Advice that you hear often when writing a book (or a school paper) is that “It should be is as long as it needs to be.” This is a lovely idea, which in many aspects holds true, but often there is a word count that is expected and accepted by the general public when they pick up a piece of prose.
Today we take a look at some of the typical word counts for a few of the larger genres in literature.
Upmarket fiction/Adult fiction: 80-120k
This genre is in fact a larger umbrella term which encompasses both Literary and Commercial works of fiction. This genre not only has a wide range of diversity in topics but in word counts as well. Some books in this genre sit at about 80-90k words but some tip over the 100k mark such as The Help, Kite Runner, and Water for Elephants.
A literary take on an autobiography, memoirs’ lengths are often defined by the events they contain. However, it is entirely possible that a person’s whole life may take the same amount of pages as a few weeks in another person’s life when in memoir form, and be just as interesting to read about.
The typical amount of words for a memoir tends to be between 70 and 95k, but obviously there are exceptions to every rule and some are much longer or much shorter (often taking the form of a short story). Girl, Interrupted, for example, is just shy of 60k words.
Fantasy/Science Fiction: 120k+
Works of Fantasy and Science Fiction tend to have slightly higher word counts than other types of fiction. This is because often these works fall into what can be considered an epic or a saga. For examples of this, think of the Lord of the Rings series which clock in at roughly 130-190k words per book, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon which has just under 295k words, or George R. R. Martin’s hefty A Song of Ice and Fire series which are each about 300-400k a piece.
These are extreme examples, but it is considered common for books in this genre to have a word count above 120k. When this genre is a subgenre of the YA (Young Adult) fiction genre, it still follows this trend. Four out of the seven Harry Potter books were over 160k words and the word count of the Twilight saga ranges from around 120-190k.
Mystery novels seem to be following two trends: The Fast-Paced Noir and the Political Conspiracy. These two types tend to vary from each other a lot in word count. The Noirs tend to be shorter, clocking in at about 60-85k words. And examples of this is the classic novel, The Maltese Falcon.
For the Political Conspiracy or Historical Mystery style novel, the word count can be much higher. Look, for example, at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code which has approximately 140k words or the Tom Clancy series which range from 160-460k words.
Of course, there are still books which straddle this distinction, like James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider which sits comfortably in the gap with right around 100k words.
Horror can often take the form of a short story, meaning that it’s word count would be closer to 5-6k. A short story is classified as under 7.5k whereas novelettes and novellas can be between there and under 40k.
However, when most people think of horror stories, their mind jumps to Stephen King. His novels are in no way novellas or short stories. His books range from 80k to 200k. So, 100-150k is a good range to aim for when writing horror.
Children’s books: 500-700
Children’s books typically have illustrations, which means that the number of pictures and pages is more often what is tracked, rather than the word count. But, most would pin it down to roughly 500-700 words for a kid’s picture book, and under 2k for beginner chapter books. The younger the age demographic the fewer the words, for example The Very Hungry Caterpillar and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie both have over 200 words but under 300 words, whereas Green Eggs and Ham has 760 words, and the books in the Amelia Bedelia series have a word count around 1.6k.
Middle grade: 4-50k
These books are aimed at children and teens from upper Elementary School through even as far as the first year of high school. Because this is such a large range, there is a large range of word counts as well. For those aimed at slightly younger readers an author may aim for 4k to 15k. An example of this demographic is the Magic Tree House Series. For an older demographic the word count will likely be closer to that of an YA or adult novel, up towards 20-50k, with the difference instead coming from the book’s topic.
Young Adult Fiction: 60-100k
YA novels are aimed at those in upper middle school all the way through college (though they may equally be enjoyed by adults). Examples of YA are books like The Fault in our Stars, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and The Mortal Instrument Series. These books are between approximately 60 and 120k words.
A popular trend to note in the YA genre is the idea that readers of a series age as the books release, so often the novel difficulty, complexity, and size age up along with them. The first Harry Potter book is only around 77k while the 5th book is 250k, the first of the Pendragon series by D. J. MacHale is approximately 117k and the last book is over 160k, and the first of L.J Smith’s The Vampire Diaries is 55k whereas the last book in its sequel series The Return is closer to 125k. This is true for books aimed for a slightly younger age too, the first of A Series of Unfortunate Events has just over 24k and the final book in the series has around twice as many words.
There is nothing wrong with aiming for a certain word count when writing a novel, to help you keep on track, to make your work more marketable, or for whatever the reason. But, don’t get too caught up on the numbers. For every Stephen King writing 100k words there is an Edgar Ellen Poe writing an equally as chilling short story.
BookHive Corp. does beta reader editorial research for authors with Fiction (all kinds), YA/Middle Grade & Memoir manuscripts.
$699 for 8-10 beta readers, $1,099 for 16-18 beta readers.
The results are a 35+ page report full of quantitative and qualitative feedback.
Kim Batchelor is a recent graduate of University of Michigan and avid consumer of media. She is the Buzz Manager at BookHive and is working on creating her own blog.