Why Word Count Matters
50,000 words isn't an arbitrary number
It’s day, <checks watch> 5 of NaNoWriMo and I have written exactly ZERO WORDS. Yeah, no. I don’t have time to write a novel this month, which should come to the great relief of my clients, to whom I own many things. BUT, just because I’m not doing it doesn’t mean I can’t give y’all some information that might help you do it, or help those of you who might want to write a longer thing, fiction or non-fiction, down the line.
Today: word counts! We talked a long time ago about basic word count ranges for different genres. Today, we’re going to talk about why (probably) NaNoWriMo’s goal is 50,000 words.
A lesson you learn early on when talking to publishing people is that we always talk in word count, not page number. People ask me how many pages should it be and I have no idea. How big is the book? The font? The margins? Are there a lot of charts or pictures? You can make a page anything you want, as we all discovered when we started typing papers in school.
A standard typed manuscript page (i.e. what you type, before it’s a book page), with 12pt font and one inch margins is about 300 words. A 50,000 word manuscript is about 165 pages. That feels sooooooo short to me, for a novel, but YMMV. Your 50k word novel will probably not be ready for primetime, if it’s intended to be a full length novel for adults, but I think how close or far away you get to 50k in the writing tells you a lot about the story and what you have or need. More on that in a second.
To figure out how we even got to 50k words, we need to look at the economics of books. You’ll notice that book prices are pretty similar across the board. For an adult hardcover novel, it’s about $25, give or take a nickel. For an adult paperback, it’s about $16-17. YA hardcovers are about $18. Illustrated books vary widely, but you see a lot in the $15-20 range. Other formats of kids books have similar pricing ranges.
You can have one adult hardcover that’s 265 pages that’s $24.95 and one adult hardcover that’s 465 pages and it’s maybe $26.95. Do 200 pages of paper cost another $2? No, of course not. The more materials it takes to make a book, including and espeically illustrations, color printing, special effects and elements on the cover, the more the price goes up. But the number of pages in a book, within a range, don’t make a book significantly more or less expensive to make.
What’s more, the consumer is very price sensitive. No one wants to buy a $35 hardcover adult novel. I mean, really. If your 500,000 word epic would cost $35 to really make, then it’s not going to get made. (Don’t you even point out Game of Thrones. If your book sells that many copies, then you’ve made enough money for everyone to have the publisher fudge the production costs. Also, those books are not $35 except in special, fancy editions.) On the other side of the equation, if your 30k novel is like 116 pages in book form and still would cost the publisher close to the same amount to produce, the consumer is not going to pay and the publisher is not going to charge $19 for it. Even in hardcover, it will feel thin and the consumer will perceive that as having less value than a longer novel. (Please please PLEASE go ahead and point out all novels that are slim and worth it. I love a slim novel. But I’m talking about value perception, not actual value. This is why we buy the dumb box of crackers that says 20% MORE even though that means like 15 more crackers. We are dumb and retailers are smart.)
Well, a publisher can just make my short novel a paperback then you might think. This can be true! But a publisher’s highest margins are on hardcovers. That’s why they come out first. That’s why very, very, very popular books spend two years in hardcover and only then come out in paperback. (The average time a book spends in hardcover is a year.) You can think of this as publishers gouging the poor reader, but those are the same people you want to give you a big, fat advance so…
Back to 50k words. There’s probably nothing magic about that number in terms of what the public wants, what it costs to make a book, and how a story gets told. It probably came about from editors talking to typesetters when books were too long or too short and the numbers averaged around to there. It became a kind of benchmark. If there’s a publishing historian out there who knows more than I do about this, slide right into my DMs, I would love to talk to you. But personally, I think that if you are writing a story and sail right past 50k words generally speaking, you probably have enough going on in your book—stakes, action, dialog, plot, characterization. If you are struggling to get to 50k, or just eeking past it, then you might need to shore up something. Maybe there isn’t enough plot. Maybe your stakes aren’t complicated enough to necessitate more action. Maybe your characters need to talk to each other more. (You may be a minimalist, which, god bless you, but in my experience, it means you need something more in the story of your work, not just more words.)
Again, most of this info here relates to adult (and YA tbh) hardcover novels. If you’re writing non-fiction, there’s more flexibility in how many words makes a book, but not anymore flexibility in the price readers are willing to pay for a book that feels thick or thin. Ever notice how some celebrity books have big fonts or narrow margins or there are a lot of blank pages between chapters? Yeah, that’s because the manuscript was short and the publisher still needs readers to think it’s “worth” $25 for the hardcover. I’m sure you never thought you needed to know so much about consumer price sensitivity to write a book—and there’s TONS I don’t know about it still—but here we are. Just another reminder that publishing is a business.
These are all more reasons why your NaNo novel is not going to be publishable on Dec 1, aside from the need for editing and perspective. These are even MORE reasons why you need to think about the reader when you’re writing. Think about how you buy books. I’m sure you’ve put down an thinner book because it didn’t feel like a good investment, regardless of the literary value of what’s inside. Even if you didn’t consciously make that decision, you felt some kinda of way about it. Again, this is why we’re lured in by 20% MORE banners on boxes at the grocery store.
Word count matters, not just because agents and editors like to make hoops for writers to jump through, but because it matters all the way down the line, from the writing to the selling of a book.
Happy writing, friends, regardless of whether you’re going to hit 50k this month.