When I (Harry Bingham) wrote my first novel, I started to worry that I was off the mark regarding how many words I had to offer. I was scared that agents would reject my book simply because I had got the length wrong. How many words are there in an average novel, how many pages in a book, how many words per page? I didn’t know.
I went to a bookstore, gathered some (big, hefty) novels in a genre like mine, and sat there on the shop floor and counted the average words per page to come up with a number. It turned out that, yes, in terms of book length, I was at the very long end of things, but not impossibly long.
I sold that book for a good six-figure sum, and have never looked back since.
At least you don’t need to run down to your nearest bookstore, since this guide will tell you quickly the ideal word counts for every category of novel.
Average Word Count For A Novel
The average word count for adult fiction is between 70,000 to 120,000 words. For children’s fiction, the general rule is the younger the audience the shorter the book, and for YA novels the average is 50,000-70,000 words. Non-fiction word counts sit between 70,000-120,000 words. Word counts also vary by genre, as detailed.
How Long is a Book of Adult Fiction?
Novel word counts vary by type of book
So: how many words in a novel?
We’re going to talk some specific genres in just a moment, but it’s worth setting the landscape a little first, just because you may as well know the territory here, and because a lot of fiction simply doesn’t fit in tidy boxes.
So, the average wordcount for a typical novel is anywhere from 70,000 to 120,000 words. I’d guess that the actual average number of words in a novel was somewhere close to 90,000 words. (How come? Because novels mostly cluster at the shorter end of that 70-120K spectrum. There are plenty of prolific authors who might never break the 100,000 word barrier.)
These guidelines assume that your book is broadly commercial (rather than highly literary, let’s say) and that you are writing for adults. If you are within that broad zone, then as far as length goes, you’re doing fine.
But then again, sometimes fiction is long.
If your story justifies the length, you needn’t worry if you get up to 150,000 words, or even 180,000.
But that is on the very long side. 180,000 words print about 650 paperback pages. You only get away with novels of that scale if the story has an epic quality and storytelling is remorselessly excellent. (Also, don’t trust any source on the internet which tells you that such stories are unsaleable. They’re just not. My own first novel was 190,000 words long and was sold to HarperCollins for a lot of money.)
If you are writing true genre romance – the kind of thing Harlequin Mills & Boon is known for – then books are typically short. Your target is probably 50-60,000 words.
That said, longer books that still tell a proper romantic story, can do well. These books generally run from 75,000 to 100,000 words, or in rare cases a little more.
- When we Believed in Mermaids – Barbara O’Neal – 100,000 words
- And Then You Loved Me – Inglath Cooper – 90,000 words
- That Boy – Jillian Dodd – 80,000 words
- Rescuing Lord Inglewood – Sally Britton – 55-60,000 words
A lot of fiction written for women will have an element of romance, but is far more complicated and interesting than classic Mills & Boon fare. Such books will have a minimum length of 75,000 words but seldom exceed 110,000.
See our comments about saga though!
- Me Before You – Jojo Moyes – 140,000 words — very unusual length for women’s fiction this one, but it was a very unusual book!
- The Storyteller’s Secret – Sejal Bedani – 110,000 words
- Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens – 105,000 words
- The World That We Knew – Alice Hoffman – 95,000 words
- The Dressmaker’s Gift – Fiona Valpy – 80,000 words
- Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding – 75,000 words
Saga, by definition, has an epic feel, and you’re not really in saga territory at less than 150,000 words. But some of those books are very long. I have a friend who writes saga and her publisher actually wants books of 250,000 words. That’s about three ordinary novels squashed into one. Wow! (And, uh, you don’t get paid three times as much, so unless you really want to write saga, I’m going to suggest you review your choices!)
- The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough – 195,000 words
Crime And Thriller Genres
Crime novels often run a little longer than women’s fiction. So 75,000 words is fine as a lower limit, but anything up to 120,000 words is unproblematic. Truth is, as long as you make sure every single word counts, you can go up to 135,000 words without troubling anyone.
- I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes – 195,000 words (epic feel to this book, hence the length)
- Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham (that’s me by the way!) – 115,000 words
- I let you go – Clare Mackintosh – 95,000 words
- The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins – 95,000 words
- The Crossing (Harry Bosch) – Michael Connelly – 80,000 words
Historical fiction is a slippery category, because it’s not really a category. A literary-type love story set in Renaissance Venice is very different from massive war story about the Mongol hordes. Reader expectations are utterly different in both cases.
So for “normal” historical fiction – typically, a somewhat literary category – I’d suggest that 75,000 to 100,000 words is about right.
But as soon as you introduce the sense of something epic – in time, space, and magnitude of events – you can get up to word counts of 150,000 to 180,000 words, or even more.
- What the Wind Knows – Amy Harmon – 100,000 words
- Beneath a Scarlet Sky – Mark Sullivan – 150,000 words
- Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel – 200,000 words
Fantasy And Sci-fi Genres
Fantasy novels can be long. They can be up to 180,000 words, or even over 200,000, but the novel must be wonderful and must fully justify its word count. In other words, you must be scrupulous about editing every sentence for length.
With SF, you really just need to explore your niche, as it can be quite variable. Epic space opera can easily run to over 150,000 words, whereas a short, hard space disaster book might run to just 60,000 words.
If you’re not sure of your genre, just find the most appropriate bestseller list on Amazon and take a look. You’ll soon get a sense for where your book needs to fit.
- Lord of the Rings / The Fellowship of the Ring – J. R. R. Tolkien – 190,000 words
- The Atlantis Gene – AG Riddle – 135,000 words
- 1984 – George Orwell – 90,000 words
- Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven – Bella Forrest – 110,000 words
Literary Genre – Novel vs Novella
If you’re writing for a more literary audience, then the rules above apply on upper limits. In other words, anything up to 120,000 words, no problem.
And lower limits are quite a lot lower. A good, short literary novel might be 60,000 words. A very good, very short novella might be as little as 45 or 50,000. The shorter it gets, the better it needs to be.
- Wolf Hall (by Hilary Mantel) is over 200,000 words
- On Chesil Beach (by Ian McEwan) is just 40,000 words long
A Note About Our Word Count Estimations
In some cases, word counts are published and in those cases, we’ve used those published sources. In other cases, we’ve used online tools such as Reading Length to estimate the length of a work. We would expect the actual length to be within +/- 10% of our stated length and usually closer. We have rounded to the nearest 5,000 words in all cases.
How Long is a Non-Fiction Book?
Memoir And Biography
Most memoirs need to be in the 70,000 to 100,000-word range. Only if you’re a major celebrity can you blow right through that word count and just keep going.
- Becoming – Michelle Obama – 165,000 words. I’d say she’s a major celebrity, though, so …
- Educated – Tara Westover – 100,000 words
- The Salt Path – Raynor Winn – 90,000 words
For the kind of book that normally sits on the front tables at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, you’ll find that 70,000 to 120,000 words is about typical. If the topic really justifies length (and especially if your credentials are highly impressive) you can go longer, but check that you remain interesting, even at length.
Really hard to give examples, because this is a very broad category indeed. But for what it’s worth …
- Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemann – 150,000 words
- Fear: Trump in the White House – Bob Woodward – 135,000 words
- Hillbilly Elegy – JD Vance – 75,000 words
- A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking – 50,000 words
For anything really niche – e.g. How to Get Started in Internet Fraud – there are no real limits. Just write a good book on the topic and let length look after itself.
How Long is a Children’s Novel?
Young Adult Fiction
YA fiction usually needs to be 50,000 to 70,000 words. You can go up to 100,000 if your material is phenomenal and justifiable, but no longer than that
… Or at least that’s what I used to say, except that Stephenie Meyer really rewrote the rules. So yeah, you can go over 100,000 words if you are about to reinvent an entire category of fiction.
- Twilight – Stephenie Meyer – 120,000 words
- Hunger Games – Susan Collins – 100,000 words
- The Fault in Our Stars – John Green – 90,000 words
- Outside – Sarah Ann Juckes (our head of membership content) – 70,000 words
Middle Grade Fiction
Children’s fiction is so varied in terms of length, type, illustration. Your best bet is to go to a good children’s bookstore and look at books like your own in terms of target audience. Multiply up by the number of pages and get to a rough word count. The younger the child, the shorter the word count.
It’s not really safe to offer examples. Your best bet is to figure out what books yours is comparable to, then sit down and count the words on 2-3 typical pages. Get a rough average. Multiply by the number of pages in the book. And that gives you your rough word count.
Self-Published Work And Ebooks: Word Count Guidelines
In the world of print and physical bookstores, length kind of mattered.
There’s just a minimum cost of printing a book, trucking it to a store, marketing it, and everything else. Since a 50 page book for $7.99 just feels like bad value most of the time, books like that were never commissioned by publishers. They just didn’t happen.
Because traditional publishers still tend to think of print first and digital formats second, the same thing still mostly holds true.
But if you’re self-publishing, it just doesn’t need to hold true for you. What if you wanted to write:
Beach read romances – 30,000 words each – in a series of 8 or so books. Well, heck, you can do it. Readers love that kind of thing.
Short, subject-led books on internet marketing, or cat nutrition, or meditation technique. Well, heck you can do it. Readers can get real value from that kind of thing.
There’s no right or wrong here. The only golden rule is:
- You communicate the type of book accurately to the reader, and
- Your pricing reflects the length / value you are offering.
I know that’s technically two golden rules, but the second one is kind of a repeat of the first.
As a rough guide, I’d say that a 30,000 word book shouldn’t sell for much more than $2.99 / $3.99.
If your book is very short – 15-20,000 words – it probably wants to be $0.99 or free.
Do You Need to Edit Your Novel?
Take a good look at the average word counts you need for a novel or non-fiction.
If your book is too long and you need to cut it, don’t fret. It’s often possible to take a good 30,000 words out of a book without really affecting the content, just by being rigorous about what works – what words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters truly earn their place.
The secret to effective self-editing is always just a relentless search for material that isn’t really contributing to the story . . . and searching at every scale. So you need to ask, “Is this chapter or scene really needed? Could I cut it or simply delete it?” But you also need to ask, “Does this sentence contain more words than it needs? Could I do the same job more effectively with less?”
Bear in mind that cutting a 12-word sentence down to 9 words might feel like nothing to you . . . but that’s the same proportionate reduction as cutting a 120,000 word novel down to 90,000 words. And you only achieve that kind of reduction by being picky about every single word.
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