Word Limits

Today’s post: Word Limits or: Why won’t they publish my 300,000 word novel?

People write some long novels. James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans is 145,469 words long. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead 311,596. And, of course, as the king of long novels, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287. With most novels clocking in around 100,000 words (give or take 20,000), Tolstoy has arguably written six books in one, and Rand a one-book trilogy (with the shorter of her two most famous works).

Word counts can be funny things. Interestingly enough, I seem to have some sort of power over my novels. If I’m aiming for a 80,000 word book, I tend to get one somewhere within that range give or take 5,000. My first NaNoWriMo novel, which had the goal of 50,000 words, wrapped up at around 50,500. Aiming for 80,000 with my latest project The Copper Witch (which has just moved into the submission stage) I finished up around 86,000.

Continuously managing to write a story within a general word count, though (be it through subconscious tinkering, or anything else) , doesn’t seem to be a universal trait amongst writers. And that’s something I completely understand. A story has a natural progression. It’s done when it’s done.

So what is there to be done when how long (or short) your novel is seems to be what’s keeping it from being published? Aren’t the word counts they give generally arbitrary anyway? As one NaNoWriMo Forum poster puts it:

I’ve read somewhere that 120 K is the upper limit for a new fantasy writer, which seems really… short for a fantasy novel…I still can’t believe it’s set as the upper limit.”

Now, first, I’d like to say I’ve never found 120,000 words short. My fantasy novels tend to be around 80,000, but perhaps that’s because I don’t write Tolkien-style epics.

Second, as the earlier books I’ve listed in this blog show, it’s possible to get a book published that is more than 120,000 words. You should never say “can’t” when it comes to publishing. Doing certain things can make it harder to get published, but nothing I have yet seen makes it impossible to get a book published.

But why do publishers even care about word counts? Sure, if the story drags on and on, that’s a problem, but if it’s action-packed and engaging for those 200,000 words, what’s the problem?

Having worked on both sides of publishing–as a writer and as someone working at a publishers–I can only point to one fact that is all to easy to forget as a writer. Your manuscript might be your baby as an author, but as a publisher, the manuscript is a product. Writing might be art to you, but writing is business to a publisher. Unless writing is your only source of income, money is something that might just be an added perk to us writers that coincides with seeing our books in print. To a publisher, however, those books are all business. It’s an added plus sometimes to give a first time novelist a shot at their big break, but if even a book you love isn’t likely to make a profit, it just isn’t something a publisher with a good business plan will take on.

So why does a publisher keep putting out the same generic vampire books? Because they sell. Why doesn’t a publisher put out any more vampire books? Because the market seems oversaturated and they aren’t as likely to sell (or the acquisition editor is sick to death of them).

And word counts come from this same need to mitigate risk and maximize profits. Beyond the fact that it’s likely many long manuscripts could do with a harsh paring down, there are two big problems with books over 120,000-150,000 words:

1. The longer the book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Unless you are going through a vanity publisher (and thus paying the press to put your book out) the general rule is money flows to the author, not from. A reputable publisher will pay for formatting, cover art, editing…and just about every other “start-up” cost there is to putting out a book. Focusing on the editing aspect of that, the longer your book is, the more they’re going to end up paying there editors. After all, there’s a reason I charge more editing a 200,000-word book than a 10,000-word one. The longer the book is, the longer it will take to edit. Especially edit well. If you’re paying an editor per project, you’re going to be paying for them more for a long project. If you’re paying an editor hourly, they’re going to have to take much more time to edit a long book. Even if you’re paying an editor a set salary, they may only be able to get one book done when  they generally would have three ready to go. Since most publishers worried about quality have at least three rounds of edits, that can add up to a lot of extra man-hours.

And then, of course, there’s just the production cost in general. With ebooks it’s changing a little, but as long as print books are popular, the longer a book is the more it will cost to print (ink, paper, etc.) Printing an initial run of 1,000 300,000-word books basically uses the same amount of supplies as 3,000 100,000-word books.

2. The longer a book is, the harder it is to sell. Now, this isn’t a “people don’t like reading long books” point. Obviously people are willing to read books that are longer than “average”. Going back to the fact that the larger a (print) book is, the more paper is needed to print it–the more paper in a book means the more it will cost to ship, and the more shelf space it takes up. Most bookstores prefer to have a range of books out, and thus don’t like taking many thick books, especially ones by unknown authors.

Likewise, with shipping and printing costs quite a bit higher for long books versus short ones, to make money off longer books they need to be priced higher. Now, not only do you have  to sell the story to someone (since not all plots are loved by all people) but you have to find someone who is willing to foot the cost of all that extra time and material. Someone who’s willing to pay for a book at $14.99 might not be so willing to by it at $24.99. There’s a psychology to marketing, and how you’re able to price things is a big part of that.

Add the fact that you have fewer books in general to sell in one run to the fewer buyers, and publishers see a lot of warning lights going off.

With the growing popularity of ebooks, perhaps the word count barriers will start to come down. The cost of pixels doesn’t go up with how long a book is. Even if you can’t decrease editing costs, you at least would be able to save money on printing and be able to price a long book close to a shorter book. But for now, limits on length when it comes to submissions makes complete sense to me.

Limits might be annoying to writers, but publishing isn’t about pleasing writers. You want the authors you work  with to be happy with edits, and cover art, and all of that stuff. But as a publisher, how the book sells dictates whether or not you get a raise, get promoted, or heck, even still have a job next month.

And so, with the surplus of manuscripts floating around out there, publishers can be picky about where they spend their time and money. While anything can happen based on whose desk a manuscript comes across, things that pose a financial risk (too long a book, an unknown author, a plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit any one genre) are often looked at critically.

After all, a book is art to an author, but business to a publisher.

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