Word Count Boogie

This comment came to me this morning via our old blog. It was posted under my post Word Count – Ya Want 150,000 or 70,000 – You Pick – which laments authors who offer to change their word count for me. My other point in that post was that the sweet spot for word counts is between 50,000 – 100,000. The commenter brought up a point that I hear quite a lot, and I wanted to give this attention I feel it’s due.

Well, Ms. Price, I think any reader who loves to read likes a good lengthy book, as those novels usually have well fleshed characters that aren’t one-dimensional and bland. I purposefully make an effort to go out of my way to find thick books when purchasing my month load (yes, I buy in bulk lol).

However, when there is appx. 150,000 books published in the US each year, and only 10% of those earn back their advances, and then when you cut that in half (7,500) to find out which ones actually become reputable titles featured or reviewed by mainstream media, that means that only 150 books a week are able to keep their ink above water. So one can hardly blame an agent if he wants to pass on a book that has a gambler’s chance at succeeding if it’s going to be costly.

Let’s just put it this way; it’s easier for an agent/agency to pick at reasons to decline the majority of queries they receive than to become enthused over something that will, according to studies, most likely flop and cost more money to publish than it earned.

I don’t like the publishing world today, but that’s the truth.

Like you, I love a big fat book as well. But studies show that the majority of readers don’t. Sales suffered with the larger word count books of yesteryear, so publishers couldn’t justify their production. That isn’t to say the large count book is dead – it’s just that publishers have to be careful about their choices.

I don’t agree with your assumption that larger word counts equate to fully developed characters. If it takes 220,000 words to flesh out a character, I wager there is something seriously wrong with the writing.

A large word count in books published by trade publishers means it’s a very big plot – like political thrillers, fantasy, SF – and a belief they will sell well.

On the flip side, it’s true that we’re all cost conscious. Large word count books equal larger production costs, which equal larger retail price. We have to weight a big word count against the probability that a debut author will sell enough books to make it worth the higher costs. But if a story is big enough, we’ll fight for it. Where most of us draw the line is when the query letter boasts a 185,000 or 240,000 words. This is gynormous and will earn an instant rejection for the reason that there are few plots that require that large of a word count. Experience tells us that newer authors tend to write giant word count books, and that’s why they are weeded out very quickly. Does this mean some good works are lost in the rejection pile? Possibly.

The publishing world is far from perfect, and there are as many people who berate the industry for its faults. But I think we do a pretty good job of  weighing the massive amounts of submissions we receive against our understanding of the marketplace. As I’ve said before; we can never be mistaken for the Great Benevolent Society, and, like it or not, massive word counts are a strike against the writer.

Those who rail about word counts go one of two ways; they learn the business, or find homes with PODs or vanity presses – companies for whom the marketplace isn’t their source of income.

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