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Old 12-22-2010, 05:33 PM   #1
HisBoyElroy
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Epic Fantasy Word Count

Okay, so now I'm totally confused about word counts for epic fantasy novels. In researching this on the web and elsewhere, I'm seeing word counts all over the map.

John Jarrold, UK agent, in 2008 said this: "120,000 words is the short end of the fantasy market. No difference whatsoever for first-time authors - the reader going into a bookshop won't know you're a first-timer, the majority will be looking for Big Fantasy."

Another blog post making the rounds for the US market says 90k-120k.

Yet, one major fantasy publisher says 95k is the minimum they will accept for epic fantasy.

If you look at epic novels from debut authors on the shelves, you'll find novels that range from 400-700+ pages long. I don't see any 90k epic fantasies, figuring about 300 words/page using the method (lines on page x 9 words per line x no of pages), which I believe is some sort of standard method. The most recent debut fantasy novel I've seen is over 200,000 words. In an interview, the author says editors did not at all blanch at the size.

Even a 400-pg novel is 125,000 words, and these are a minority. Avg length among debut novels is probably closer to 500 pgs.

As a consumer, I don't know who's a debut author and who isn't and I'm not buying an epic fantasy novel that clocks in at 300 pgs or less.
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Old 12-22-2010, 06:20 PM   #2
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I'm just re-reading Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule and that weighs in at 774 pages. Not sure if it's a debut book but it's the start of a series.
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Old 12-22-2010, 07:01 PM   #3
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John Jarrold is selling primarily into the UK market which is rather more tolerant of high wordcount than the US market.

Wizard's First Rule came out at least 15 years ago, the market has got much tighter for epic fantasy since then.
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Old 12-22-2010, 07:33 PM   #4
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Originally Posted by HisBoyElroy View Post
If you look at epic novels from debut authors on the shelves, you'll find novels that range from 400-700+ pages long. I don't see any 90k epic fantasies, figuring about 300 words/page using the method (lines on page x 9 words per line x no of pages), which I believe is some sort of standard method.
The "standard" method for estimating word count is actually 250 words per page.

But even that doesn't always work out anywhere close to accurately. Interior formatting always affects the page count of a novel. Depending on font, layout and margins, a 100,000 word novel can be printed at 250 pages or at 500 pages.

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The most recent debut fantasy novel I've seen is over 200,000 words. In an interview, the author says editors did not at all blanch at the size.
Likely because he wrote an amazing novel that used every single one of those words to maximum effect. I've seen agents and editors comment that if a book is well-written enough, and engaging enough, sometimes word counts won't matter.

Sometimes.

If your story truly needs those 200k words, then it needs them. If half of those words are padding, nonsense, or just plain unnecessary, then cut.

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Even a 400-pg novel is 125,000 words, and these are a minority. Avg length among debut novels is probably closer to 500 pgs.
My last released novel was 423 printed pages; the word count was 102,000.

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As a consumer, I don't know who's a debut author and who isn't and I'm not buying an epic fantasy novel that clocks in at 300 pgs or less.
Then don't. No one's forcing you to buy anything. But honestly, longer doesn't always equal better, the same way that shorter doesn't always equal better.

And the simplest way to know if a book is a debut is to research it.

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John Jarrold is selling primarily into the UK market which is rather more tolerant of high wordcount than the US market.
This.

In the end, it comes down to the story you're telling. Make every word count.
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Old 12-22-2010, 07:33 PM   #5
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Don't know if this is helpful, but I'll post it:

Brandon Sanderson's Elantris is about 200,000 words. I've read how he chatted with his editor at a convention, then at the end asked if he could send him a mss. Editor said sure. Since it was such a huge thing, he stuck it in a corner. 18 months later, the editor felt like he really should get around to responding, because, y'know, he'd met the guy. Finally picked the giant thing up, started reading, loved it, bought it.

I think that was nearly ten years ago...it shows that it's possible to have something as a debut novel be longer, but it's also difficult. I've also heard 120k is the "upper edge" for fantasy, but in my inexperienced opinion, I'd say the more you get above this, it becomes gradually more difficult to sell. I doubt anyone would flinch too much over 125k or 130k. Especially when they start reading and it becomes apparent that the extra words aren't fat that needs to be cut. 150k might get some editors not to look at it, and apparently 200k gets you stuck in a corner somewhere for a long, long time.
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Old 12-22-2010, 10:19 PM   #6
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If you're the kind of author that can plan a novel, plan a 100,000-word novel. If it goes over or under by a little bit, you're still good. If you end up needing to trim 10%, you still hit 90,000 words.

If you're the kind of author that doesn't know how long it will be until it's finished, write it out and see what you get.

And if you've got a story and it's already planned out at 200,000 words, write it, but make it damned good.
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Old 01-07-2011, 11:51 PM   #7
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I've wondered about this too. It looks like my book will probably round out at around 100,000-120,000 words, which seems to be a good fit with what everyone says. However, if you look at super popular fantasy authors (Martin, Goodkind, Jordan), and even newcomers like Sanderson and Rothfuss, their first books are all 200,000-300,000+. It irks me, because having a novel half that length seems to be saying "Well, I'm obviously not as good as them, or as popular, so I might as well just try to be a published midlister." Now, obviously, in all likelihood I will never be as popular as any of them, but I always say, shoot for the stars.

So the question is, I guess, can anyone think of any recent entries in a fantasy series (or just standalone books) that are quite popular, but aren't 700 pages long? I guess the first few Harry Potter books come to mind, but that's not really the same vein of epic fantasy I'm writing, and since the first few are definitely aimed at a younger audience, I don't think it's an appropriate comparison. Am I dooming myself to obscurity by not stuffing this book to the brim?
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Old 01-08-2011, 12:02 AM   #8
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I tend to feel that 120k is the sweet spot for fantasy - not so long as to put editors off, not so short as to seem, well, short. That said, my ms is more like 140k, so I'm glad I live in the UK

Page count -> word count is a difficult equation, as it really depends on page size (trade paperback vs mass market) as well as type size - I recoiled from buying a paper copy of A Clash of Swords recently, as the type was eye-wateringly tiny (for this over-40)! Publishers will tend to tweak these factors in order to make the book profitable.

Peter V Brett's first novel was 480 pages (according to Amazon) and it was successful enough that Zeno are citing him as the standard they are looking for. OTOH Brandon Sanderson has admitted that he naturally writes long, and he just kept plugging away until he wrote a 300k epic that was good enough for editors to say yes.
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Old 01-08-2011, 01:59 AM   #9
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Epic fantasy can be ridiculously long, but don't be fooled by page counts. Typesetters can play with all manner of variables to adjust the final page count of a printed book.

If you've written a long fantasy novel, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but your story had better need every last page. Of course, the same is true of shorter novels. The problem is that a lot of fantasy writers seem to produce unbelievably long texts.
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Old 01-08-2011, 09:03 AM   #10
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Word count is the wrong question. Worry first about whether your story accomplishes its goals. If it does, one publisher who thinks S&S must be above 100,000 words won't matter.

I've seen more bloated verbose crap in fantasy...
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Old 01-08-2011, 11:03 AM   #11
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Write the book, then worry about the word count. If it's under 100k, it's still sellable and if it's a good book it's a good book. If it's under 100k and on a re-read feels a little thin and understated, work on the sub-plots.

My personal buying habits are trending away from fat fantasy and multi-volume stories and towards stand-alones which don't appear to be bloated with unnecessary repetition. Shorter word count won't exclude you entirely from the market.
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Old 01-08-2011, 10:14 PM   #12
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The most telling advice I've been given is simply 'make it hook the editor, and they'll worry about size later'. The UK markets like vast tracks of text. The US markets adore books under 100K. Patricia McKillip and Sherri Tepper wrote books in the late 80's to early 90's that were tiny 50K gems. I don't know what Jacqueline Carey's wordcount was for KUSHIEL'S DART, but the printed book is a doorstopper -- and every page counts. When Lynn Flewelling first pitched LUCK IN THE SHADOWS, her mms hovered around 170K. The agent convinced her to cut it in half and rework it into two complete books.

The trend is moving back to shorter genre books. But there will always be exceptions.

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Old 01-08-2011, 11:30 PM   #13
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The most telling advice I've been given is simply 'make it hook the editor, and they'll worry about size later'. The UK markets like vast tracks of text. The US markets adore books under 100K. Patricia McKillip and Sherri Tepper wrote books in the late 80's to early 90's that were tiny 50K gems. I don't know what Jacqueline Carey's wordcount was for KUSHIEL'S DART, but the printed book is a doorstopper -- and every page counts. When Lynn Flewelling first pitched LUCK IN THE SHADOWS, her mms hovered around 170K. The agent convinced her to cut it in half and rework it into two complete books.

The trend is moving back to shorter genre books. But there will always be exceptions.

Filigree

I think the above is generally true, and it's too bad. Turn back the tide, people! Write fantastic stories that can't be told in less than 100,000 words.
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Old 01-09-2011, 07:00 AM   #14
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Do you specifically mean epic fantasy or just fantasy in general (such as in heroic fantasy). Epic fantasy typically spans several characters, multiple viewpoints and plot threads. Add a non-earth setting and you are easily well above 100k words.

Brandon Sanderson said in his podcast that he wrote something like 12 novels before being published. He also recommended to not start with epic fantasies unless you are a seasoned writer (of course exceptions apply).

I see no reason why a fantasy can't be any word count, but an epic fantasy below 100k words doesn't seem marketable.
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Old 01-09-2011, 08:47 AM   #15
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I see no reason why a fantasy can't be any word count, but an epic fantasy below 100k words doesn't seem marketable.
See, that's what it seems like to me. And yet, the agents and publishers seem to be saying "Don't write anything over 100k, maybe 120k." I guess I should just finish and see what happens. But my greatest fear isn't "Your book is not good, try again;" it's "Your book is good, but it's too long/short. Sorry"
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Old 01-09-2011, 08:54 AM   #16
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See, that's what it seems like to me. And yet, the agents and publishers seem to be saying "Don't write anything over 100k, maybe 120k." I guess I should just finish and see what happens. But my greatest fear isn't "Your book is not good, try again;" it's "Your book is good, but it's too long/short. Sorry"

No, no. If it sounds good, they're more likely to ask you to cut it than say no straight up.
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Old 01-09-2011, 03:59 PM   #17
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Quote:
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See, that's what it seems like to me. And yet, the agents and publishers seem to be saying "Don't write anything over 100k, maybe 120k." I guess I should just finish and see what happens. But my greatest fear isn't "Your book is not good, try again;" it's "Your book is good, but it's too long/short. Sorry"

Yes, this is the nut of the problem. My confusion comes from the fact that I'm not seeing these 90-100k EPIC fantasies on the store shelves, even from debut authors. Yet agents are saying that anything longer than 120k is unpublishable. But longer works continue to appear in lieu of the shorter novels agents say they want. (And it's a simple matter to count the words on a few representative pages of a novel and extrapolate from there, regardless of the format of the book.)

I see my own buying habits as representative of a large segment of the epic fantasy buying public when I say that I won't buy a skinny little 300-pg fantasy. (Or an epic fantasy that uses large type and increased spacing to make a book appear longer - rather like some kids' high school term papers.) Apparently, agents and editors see it otherwise.
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Old 01-09-2011, 07:39 PM   #18
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Here is a factor we're not considering:

When you go to a bookstore, what you see on the shelf has already been "vetted" by somebody. Even if it's 600 pages long, you know that some agent and some publisher out there thought it was good enough to take a financial risk on. Even if you're not thinking this consciously, you have enough confidence when browsing published fiction to assume that all 600 pages are necessary to the story.

From an agent/editor's perspective... well. Let's put it this way. The #1 sin in amateur writing is overwriting. Most 600 page novels by amateur writers are just 200 page novels that didn't know when to shut up. I honestly believe that by disseminating the "keep it under 120,000 words" thing, the agents and publishers are trying to force people to cut, cut, cut, cut until they absolutely can't cut anymore, then despair and send out their 150,000-word novel thinking it's "too long to sell" but believing in it anyway because they know there isn't a single extraneous word (they've checked 8 times!).

That's what I would do if I were an agent, anyway.
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Old 01-09-2011, 09:03 PM   #19
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I think you're onto something there, mishell. A friend of mine shopped his 154k manuscript, and the publisher who liked it balked a little at the length before deciding, no, the book couldn't be cut without spoiling it. So it was published as-is.

OTOH, just because you have a huge canvas on which to play, is no excuse for waffle. I once critted the opening chapters of a 220k novel that began promisingly enough with the protagonist killing his father, then went on for chapter after chapter about his escape across the wilderness, consumed by guilt and self-loathing. Not even a side-kick to banter with, or a Fugitive-style pursuit to liven things up. Yawn! This is the kind of thing agents are trying to avoid...

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The most telling advice I've been given is simply 'make it hook the editor, and they'll worry about size later'. The UK markets like vast tracks of text. The US markets adore books under 100K. Patricia McKillip and Sherri Tepper wrote books in the late 80's to early 90's that were tiny 50K gems. I don't know what Jacqueline Carey's wordcount was for KUSHIEL'S DART, but the printed book is a doorstopper -- and every page counts. When Lynn Flewelling first pitched LUCK IN THE SHADOWS, her mms hovered around 170K. The agent convinced her to cut it in half and rework it into two complete books.
I think that's happened at least twice with Lynn Flewelling. Luck in the Shadows/Stalking Darkness is clearly a single plot; The Bone Doll's Twin/Hidden Warrior actually ends on a cliffhanger!

Personally I'd rather an author kept to a sensible length for a single volume rather than be forced to split the book. 150k seems to be the approx maximum publishers will commit to in a single volume unless you are so successful (or brilliant) that they can be sure of selling the book at any price. Even then, some of the MMP editions of GRRM have eye-wateringly small text!
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Old 01-17-2011, 06:26 AM   #20
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Here's a link to Colleen Lindsay's post on the question.
Colleen has been a bookstore owner, publisher, and agent. She is currently working for Penguin. Think of this as the horse's mouth.
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Old 01-17-2011, 10:54 AM   #21
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As Colleen Lindsay admits, when it comes to SF&F, editors' tastes vary. I'm currently subbing to a house that specifies 100-140k in their guidelines for fantasy. My ms currently comes in at 142k, though that's before a final polish to remove extraneous words. There's an awful lot of story stuffed in there, though, so I would have to remove at least one subplot in order to get it down under 120k.

Also, submitting to an agent and submitting to an editor are two different games. The agent wants a manuscript that will suit as many editors' needs as possible, hence the conservative word counts so often quoted. But who knows - the perfect editor for your book might be the one who likes really long (or really short) novels. It's a crapshoot...
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Old 01-17-2011, 10:41 PM   #22
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I'm in the same predicament as Anne Lyle. My current secondary-world mms verges on 143K, after I put back in the prologue and epilogue that I wrote specifically to bracket the main plot and 'introduce' the world. At best, I might be able to trim another 3K in secondary plots. But there's no way I can bring the book down to 120K without splitting it apart.

I've had UK writers and agents say 'not to worry, if it's good.' I've had people on AW tell me I have no business submitting anything to a US agent over 100K.

I've finally hit the point of not caring. I'll put together a decent query and the best first five pages I can, and go on submitting.

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Old 01-17-2011, 10:56 PM   #23
Anne Lyle
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Originally Posted by Filigree View Post
I've had UK writers and agents say 'not to worry, if it's good.' I've had people on AW tell me I have no business submitting anything to a US agent over 100K.
Friend of mine (in UK) has a US agent and she successfully shopped his 155k ms. Mind you, that would have been a couple of years ago at least, and she ended up selling it to a UK publisher.

I think if I were to exhaust the possibilities over here, I would put my current ms on ice, write something new that's short enough to sell in the US, and save the 140k beast for when I have a bit more clout!
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Old 07-05-2011, 03:08 PM   #24
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A late addendum - just found this interesting list:

http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/fan...antasy-novels/
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Old 07-05-2011, 07:02 PM   #25
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Thanks for the link, Anne. Interesting range discrepancy between the epic fantasy doorstoppers and many of King's works -- do you think that has to do with King being primarily a horror writer, instead of fantasy?

An update from earlier in this thread: my mms that was 143K got trimmed to 138K, entered into a writing contest, won a finalist slot, and is now under consideration by a publisher. They'll probably want more trimmed, but I'll consider that when it comes up.

I suspect wordcount is something to seriously worry about when it's magnitudes above or below the current industry standards. For anything within range, writers might do better if they stopped obsessing over just wordcounts.
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