Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Don't Count Words; Make Words Count, Part Two

Word Counts of Successful Middle-Grade Novels by Rookie Authors

In my prior post, I looked at the word counts of fifty of the most popular middle-grade novels published between 2001 and 2014 and compared their lengths to guidelines that are given to would-be authors. In general, over 50% of the books were outside the length of the guidelines.

The former post only dealt with part of the issue of word counts, with most of the novels written by established authors. While this does provide a sense of what the audience is willing to read, for the author completing or else trying to sell his or her first middle-grade novel, the length of the sixth installment in the Harry Potter series is of little relevance. A more pressing matter is: what were the lengths of the debut novels of middle-grade authors?

I used very restrictive criteria to assemble a database to analyze this question.

  • The book must have been published in the last twenty years.
  • The novel was the first book published by the author. I strictly did not allow for authors who had previously published even though there are several prominent authors who began publishing middle-aged fiction immediately after a single young adult or adult fiction book (e.g., Lemony Snicket and Rick Riordan). These authors (probably) already had an agent.
  • The book must have been successful. Success was defined in the previous post (New York Times Bestseller, recent Newbery winner, or most recognized in its genre at Goodreads, typically 100,000 or more ratings). Or:
    • I did allow for authors who became successful from subsequent books, i.e., the first book was seen as the calling card for talent. In these cases, I traced a bestselling middle-grade author back to that author's first published book and added it to the list if it was a middle-grade book.
  • The author did not enter with a big platform.
For this database, I was able to find 22 novels. These were:

In my previous post, I also identified three sets of guidelines that are commonly used to define the proper size of middle-grade novels.
  • Writer's Digest: 20,000–55,000.
  • Word Count Dracula. Realistic Middle Grade: 25,000-60,000 words. Fantasy Middle Grade: 35,000-75,000 words. 
  • Literary Rejections: 25,000 to 40,000.

So, how many of these first-time efforts fit into the guidelines?

Writer's Digest: 45.5%
Word Count Dracula: 59.1%
Literary Rejections: 13.4%

If these guidelines were taken as law, all of them would have rejected Seesaw Girl, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, WonderThe Goose Girl, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, The School for Good and Evil, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, and Moon Over Manifest. Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie, Rump, and A Snicker of Magic, did not fit two out of three of the recommended guidelines.


For the most part, word count guidelines don't represent what is being published. In the case of the restrictive guidelines from Literary Rejections, they only serve to provoke anxiety. Use common sense. It will be easier for you if work is near to conventional norms because unconventional works are harder to sell, but this is a less important element than having a great work to sell.

To phrase it in another way, as I said when I began this analysis, Don't Count Words: Make Words Count. I cannot say whether word count hindered the acceptance of the above set of books, but the talent they represented was ultimately recognized and they were published. Aim for that level of talent.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of three mysteries for adults, each between 55 and 70K words: one published, one due out June 27th, and one to come out at the end of the year. He has a pair of unpublished middle grade novels which fall into accepted guidelines.


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