What’s in a Word Count?

The other day I came across a manuscript that was 190,000 words. My mind boggled. That was so long! Most modern manuscripts I see are at max 125,000. But that got me pondering word counts. Is 190K that big?
In it, I learned that Gone with the Wind is over 400K. Wow. So maybe 190K isn’t that big. After all, there are several well-known books on that list that are the same length.
Of course, a few things are different since Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Television and internet create a world where we either need to keep your attention or lose it to something more immediately entertaining. Not that people can’t/won’t sit down and read 400K, but it’s harder to entice them in and get them to read through it.
I understand completely, as finding time to keep up with all the entertainment and media stuff is hard enough. Who has the time to read something that long. Is it fair to a book that is 200K and a masterpiece that it may never be purchased by a publisher because it’s just not marketable (assuming it can’t be broken into two smaller books that may be more enticing)? Maybe not, but that’s the world we live in.
(Also, as a side note, many of the longer books we’re familiar with were published piecemeal in newspapers (etc) on a weekly/monthly basis where the author was paid per word. So yeah the authors milked that for all it was worth. Plus if you’re only reading a chapter at a time, the length doesn’t seem nearly as overwhelming.)
This post helpfully breaks what lengths should be by genre: https://worddreams.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/word-count-by-genre/
In general it seems fairly accurate, though I think with more progression in the digital age, some of the lower word counts can be moved down. For instance, 75K seems to be a golden number in the books I see. Not too short, not too long. Enough space to flesh out the character and story, but not enough to lose the reader to a billion other things.
Personally, I…have trouble writing that long. Generally my works max out at 50K, if they even get that far. I’m working to develop my writing and flesh out the story/character/senses more, which will hopefully lengthen my word counts (and make the writing more enjoyable in general). For instance, my current WIP has a character who I envisioned in his thirties, but my writer group envisioned much older, because I gave no clues to his age. I obviously need to describe my character more! That will help my writing, yes, but also help me hit the golden word count. (Maybe :P)
My point (yes, I have a point!) is that when we’re writing, we need to keep in mind our genre, audience, etc. Yes, we should write for us, but if we want to be published, keeping in mind these guidelines (not rules or laws, just guidelines) are important. Cheating on some points within a genre may make books harder to sell (but not impossible) to a publisher. Cheating on all of them means a book better blow them out of the water for them to take the (likely) risks.

And this isn’t meant to be preaching or teaching so much as just a reminder to myself. Or maybe just an awareness to keep in the back of my mind. You know, along with all the other crazy stuff. 

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Word Count?

  1. People complain about how, these days, instead of writing a single novel, authors write a short “Book 1” and follow up it with Book 2, etc. etc. Some people really think this is the downfall of society; the four horseman on our doorsteps.Yet, as you point out, serialization actually came first. Writing long, complete novels for sale really was only a recent, short-lived event.People, even non-Luddites, will often jump up and down to protect whatever is “now,” no matter the situation.

  2. I think serialization vs full novel really depends on genre, type of book, etc. (And can be a completely different topic from word counts!) I've not heard much outcry about serialization (as long as publishers are clear that's what it is), except for in pricing. Sometimes publishers set the prices way out of whack, in which I can understand the fight against it. On the other hand, readers already are unwilling to pay decent prices for books, so boo on them. Also, serialization THEN and NOW are very different beasts. If you're buying The New York Times and there's a story in there, it's a bonus. But now you're buying the story as the story. So the mindset is “why not just give it all to me now?” At least that's one perspective.

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