Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Don't Count Words: Make Words Count

This post deals with the recommended length of middle-grade fiction. As I will attempt to show, for both well-established and first-time authors, the guidelines do not correspond to the length of successful books. Rather than approaching this issue through examples or anecdotes, I systematically assembled a database with the intent to include all of the most successful middle-grade fiction novels from the past 15 years.

Book Length Angst

The pursuit of the proper book length torments would-be authors, an anguish they convey to agents and publishers whom they see as the austere gatekeepers who guard the entrance to the promised land of page and ink. In order to herd the fledgling authors and to salve their troubled souls, internet magi offer word count guidelines.

Foremost, the guidelines are presented to provide a sense of what can and cannot sell. They are said to represent a facile, albeit imperfect, means by which eccentric submissions are winnowed out.

Nearly all of these advice-givers include these two bits of wisdom at the margins: Don't take the guidelines too literally and use common sense.

Don't get caught up in word count to stick to category norms. Then again, don't submit a manuscript that's 150,000 words either. But straying 10k in either direction is totally fine. From: http://www.dystel.com/category/middle-grade/

In spite of these caveats, the most restrictive of guidelines are presented as being authoritative, when all they do is provoke unnecessary anxiety.

Comparing Actual Word Counts to Guidelines

Where do the numbers in word count guidelines come from? Often, no sources are given. I suspect in some cases, the origin is an accumulated wisdom coming from poring over thousands of manuscripts. Other times, it seems to be repeating something someone else has declared as law. In a few instances the guideline author provides word counts from a list of books, drawing on classic and recent examples from a particular genre.

One of the ongoing themes of my website is the question of how long actual novels are and whether they fit into the common guidelines. I have addressed this question already regarding mystery novels and have found that, contrary to what the guidelines recommend, among bestsellers, the short mystery novel is alive and well. I am continuing this analysis to look at a subject close to my heart: middle-grade books. I set out to determine: How long is the modern middle-grade book?

Assembling a Set of Successful Middle-Grade Novels for Analysis (2001 to the Present).

Rather than looking at the length of all-time classics, I decided to focus on recent, successful middle-grade prose fiction. Limited to prose and fiction, I excluded the occasional guide (The Care and Keeping of You) and poetry books. I used three sources. Firstly, since December 2012, the New York Times has run a separate middle-grade bestseller list. I also sampled their Children's Series list for the middle-grade entries. To limit the number of books in my analysis, I selected the most successful: those with at least 25 weeks on one of the two lists.

As a second source, I included the middle grade Newbery winners from 2010 to 2015. While the Newbery Awards have received some notoriety for celebrating virtually unread books, this reputation hasn't been deserved as of late. In the last seven years the primary winners have included the runaway bestsellers: The One and Only Ivan; Flora and Ulysses; The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me.

My final source was Goodreads. I pored over the fifty books most commonly "shelved" as middle grade fiction. I added to my analysis any of these published since 2000 which had not already been included in my list. These are popular books: even the 50th entry received over 100,000 ratings.

To prevent any one author (e.g., Riordan) from dominating the list and skewing the results, I limited the number of books per author to a maximum of three. For these three I chose the author's two most recent bestsellers and the debut book in the series. I divided the entries up into reality and fantasy. Most often this was an easy call. My reference list totaled a nice round 50 middle-grade novels published between 2001 and 2014 (median year: 2011). I used this database to answer the more general question: what are the lengths of the best-selling books*. A second database, discussed in my next post, will look at the question which is of greater interest to authors still seeking to get published: how long were the successful middle-grade books by recent first-time authors?

The Guidelines Examined.

I compared my database to three sets of guidelines for middle-grade book length.

To summarize the rules put forth by Chuck Sambuchino, Editor of Writers Digest:

"Middle grade is from 20,000–55,000, depending on the subject matter and age range... With upper middle grade, you can aim for 40,000–55,000 words. ... With a simpler middle grade idea (Football Hero, or Jenny Jones and the Cupcake Mystery) ... shoot for 20,000–35,000 words."

A popular entry in this field is from Jennifer Laughlin of Andrea Brown Literary Agency in her post, Word Count Dracula. I applaud her for offering up more generous guidelines and separating out realistic from fantasy.

"Realistic Middle Grade: 25,000-60,000 words. Sweet spot: 30,000-45,000 ...
Fantasy Middle Grade: 35,000-75,000 words. Sweet spot: 45,000-65,000"

The cruelest of corsets comes from the Literary Rejections website:

"Middle Grade: 25,000 to 40,000–Such a tight restraint can be beneficial to a writer because it allows them to demonstrate their ability to edit accordingly. For debut books in this field the average word count tends to be 35K and it has therefore become the marker many industry professionals look for in queries from new writers."

The Results

Since I am addressing the question of whether the guidelines fairly describe the length of middle-grade books, the average is unimportant. A 15,000 word book together with a 120,000 word book average out to be 67,500 words, but neither fall within the guidelines and both could well be considered hard-to-sell. The important metric is to examine how many books fall inside and outside of these guidelines.

Without taking into account extenuating factors (below), 23 out of 50 (46%) of the books were within the Writers' Digest guidelines. This figure increased to 24 (48%) for the Word Count Dracula guidelines even though this offered a broader range and took into account fantasy versus reality. Only 26% of the books fell within the restrictive Literary Rejections guidelines.

Percent of Successful Middle-Grade Novels That Fit the Lengths Offered by Popular Guidelines, 2001-2014.

 Guideline Source      % within guidelines
Literary Rejections          26%     

Writer's Digest              46%    
Word Count Dracula           48%   

One matter which the guidelines did not take into account were graphic heavy books such as those by Jeff Kinney which ring in at 19K words. (Although, equally graphic heavy books by Rachel Renee Russell and the I, Funny series fall within the recommended counts.) Another explanation for these anomalous book lengths comes from the issue of author platform.

Platforms Big and Long.

This first analysis is not directed at the works by newbie authors. Many of the authors on the list had already built an audience among middle-grade readers (a long platform) or else were famous going into the field (a big platform).
An argument could be rightly made that these authors could come in with virtually any length manuscript and have it published.

For those not following popular middle grade books, they might be surprised to find the list of the bestselling authors includes John Grisham, James Patterson, Carl Hiaasen and Rush Limbaugh. Another bestseller entered the field with a big platform: the authors of the novelization of Disney's Frozen (Sarah Nathan and Sela Roman). To be fair, their runaway success was not solely due to the popularity of the movie: other Disney novelizations have not fared so well. A final member who entered the field with a big platform is Jeff Kinney, whose Wimpy Kid had an internet following in the millions before he published.

Another set of authors built their platforms based on prior success in the field, often through a series. J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan have enormous followings. Both of these authors publish well above the range of word count guidelines.

In terms of the 50 books in my database, 17 were by authors with big platforms, 20 were by authors with long platforms, and 13 were by authors with little or no publishing history. The last group will be expanded and dealt with in my next post. The results are presented in the tables below.

                        Platform Size
Guideline Source      big (n=17)  long (n=20)
Literary Rejections      17.6%        30%
Writer's Digest          52.9%        45%
Word Count Dracula       52.9%        50%

One too-facile argument used by those defending the word count guidelines is "don't be blinded by the exceptions." J.K. Rowling, with her fan-base, could write whatever length book she wanted. But it is not just Rowling who has written middle-grade books that run over 100,000 words. So has Cornelia Funke, Rick Riordan, Soman Chainani and Trenton Lee Stewart (among others). Chainani was a first time author and Stewart had one prior, adult novel. The others were established authors, but their detailed world-building helped establish them. Perhaps it is time to rethink what length the middle-grade audience is willing to read.


When I started this analysis, I suspected that the large majority of middle-grade novels would fall into the guidelines and that Rowling would define the outliers. This was not the case. I approached this analysis thinking that word count anxiety was a silly concern of uninformed writers who are waiting to publish their first works. After running into the restrictive Literary Rejections advice, I've come to the conclusion that cruel and unrealistic restrictions are being recommended by some. 

The bottom line of common sense still applies. Write that great novel at the length it needs to be. Make it irresistible because, regardless of word count, you will encounter resistance in getting it published. Don't flout conventions, but don't let them hamstring you.

*To determine word counts for these analyses, I referenced Renaissance.com which maintains a massive database for most all popular children's books. Word count has a good degree of concurrence with unabridged audio book length and a poor correlation to page count. [Note: as of June 1, 2015 access to the Renaissance service has been discontinued.]


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