What Word Count Is Best for Genre Fiction?

Author Regina ClarkeGuest Post
by Regina Clarke

Knowing if our word count is “right” is an ongoing dilemma for indie writers, and it is something we think about — a lot. So what is the answer? I have spent many weeks studying this, certain there must be a magic formula, but instead I became aware that only two things are necessary to know:

Have you told the story you wanted to tell, and

Has your book been professionally edited?

The “right” word count depends on your answer to those two questions. Some stories are complete at 70,000, while others need 90K, or 100K, or 125K. For the story has its own life, its own duration, and is written out of the passion you have to tell it. It evolves according to what you want it to be. The second question comes into play when you have finished writing. A professional editor helps you clear away the repetitions and the incomplete sub-plots, shows you where you need transitions and how to tighten the language and characterizations, and assists in ensuring the flow of your narrative. Then you can be confident the final version of your book is the length and quality it needs to be.

Yet why do we as indie authors fret about word count? Most of the time, it is because we think we need to match what is being done in traditional publishing, that somehow matching the status quo will add credibility to what we have done. But is this true? Are those parameters set in stone? Not at all.

Keep in mind that traditional publishers use word counts for several reasons: to define genres for print books, to control costs, and to assign realistic shelf space in brick and mortar bookstores. Since literary agents receive hundreds, even thousands of queries, they use word counts as a screening device. Thus, the range of acceptable word counts for specific genre fiction most often cited by publishers and their editors (and by agents) are these:

  • Fantasy:                                               90 to 100K
  • Science Fiction:                                   80 to 115K
  • Mystery/Thrillers/Suspense:             70 to 90K (with cozies often on the
    shorter side)
  • Romance:                                            40 to 100K (depending on sub-genre)
  • Young Adult:                                       50 to 80K

BUT–indie authors are not bound by these rules even when they create print books AND they are especially not restricted by word count when it comes to eBooks, where cost is not a limiting factor, and shelf space is irrelevant.

The only reason to adhere to a certain word count for your book is your assessment of reader expectations.

What does that mean? Readers are faithful to the genres they love. Thus, if they are expecting an epic fantasy and your epic fantasy book comes in at 80K, they are likely to be fretful, disappointed, and unwilling to give it attention, much less buy it. On the other hand, if your book is a paranormal fantasy, 70K can seem reasonable, even preferable. If you are writing a mystery whodunit that tallies in at 125K, your readers might not stick around, for the fun of those books is in having the mystery solved in a certain, much shorter, space of time.

Yet the truth is there is a great flexibility regarding word count. Traditional publishers have broken their own rules more times than not. Young adult fantasy tends to range between 60K and 80K, but the Twilight series and Harry Potter throw that word count range to the four winds!

In the same way, you might have written an indie YA fantasy that has been edited and is complete at 100K — and so it is meant to be exactly that length. However, that edit is the crux of word counts. If you have the same book showing up as 100K but without a professional edit — that just might mean you have a 75K book in disguise!

Indie author Kate Elliott’s YA fantasy Buried Heart runs to 480 Kindle “pages,” which translates this way (using Amazon’s eBook layout): 480 times 250 words per “page,” or 120K. Crooke Kingdome by indie author Leigh Bardugo comes in at 560 “pages,” or 140K.

Stephanie Hudson’s indie fantasy/paranormal books can run over 107K, while most of J.R. Rain’s indie vampire series are closer to 80K. Indie author B.V. Larson writes science fiction with a word count around 100K.

Traditionally published mysteries, like the books of Sara Paretsky, Louise Penny, Laurie R. King, and Lee Child run well over 90K, sometimes going as high as 120K. None of them fit the industry standard in word count. All of them exceed it.

Self-published mysteries can vary as well in just the same way. Bestselling indie writer Jana DeLeon averages 70K for her cozy mysteries, which is also true for Lisa Mondello’s romantic suspense novels. But JD Nixon’s small-town procedural runs to over 95K.

Thrillers in both traditional and indie publishing usually have high word counts. Mark Dawson, a highly successful bestselling indie author of crime/espionage novels, averages a word count of 95 to 100K. Tom Clancy’s latest in the traditionally published Jack Ryan series (now written by another author) has a word count of 124K, which is way above the standard industry recommendation.


The upshot? The rules for word count are nothing if not flexible, in both traditional and indie publishing.

I would say again that reader expectations matter much more than industry rules.

As an indie author, you always have the freedom to play with word count, to modify, expand, compress, and assess what works best.

In the end, you have to write what you love to write and tell the story that is in you to tell. Word count is not the sole criteria.

That said, it is always good to have a wider sense of what is going on in your chosen genre(s), and to remember one more thing: Your readers, once hooked on your writing, are going to be fine with whatever number of words you want to give them. You can count on it…

Regina Clarke is the indie author of mystery, fantasy, and science fiction novels, and she has published short stories in print and online magazines. She has a Ph.D in English but strangely, ended up for far too long as a technical writer in the corporate world. She now lives in the Hudson River Valley region of upstate New York, not far from where Rod Serling grew up, which she likes knowing. Learn more about Regina at her website and her Author Central page.

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16 thoughts on “What Word Count Is Best for Genre Fiction?”

  1. I actually pay zero attention to word count as I’m writing. I write until the story is done; no more, no less, and I generally end up with 50-70k in most of my books. I was helping one woman edit her book and suggested she expand on several key scenes, but she was reluctant to do that because she wanted to maintain her word count. I found this peculiar and actually detrimental to the book, as the story (in my mind) needed the development. I believe the story has to be the ultimate driver; not the genre, not the word count, not anything else. So far, the only “complaints” I’ve gotten from readers are that they don’t want my books to end. I’ll take that any day.

    1. I wish we had a ‘like’ button. I agree. My mysteries usually end up between 50,000 and 65,000 words. Readers sometimes say they wish they were longer but no one has ever been dissatisfied with the actual story. My romance novels clock in at 40,000 to 50,000 words. Again, the only complaints have been (when there have been complaints) was that they wish that they were longer. The romance books get great reviews. How much anguish do you really need before you get to the HEA?

    2. This is a LIKE, Anne Hagan! If the writers are not experienced, they may need an editor to tell you what to enlarge on or what to delete. The story is the thing. Most of my novels range around 71,000 to 128,000. Now I have a WIP that may well be 200,000. Probably will split into two books and sell them together as one.

  2. Actually, B.V. Larson, my childhood friend and co-author, always aims for at least 115K. Any less indicates an older book, before he’d decided this fit his target audience.

    Following his lead, I’ve lengthened my recent books as well, not so much by padding, as by simply planning for that word count, and often going beyond. When you have an established fan base and are in no danger of boring them, longer is better. Many readers have told me they won’t buy short books, even if they are cheaper, because they feel dissatisfied by them. On the flip side, if you’re getting reviews that say “nice long read, can;t wait for the next one,” you’re doing something right.

  3. And then there are the tomes that run into inches thick. Jean Auel is one I could mention, (over 700 pages) although she pads her writing with pages and pages of soci0-archeological claptrap. It goes back to whether you have 140k of story, or, as you say, 100k of story hidden in a mess of other stuff.
    My longest book is the beginning of an epic fantasy series, and it’s just under 140k.

  4. Good post, Regina.

    The first manuscript of what became my second published novel was just over 134,000 words.

    After it had been to two New Zealand (but multinational) publishers, and returned, I put it away in the bottom of the wardrobe and tried to forget about it.

    About eight years later I looked at it again, and was talking to a published Kiwi author. He was shocked by my word count. ‘No! It shouldn’t be any more than 100,000 words! 75,000 is better. People don’t read long books any more.’

    So I set about editing – again – and finally i was amputating great chunks out of it to get it to the prescribed length. I stopped at 110,000.

    Then I looked at what was left. The story had become deformed and ugly and unreadable just to meet a notional target.

    Then I thought: ‘Bugger this. It’s not the story I want and wanted to tell.’

    So I put everything back – and then wrote in another 4-5000 words to about 138,000.

    My other is just over 116,000. I was at 100,000 words and still no idea how I was going to finish.

    A flatmate of mine might be right when he says that word counts mean nothing to people, and that if the story is engaging and well-written they won’t notice how long it is.


    – Paul

  5. I totally agree about wordcount when it comes to ebooks, but the costs of print publishing [as an Indie] are forcing me to think about wordcount/page length in a way I’ve never had to do before. Part of the reason is that the Createspace formula includes a cost-per-page component. $0.012 per page may not seem like a lot, but it comes on top of other charges, and they all add up. Thus the total cost of the book – without any kind of profit built in – can end up being priced way too high.

    My compromise has been to break the story up into more manageable chunks which will be printed as a trilogy. I’d prefer to do a George R.R. Martin and publish it all as one book, but the cost would be prohibitive. 🙁

    1. POD is definitely a dilemma for us. Unless the books are printed in large quantities, the POD formula on CreateSpace is expensive, and profit far less than on Kindle. Yet we do want the option to have printed versions no matter what the book size. Small presses can do better for indie writers, especially in terms of distribution, but many of them also expect control over covers and layout–for many indie authors that takes away some of the freedom they are used to having. It really depends on what priorities the writer has in mind.

      That said, a trilogy is a great alternative, because it sets up reader expectations and gives a real momentum.

  6. I’m not sure readers care much about word count, either. A compelling story will carry most readers through longer word counts than the “standard” ranges without their noticing. There may be times when someone doesn’t want to pick up a long book, but on the whole I don’t think most readers much notice word count . . . unless a book is boring!

    1. I agree. That was what I meant in the last line of the article, that readers hooked on your work “are going to be fine with whatever number of words you want to give them.” It is not readers who spend time worrying, but a lot of indie writers, asking about it in forums and webinars and Facebook. The article is really for them–to say they don’t have to be fretting about word count. Get a good edit, and the rest is storytelling.

  7. “Indie author Kate Elliott’s YA fantasy Buried Heart runs to 480 Kindle “pages,” which translates this way (using Amazon’s eBook layout): 480 times 250 words per “page,” or 120K. Crooke Kingdome by indie author Leigh Bardugo comes in at 560 “pages,” or 140K.”

    These books are traditionally published. Yes, sold in indie bookstores. ???

  8. I have a friend who loves to read, but will not pick up a book under 700-800 pages. As a writer, I agree that it depends on the story and what needs to be included to make it complete. As a reader, I don’t mind longer books, the only problem being if it is too long it is too hard to hold in your hands. But if it is a good story, I will put up with that, too.

  9. Just stumbled upon this facinating write-up. Grandmother here, who like to read but has never tried to write anything. Two older grand daughters with a passion for writing is why i found this facinating. Personally i never gave the length of the book that much thought. Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth” did not seem long. Stephen King “Delores Claiborne” got carried away with the vacuum cleaner. Both books were money makers. Never appreciated the angst that writers go through. Thank You Regina for an enlightening, well written article.

  10. Nice write-up for those Indies who fret about this. I agree with your points, and they usually apply to inexperienced writers who don’t know what to leave in or take out. I follow Stephen King’s rule… write until the story is finished..

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