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?"
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.