Whenever the subject of word count comes up, I think of the movie, Amadeus. There’s a pretty funny scene in which Mozart is playing a piece for one of his noble patrons and a room full of courtiers and ladies. The patron is quite disturbed by Mozart’s rather manic playing and the tsunami of notes erupting from his harpsichord.
The nobleman inquires of Mozart whether he doesn’t “have too many notes” in his composition, at which Mozart looks at the man as if he is insane, and assures him there are “exactly the right number of notes, not an extra one anywhere.”
Questions Authors Ask
I often think of this scene when meeting with authors who are thinking about publishing, because a common question I get at these meetings is, “How long should my book be?”
If you love Mozart the way I do, you can’t imagine him removing even one note from the divine music he’s passed along to us. Not one!
Books are very similar. You need “exactly the right number of words” to tell the story, and not an extra one. But how many is that?
Does Genre Dictate Word Count?
It’s true that in certain genres publishers give a lot of weight to book length as a function of their marketing plans. For instance, I’ve had business book publishers tell me that, regardless of how many words are in a book, it has to appear “to be a quick read,” because otherwise busy executives won’t buy it. And we squeeze until we get to their desired word count.
At the other end of the spectrum are some fiction publishers who want their books, again regardless of the length, to appear to be “big fat beach reads”, on the theory that otherwise book buyers will look for something more “meaty.”
Invariably I advise these authors to tell their story and leave it to the book designer to create a book that will be appropriate for their niche, attractive to read, and deliver their work in the best possible way to their readers.
The Prince and the Potter
At the time I looked on Amazon, number 1 was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. This charming parable, which can be read by anyone no matter their age, is 96 pages and weighs a bare 7 ounces.
At number 2 was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a book I certainly enjoyed. It runs 870 pages and weighs in at a hefty 1.5 pounds.
But here’s the thing: each of these books is a completely satisfying reading experience in itself. Each tells a story adeptly, and you are carried along throughout the book to the end.
In fact, when I’m reading a book I really love, I just don’t want it to end, even if it’s 870 pages!
So What's the Answer?
So the only answer to the question of “How long should my book be?” is the response, “How long will it take for you to tell your story in the best way you can?” Because that, in the end, is how long your book should be.
As an author your job is to keep your readers reading, anxious to find out “what comes next.” If you can do that, don’t worry or obsess about how long your book is, because it will be the right length. (For more on this topic, see my earlier post, Optimum Book Length: the Long & Short of Page Count.)
Although my advice above still holds, if you’re submitting your manuscript to agents or editors, or just want to make sure you are “in the ballpark,” check out these articles which have specific word count targets for a variety of genres:
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