Word count is something I get asked about a lot – it’s especially important when submitting your novel to literary agents or publishers. Many of them will reject based on word count alone, for instance if it’s *way* too high. It’s a good idea to get to know the ballpark figures so your work stands more of a chance of getting plucked from the slush pile.
If you’re self-publishing, you’re less likely to need to stick firmly to these brackets, but it’s still a good idea to know what your audience expects so you can keep your readers happy.
These things obviously aren’t set in stone, and there are always exceptions. But as a debut author, you’ll want to give yourself the best chance possible. Word count is largely dependent on age category and genre. I’ll be covering middle grade, YA, new adult and adult, as those are the age categories I’m most familiar with.
Novel word count guidelines
Middle grade (ages 8–12)
Anywhere from 20k to 70k.
This is a wide word-count range for several reasons: genre and the fact that there is “upper” middle grade (aimed at the older end of the audience) and “lower” middle grade, for the younger end. Books aimed at the younger end of middle grade will likely be shorter, while upper middle grade books tend to be longer.
Fantasy runs higher in this category too, due to the need to world-build, so can run as long as 70k (established authors might get away with more). Realistic and contemporary will generally be shorter.
Young adult/teen (13 and up)
Around 50k to 90k.
Again, the higher end of this is typically taken up by speculative fiction such as fantasy and sci-fi. Lower word counts in YA are usually contemporary or realistic novels that require less world-building, or are aimed at the “younger end” of the age category. More mature YA for older teens may run longer.
New adult (ages 18—30)
Around 70k to 100k.
New adult is still a developing age category, so some authors aren’t even aware it exists: the main characters are usually in university or are young adults just entering the workforce or the first stages of adult life. New adult books may contain more content not typical in YA such as drugs, descriptive sex, violence, swear words and so on. As with young adult, new adult books with a supernatural or fantasy element will run longer while realistic/contemporary may be on the shorter side of the range.
Around 70k to 100k.
Fantasy, especially high fantasy, and sci-fi can obviously run much longer, but new authors who haven’t been published will have more of a chance if they stick within this range. Established authors or household names are usually the ones who can get away with going a lot higher than 100k words, because they already have a reputation of being able to sell books (and so the publisher isn’t going to be concerned with printing more pages).
As you can see, word count is so often dependent on genre and audience. It can be a good way of knowing whether you need to overhaul your book too, or pitch it as something else: if you’ve written a short 20k word fantasy that you can’t imagine shaping into an 80k behemoth, that may be better off being pitched as a novella to any relevant submission opportunities. But if it reads sparsely and is underdeveloped, you may not have done enough outlining or world-building and might need to revise it.
As I said before, the guidelines here aren’t rules. Many authors get hung up on word count to the point of overthinking it – if your YA novel is 91k, that isn’t going to be a dealbreaker. Just use these figures to guide you; if you fall somewhere in the range (or slightly over), then that’s perfect. It’s all about giving agents and editors what they expect for the age category or genre, and as long as you do that, you’ll give yourself a really good chance of getting your submission read – and hopefully accepted!
If you’d like some feedback on your novel, or are looking for an editor to help you trim it down, check out my editorial services.