Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What is the ideal page count for a first novel?

"Mr. Lukeman, If I have a debut literary/historical novel that's 110K... is this too long? What would this wordcount mean to agents and editors and how would it affect my chances of representation/publication?
Thank you,
Renee Goudeau

It’s hard enough to land a book deal—don’t make it harder on yourself by writing a book which is shorter or longer than industry standard. That means, for example, don’t submit a 100 or a 1,000 page novel (I have had both cross my desk). The average manuscript for a novel comes in anywhere between 250 to 400 manuscript pages. In most cases, it is safe to say a first novel should not be shorter than 200 manuscript pages (approximately 50,000 words), and not longer than 500 manuscript pages (approximately 125,000 words). If so, it will raise a red flag for an agent, and may make him less likely to represent you. There are rare exceptions, of course, and there have been times when I have landed a six figure deal for a novel as short as 150 manuscript pages. But again, this is the exception, not the norm, particularly for a first novel. (Once you are an established author, there is more leniency.)

If this seems too strict, keep in mind that the publishing industry as a whole is far more lenient with page count than the film industry: a screenplay must come in at 120 pages, and if it is even a few pages off, it is automatically considered “short” or “long”—so much so, that the first thing a Hollywood executive does is flip to the last page. If it comes in at 130 or more, some executives will not even read it. Book publishing is not nearly as strict, but that doesn’t mean you should take advantage of its relative leniency. Do your best to fall within the range of normalcy.

To speak to a bigger issue, artistically, it is rare for a first novel to truly need to be over 500 (or less than 200) manuscript pages. 99% of the time, this sort of page count will point to the fact that there is something wrong with the author’s execution. If your first novel is longer than 500 pages, then you may want to ask yourself, for example, whether there are too many characters, settings or subplots. Go through each scene individually and ask yourself whether you can achieve the same goal if that scene were half the length. Conversely, if your page count falls under 200 pages, you may want to consider whether your novel could use a more robust cast of characters, more settings, or more intricate subplots.


  1. my mother often reads my work and some times edits for me, and in the past there has been a bit of confusion over grammar.
    Often in other publish writers work I see dialog like this: “But.” she said “there is one way up.”
    However grammatically it should be: “but there is one way up.” she said.
    So my question is, is it alright to forgo basic grammar occasionally so that the reader can tell who is speaking?

  2. Very helpful. I am often curious as to how long novels should be and usually try to aim for around 80k - 90k... It seems like everywhere you look, someone suggests a different length, particularly for different genres. I have heard that it is more acceptable, or even appreciated, for some genres (such as fantasy or historical) to be longer while other genres should be shorter. Is there any truth to this?

  3. Rules help us navigate and give us constancy. Aren't we also looking for novelty?

  4. Thanks, Noah. It's much as I've heard before, but it's great to see it from an industry expert.

    The strange thing about novelty is that it makes it harder to get published. I've judged short story comps, and the first thing you do is reject the manuscripts that don't follow the competition rules.

  5. To lakeviewer:

    I agree with you, but whether this convention is wrong or right, if these are the 'rules' and you want to increase your chances of getting published - then you've got to follow them.

    Sometimes in life you just have to play the game. All industries have norms/conventions, often dictated by commercial pressures.

    Maybe there'll be a spate of shorter/longer novels at some point and then publishers will be more open to 'unconventional' texts. Much easier to change things from the inside than the outside.

    Look at James Joyce and Ulysses. If it hadn't been for Sylvia Beach it might never have seen the light of day.

  6. One note: in the film industry a script has to be UNDER 120. The ideal length, depending on genre is 100-110. (Although 90-120 is acceptable. A horror or arthouse flick may be shorter, though.)

    Although, as a reader, I always appreciate a short one.

  7. This was a useful post for me. I am aiming for 80,000 words, but at least I know there is a little give now. Thanks for clarifying.

  8. Mr. Lukeman, I have a stupid question: on the longer side, what happens if it is? Do agents feel differently about say 520-something pages than a 6 or 7 hundred page book?

    Also, how much of a hindrance is it to have a longer book?

  9. Random Question: I have a 63,000 word fiction book. It's a mixture of Einsteins Dream and The Never Ending Story.

    It's mostly poetic, doesn't use any collegiate terminology or anything and fast-paced. The problem is, this is a niche, niche genre.

    I'm a first-time writer, it's totally experimental but at least finished.

    Most tallies are all saying, not happening. I know most literary agents don't cater to bizarre stuff.

    [Although they evidently publish really insipid and dull writing -and I don't know which is worse, but that's beside the point.]

    My question is: Would you know of any literary agents who look for risky, experimental and eccentric weird books to publish?

    It'll take lifetimes fishing through the hundreds of listings in search of this one literary agent that salivates for this stuff...

    Yeah, I wish.


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