Ask The Agent: Your Novel Word Count Guide and More!

Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore and dissect two of the industry’s mysteries, straight from the shoulder.

Question from Cody

I'm a new writer currently working on my first science-fiction/alternate history novel. I've finished the first draft and I've enlisted a group of "advance readers" to provide feedback. My intent is to incorporate changes to the draft, then work with a professional editor and artist and self-publish an electronic version in the next three months.

My question relates to the traditional publishing process. I'm very interested in finding an agent who will approach publishers with my work. To what extent will self-publishing impede my luck securing an agent? And when is the right time to approach potential agents?

My question to you, Cody, is why do you intend to self-publish a novel and THEN try and find an agent? If you want your work traditionally published, I would definitely hold off on self-publishing it.

It’s rare, rare, rare, rare, rare (x1000) that self-published books are ever re-published by traditional editors. I mean like almost never. So no agent is going to sign you to represent a self-published project.

NOW, if you are saying that you’ll be self-publishing a book THEN querying agents for a DIFFERENT manuscript, that’s a completely different story. While “self-publishing” doesn’t have that taboo taste to it anymore, there are still some reasons why you ought not to.

The self-published book may tank. Simply from lack of one great edit and maybe a weak marketing plan. Editors AND agents see those numbers. We don’t always judge a book by the author’s previous book sales, but it’s often hard to overlook.

It’s always hard to determine when to find an agent and when to self publish. But if the current project you are working on is the one you plan on pitching to agents, DO NOT self publish it first… an agent can’t do much with a self-published book.  

Pro tip: Just make sure you go with whatever publishing path feels right for you, stay the course, and achieve your goal.

Question from Matt

I wrote a book. It's 63k words. It's for adults. Is it too short?

I’m glad you asked this question, Matt. It gives me a chance to lay out standard word counts for different types of books.

63k for an adult manuscript is just about right. It’s about 20k words more than a novella, so it’s right on the low end, I’d say. You should be fine, but it wouldn’t hurt to get it closer to 70k.

Now as far as other word counts go:

Adult Fiction:

Anything above 70k but less than 115k (science fiction and fantasy tend to run up around 100k-115k words). The sweet spot for adult is about 90k. 

Middle Grade:

With fun, lighthearted, simple middle grade you’ll want to stay around the 20k-30k word count range. The average middle grade is 30k-40k. Upper middle grade can hit in the 50k word count range (possibly longer, if it's something really special).

Young Adult:

Young adult fiction allows for a lot of flexibility in word count. And as you’ve probably guessed… it is sitting pretty right in between middle grade and adult. YA manuscripts can have a word count anywhere from 55k to 90k.  

Picture Books:

Picture books are generally less than 1000 words. About 500-700 words is perfect. 

Also remember (because there are a bunch of new novel imprints opening their doors), a novella is 40k or less.

Pro tip: Try not to completely tether yourself to word counts. Let your writing take you where you need to go. But use good intuition and follow some of the rules.

Thank your for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor

Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 18 of Ask the Agent. Issue 18 answers will be posted Monday, March 4th.

Bree Ogden

Column by Bree Ogden

Bree Ogden is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary and a comics/TV columnist and reviewer at Bloody Disgusting.

When she's not agenting, compulsively watching horror films, reading comics, hiding out at her local science center, or killing off her bee colonies, she serves as the managing editor of the macabre children's magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree, which she co-founded in 2011 with artist Rebekah Joy Plett.

Bree teaches query craft and graphic novel scripting at LitReactor as well as serves as the Assistant Class Director. Unless you are an exciting new piece of taxidermy, she'll probably never let you in her room. You can find her at

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Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago February 18, 2013 - 9:39am

Thanks for rules of thumb concerning word count.  Your column is always an education.


marcdefaoite's picture
marcdefaoite February 18, 2013 - 9:52am

Hi Bree
What word count would you recommend for a short story collection and for short stories?


Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs February 18, 2013 - 2:39pm

Perhaps a better question would be if it's worth seeking representation for a story collection. It seems like traditional publishers rarely publish collections by first time authors.

Bree Ogden's picture
Bree Ogden from Seattle is reading The Bunker Diary March 9, 2013 - 9:52pm

You're right, Bradley. Debut authors have a hell of a time finding representation for short story collections. But to answer Marc's question, a short story usually runs 4-8k words... and then you need to have as many stories in the collection to make up a novel length. 

Jake Parent's picture
Jake Parent February 18, 2014 - 2:40pm

Thanks for the really helpful tips. Great post!

len carter's picture
len carter November 22, 2020 - 11:58pm