From the archives: Word counts

This was posted on the old Tu Publishing blog back before I moved to New York and joined Lee & Low. You may have seen it there, or you might not have. It wasn’t ported over to the new website with some of the other content (the blog has been folded into the main Lee & Low blog, where you can get all sorts of great commentary and information on multicultural topics). An LJ reader asked about word counts in response to my last post, and I think that this kind of thing can be helpful to writers as a general guideline. Note that nothing I declare here is hard and fast. There are some writers who write very short YAs, for example—but those people generally are also not debut writers, and this kind of info is often most helpful to those getting started on their careers.

So, without further ado, the post—edited slightly to reflect that we’re now six months later than when the original post was put up in January:

We try to be specific in our submission guidelines, but there are some things that might not be clear to a new writer. For the most essential of essentials of children’s literature, please make sure to research the genre on Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon (and we highly recommend his Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, as well, for great basic information).

But some things are more specific, and preferences can vary from publisher to publisher and imprint to imprint. Word count, for example, is something we don’t see too many guidelines on because so much can depend on what a publisher’s goals are. So let’s talk about what Tu Books would like to see in word counts.

First of all, when we say we are not looking for chapter books, we are specifically referring to the “intermediate reader” or “transitional reader” chapter books like Magic Treehouse. They’re shorter books for kids who have just become fluent enough readers for their own independent books, with real chapters. They are not to be confused with “early reader” books, which have fewer words and are targeted to a slightly younger reader than a chapter book. While we love chapter books, we want to focus more on older readers. There is no such thing as a “YA chapter book.”

Middle grade novels are generally for ages 8–12, or about 3rd grade to 6th or 7th grade. Readers tend to be pretty fluid through publishing categories—a third grader might still be reading picture books for older kids and chapter books while devouring middle grade books, all at the same time. But middle grade novels are a specific section of the bookstore and have specific requirements. It’s a marketing category. That section might be called “Independent Readers” or “Middle Grade” or “Children’s Novels,” depending on the store.

What happens if the book is too long? (Sketch by Howard Tayler)

Generally, middle grade novels are no less than 30–35,000 words at the minimum, and usually a whole lot more words than that. They can range anywhere from 30,000 words to 70,000 words or longer, especially in fantasy. If your “novel” is only 17,000 words, it’s too short. A 90,000 word manuscript might be a touch too long for a middle grade audience unless you’re J.K. Rowling and have already hooked tens of millions of readers with three or four books. Especially given the current economic climate—in which paper and shipping and everything else involved in printing a book is costing more—it’s best to keep a middle grade novel under the 50,000–60,000 word range, because then the design of the book can still be beautiful while keeping the page count relatively low, which ensures that even reluctant readers won’t find the printed book too daunting.

YA novels are for the 12–18 age group—the teen section of the bookstore—and word count might range from 45,000 words on the low end to 100,000 words on the high end. To tell a complex enough story for a sophisticated YA readership, though, 45,000 might be a bit low. However, plenty of really awesome YA writers have done it in that many words, so I wouldn’t rule it out. But again, if your YA book is 17,000 words, it’s either a short story or not finished. And remember the economy: too long can be hard to work with, as well. Consider whether your 100,000 word opus might really be two novels in a series or if perhaps some of the subplots might be simplified or saved for another book. If not, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but it’s something to be aware of.

These are all just guidelines, of course—like the Pirate Code, they’re not laws. But if you’ve got a 250,000 word “YA novel,” you’ve actually likely got three to five different books masquerading as one (or just one honking adult novel, depending on the subject matter). If your story is for older readers yet is only 10,000 words long, you’ve got an extremely long short story that will require a different publishing venue, or you haven’t fleshed out the story nearly enough. What’s missing?

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