written under a given name.
5. initial publication in an English-speaking country (not to disregard work in other languages, but these are the markets most of my fellow epic fantasy fans are likely to be interested in)
6. initially trade published. Agent or editor word count restrictions obviously don't affect self-published titles, even if they are later sold to a trade publisher.

Page counts are for the hardcover edition when available, or for the trade PB. Mass market paperback editions tend to have longer page counts and are given in parentheses when that was the only version available.

As you can see, the correlation between page count and word count is loose at best, so any formulae used to calculate word count based on the number of pages (like the gloriously inaccurate 250 words per page guideline, which is for standard manuscripts, not for published novels) are bound to be inaccurate.

So here's what I've come up with so far:
Australian Writers

Trudi Canavan: The Magician's Guild. (2001). 120,000 words. 384 pp. First of a series.
Glenda Larke: Havenstar (1998) 163,000 words. 440 pp. Stand alone.

Canadian Writers

R Scott Bakker: The Darkness that Comes Before: (2004) 175,000 words. 604 pp. First of a series.
Jones and Bennett: Havemercy. (2008) 121,000^ 400 pages. First of a series (Jones is American, Bennett is Canadian)

UK writers

Joe Abercrombie: The blade itself. (2007) 531 pp 192,000 words. First of a series.
Peter Brett: The Painted/Warded Man. (2008): 541 pp 158,000 words. First of a trilogy.
Paul Hoffman: The Left Hand of God*. (2011):  115,000 words^. 372 pp. First of a series.
Francis Knight: Fade to Black (2013):  98,000 words 384 pp. First of a trilogy.
Jane Welch: The Runes of War. (1995): (? words) 494 pages. First of a trilogy.

US writers

Patricia Bray: Devlin's Luck*. (2002) ? words  434 pp mm paperback First of a trilogy.
Kristen Britain: Green Rider. (1998) 150,000 words^ 450 pp. First of a series.
Dawn Cook: First Truth. (2002). 114,000^ 336 pp.
Betsy Dornbusch: Exile. (2013) 109,000 words. 274 pages.
Amanda Downum: The Drowning City (2009) 91,466 pp. 384 pp (mm pb). First of a trilogy.
Lynn Flewelling: Luck in the Shadows. (1996) 156,000 words 479pp (mm pb). First of a series.
Eve Forward: Villains by Necessity. (1995)  446 pp. Stand alone.
Robin Hobb: Assassin's apprentice* (1995) 164,088 words 400 pp. First of a series.
NK Jemisin: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (2010) 111,000 words^ 425 pages. First of a trilogy.
Mark Lawrence: The Prince of Thorns (2011). 90,000 words^. 336 pp. First of a trilogy.
Jane Lindskold. Through Wolf's Eyes (2001). 192,082 words. 590 pp. First of a series.
Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora (2007) 190,000 449 pp. First of a series.
Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind (2007) 662 pages 259,000 words. First of a trilogy.
Brandon Sanderson: Elantris (2005) 199,000 words. 496 pages. Stand alone.
Ken Scholes: Lamentation (2009) 130,000 words^. 366 page. First of a series.
Brent Weeks: The Way of Shadows (2008) 156,000 words. 668 pp (mm pb). First of a trilogy.

So some trends here, for what they're worth:

1. Only three were stand alone. This suggests that publishers are not adverse to picking up books that lead to sequels. Of course, a satisfying ending is probably a better idea than a cliff hanger, even if there's clearly more to come.

2. The average word count for the titles here (where I had estimated word counts at least) was: 147,892

This is considerably longer than the recommended cutoff of 120,000. But again, I have no idea how representative my titles are for debut secondary world/epic fantasy published over the past 20 years.

One interesting feature is that the word counts for debuts published during the past five years are lower than the ones published previously. But my data set is way too small for me to determine whether or not this represents a significant trend.

So this obsessive enumeration really raises more questions than it answers. If anyone has different/more accurate word count numbers for any of these titles than I do, please let me know. Also, if you have any more debut epic/traditional fantasy titles published in the past twenty years with relevant data, please let me know.

I think the take home message here is to write as tightly as you can without compromising the story you need to tell. A longer manuscript is not impossible to sell, but whether or not fat books are as tough a sell as everyone says for first-time fantasy writers, unnecessary verbiage is not going to help anyone's cause.

* Not a true debut, as this author published previously in another genre/subgenre or under another name
^Estimated using editor's word count method described on SFWA website
Other word counts obtained from personal communications, author web sites, or the following forums or links:


  1. Impressive (and time intensive) work, Erica. It make sense that the word count of debut novels is down considering the expense of printing books.

    Another interesting trend I see with electronic publishing is even still smaller word counts with the story bundled as a series. Typically the first part if either free or 99 cents, the second part $1.99 and the third part $2.99 for price points. While this isn't a major trend yet in SFF titles, we both know of an author who has serialized his major work, so it just may be a coming trend for all of us. It's not hard to imagine that down the road publisher will be telling authors, "make sure your turning points are real cliffhangers. That way when we serialize it people will buy the next section."

  2. This is another source I find pretty useful for YA and MG fantasy:

  3. The frustrating thing is (for adult F, at least) the word count guidelines they give us don't seem to be reflected by so many debuts. Which probably explains why some agents are conflicted about taking on traditional fantasy, even though it's popular. I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that with this genre, you have to close your eyes and write the story you need to write. Then take the plunge and pray that it has that special whatever that someone is looking for at the moment that you start querying it.

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