I belong to quite a few writers' groups, both local and online, and in my QT Blog posts, I try to address recurring topics discussed in these groups that apply to aspiring writers. The question of word count comes up frequently.
I'm not an expert on all genres, so I'm going to link to and quote from folks who know what they're talking about. What I do know is that loads of aspiring writers, especially those new to the business have monster-long, and I mean doorstop-huge manuscripts well in excess of 130,000 words.
So, let's start off with the numbers. Here's literary agent Colleen Lindsay's take on manuscript length from her blog, The Swivet:
Word counts for different kinds of novels vary, but there is are general rules of thumb for fiction that a writer can use when trying to figure out just how long is too long. For the purposes of this post, I'm only talking about YA, middle-grade and adult fiction here. And bear in mind that there are always exceptions, but good general rules of thumb would be as follows:middle grade fiction = Anywhere from about 25k to 40k, with the average at about 35k
YA fiction = For mainstream YA, anywhere from about 45k to 80k; paranormal YA or YA fantasy can occasionally run as high as 125k. The second or third in a particularly bestselling series can go even higher. But it shouldn't be word count for the sake of word count; the word count must actually be what works best for the story.
urban fantasy / paranormal romance = Usually around the 100k mark; some bestselling urban fantasy writers are able to turn in even higher word counts, but as a debut author, stick to the appropriate range.
mysteries and crime fiction = Cozies tend to be shorter than the average, somewhere around the 60k to 70k mark; most other books that fall into this category fall right around the 90k to 100k mark.
mainstream/commercial fiction/thrillers = Depending upon the kind of fiction, this can vary: chick lit runs anywhere from 80k word to 100k words; literary fiction can run as high as 120k but lately there's been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short as 65k; thrillers also run in somewhere around the 100k to 120k mark; historical fiction can run as high as 160k words or more (and again, these are just rough guides - there are always exceptions). Anything under 50k is usually considered a novella, which isn't something agents or editors ever want to see unless the editor has commissioned a short story collection. (Agent Kristin Nelson has a good post about writers querying about manuscripts that are too short.)
science fiction & fantasy = Here's where most writers seem to have problems: most editors I've spoken to recently at major SF/F houses want books that fall into the higher end of the adult fiction you see above; a few of them told me that 100k words is the ideal manuscript size for good space opera or fantasy. For a truly spectacular epic fantasy, editors will consider manuscripts over 120k but it would have to be something extraordinary. I know at least one editor I know likes his fantasy big and fat and around 180k. But he doesn't buy a lot at that size; it has to be astounding. (Read: Doesn't need much editing.) And regardless of the size, an editor will expect the author to to be able to pare it down even further before publication.
I recommend reading all of Ms. Lindsay's article from which I quoted above because it gives some examples of when and how longer word counts make it through.
Jessica Faust from Bookends, LLC also blogged about this topic in an article appropriately called Book Length.
Here's agent Nathan Bransford's opinion on Novel Word Count.
How about an editor's take on it. Moonrat blogged about the ideal length of a submission.
My point is 130,000+ word debut novels are rare. There's a reason they're not the norm. Publishing is a business. As writers, it's our job to know as much about the business as possible. There is a ton of online information on this subject from industry professionals.
If you have thoughts on this topic or other links to good articles about manuscript length, please share them in the comments.
Have a great week!