Morton Feldman style Word Counts

Dear Miss Snark,

Just sent in my query to EvilEditor and he brought to my attention that there is such a thing as ' too short a book'. My own is just about 40,000 words for a non-fiction piece. Will this be a big problem when soliciting an agent? Having already tried to add more - for there is are a lot of events I can add - it seems to subtract from the texts value. Any advice on which is better of the two evils?

Mr. Evil is right (of course). 40,000 words is about half a book (stand down all you sharpies ready to point out exceptions-this is GENERALLY not specifically speaking).

The reason I'd elevate a plucked eyebrow at 40K is that I'd wonder if your narrative was fully developed and your story well told. I'm a minimalist to the core, but cursory is not minimalism.

The other part of the equation is 40,000 words means you're going to have a lot of white space on the page or a 48 point font to use enough pages for a book. It's bad enough paying $27 for a hardcover of 400 pages, but $25 for a hardcover with 100? yuckola.

It's not a deal breaker but I'd be put off by the low word count if your query landed on my desk.


Jim Oglethorpe said...

60,000 to 70,000 seems to be the norm in non-fiction. But why not solicit agents now? The MS is a non-issue for non-fiction. But since you have 40,000 words you will easily be able to write a proposal w/1-3 sample chapters. In the query say that the work will be 60-70,000 words and leave it at that.

litagent said...

I just took on a book with an even lower word count, and my initial response to the author's query was that it would be nearly impossible to sell. The author responded and convinced me to at least take a look. It's so beautifully written -- almost an extended prose poem -- that I decided to give it a try. Will it sell? Who knows? But I do believe in giving work I love a chance. I'll let you know.

Kee B. said...

What about fiction? Does a 60,000 romance get the immediate pass when the query hits the agent email? Would it only be considered for catergory?

Sal said...

When you're tired of checking everyone's sales rank on Amazon, you can, instead, start checking book length and word count.

e.g. pop in Mitch Alborn - THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN

On the page, in amongst the reviews and publishing info, you'll find a click for text stats. Text stats include goodies such as fog index and word count, word per ounce, too.

TFPYMIN clocks in at 41,108 words, mas o menos. Skinny little thing.

Text stats are only available, it seems, if the publisher has offered "search inside" for the book, giving Amazon.com access to the book text.

Couldn't tell you the word count for a Jennifer Crusie book, because not a single Jennifer Crusie book I pulled up had "search inside." Maybe the publisher worries the true fan will just read her books online, given the opportunity.

THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER by Kim Edwards clocks in at 138,934, more words than 87% of the books in amazon.com's database.

Janet Evanovich's TWELVE SHARP, on the other hand, has 71,507.

Mas o menos.

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that The Great Gatsby is a hair over 50,000 words. So perhaps 40,000 words is more 4/5 of a book than half ...

Avalon Editor said...

Some houses, like Avalon Books (no relation to Avalon Publishing) only publish short books. Our word counts start at 40,000 for fiction (we don't pub nonfiction).

Anonymous said...

kee b, many years ago I tried writing for Mills and Boon (the British Harlequin) and their required word count was 50000. I don't what it is now.

MichaelPH said...

I did the NaNoWriMo which is the 50,000 word first draft exercise. So now I have a novel that's a little small by some measures. But I like it anyway.

Brady Westwater said...

I have read a lot of non-fiction books that would have been much better at 40,000 words than 50,000 or 60,000 words. Many subjects can be fully developed within that many words - with any more just being padding.

Examples in just one field are the biography of a historical figure about which not that much is known, a very specific historical event - such as a single battle and the history of a small town founded only fifty years ago.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it depend a lot on what the subject is? I don't think you could do the history of WWII in 40,000 words, but that might be plenty for some niche subjects.

Kim said...

Kee B - Harlequin's category lines, such as Desire, begin at 55,000 words. I think that is the lowest.

As for other publishers, you'd need to look at their submission guidelines since word count can vary from house to house.

Lisa Hunter said...

I'll bet the book will grow as your agent/editor start asking you to flesh out sections that they think are thin. My non-fiction book ended up nearly 10K more than I'd initially thought.

-c- said...

I just picked up Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. A very slim book, that. And I must say, if it wasn't so highly recommended by EVERYONE and her grandmother, I doubt I would have shelled out the 23 bucks. Just because it is so slender. (Funny how that works.)

swampytad said...

Speaking of word counts, what's the generally accepted counting method? I have a manuscript I'm sending to agents and I'm noting a 108,000-word count, because that's what the word count tool in Microsoft Word says I have; but using the 250 words per page guideline, my 357-page manuscript should only be noted as 89,250 words. What number is more accurate to report to prospective agents; i.e., what is it they're really wanting to know about the length, actual words or pages/approximate words?

swampytad said...

. . . and here's the answer to my question. and hopefully re-posting it will help any others who thought to ask without searching the blog first.

Sal said...

swampytad sed, Speaking of word counts, what's the generally accepted counting method?

Asked and answered.

First place to check is the snarkives, but, alas, the answer isn't there.

Next place to check is the blog itself. See that nice little search field in the upper lefthand corner? The one labeled SEARCH THIS BLOG?

I popped

"word count"|wordcount

(i.e. either find me the phrase "word count" OR the single word "wordcount" anywhere on Miss Snark's blog).

That created a nasty ol' search string which brought me to The answer.