letters from the query wars 4.15.2011

# of queries responded to last week: 143
# of partials/submissions requested: 0
genre of partials/submissions requested: n/a

# of queries responded to this week: 162
# of partials/submissions requested: 0
genre of partials/submissions requested: n/a

I was asked on a previous entry: “If you received a manuscript that was really long (say 180K word Fantasy), would this result in an automatic rejection?”

As for me — no, this wouldn’t result in an automatic rejection. But I know there are agents out there for whom it would. And there are other reasons why longer manuscripts may take longer to find a home.

On the same topic, someone else wondered if he should split his 131K novel into 3 parts. Personally, I don’t think 131K is too long in the fantasy/sf genre, but I’m not sure if that’s the genre of the project, since he didn’t mention specifically. 44K on the other hand strikes me as going too far the other way.

With respect to both of these, the electronic revolution may shift perceptions on ideal story length, but so far that still appears to be in transition.

To expand: Ideally a person would write the story in however many words it takes to tell the story. But with economic considerations which require the art to fit the business, consider lengths from 80,000-120,000 for single title romance (leaving aside category romance which has very specific wordcounts), women’s fiction, thrillers, suspense, non-cosy mystery, some YA (upper ranges, not middle grade), settling towards the 100,000 mark if at all possible. Cosy mysteries tend to be shorter with some even as tight as 60,000 words. There’s a little room to maneuver here and certainly in science fiction and fantasy lengths may tend to sometimes run longer, but even there 150,000 seems to be the upper range considered comfortable, with indications that 125,000 is really more reasonable, and 100,000 still more ideal. [Special note: more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. YMMV to some degree.]

Now, often when this topic is raised, someone brings up exceptions. But, as they say, the exception proves the rule. (I hope to read Drood: A Novel this summer, should I get the chance to take a vacation, so I know they’re out there.) And this will also be something that is unlikely to apply to certain break-out bestsellers or well-established authors that can afford some wiggle room. Evenso, I’ve had clients asked to reduce a novel by a significant amount due to the economic necessities of casting off the book (glossary: “casting off” – when the publisher uses arcane equations to determine how many pages the book will be and what cover price they will need to have). Debut authors may find this an even more substantial issue as they have no trackrecord to use as leverage. Longer and longer manuscripts will continue to raise the physical price of the book until price resistance may be too high to attract a sufficient number of buyers. Therefore, in a very competitive market, this could actually come into play in the determination of buying a book.

The other potential issue in a book of great length is the need to keep the attention of your readers and have them return for the next book and the next and the next… It might be suggested that lengths of this sort could indicate the possibility of a narrative that is too padded with scenes that don’t adequately develop the story, or, if that’s not the case and the author can’t find anywhere to tighten the pace up, perhaps something that needs to be split into multiple volumes. (Though in the case of a query I once received for a 475,000 word opus, which would more comfortably be divided into 4 books, one wonders if the sequel is equally hefty and how many books are planned.) Also, consider whether the story begins at the right time — so many submissions that come through have a sort of “warming up” section while the story finds its way. While establishing certain plot, character, or setting details may be necessary, keep in mind when to start telling the story.

If your work is exceptional, of course, none of these rules will apply. As for me, I would still read the query and the first five pages before I respond as the brilliant story may still snare me, and revisions may be possible. But it might still prove a challenge to many…. So, just something to keep in mind as you type “The End.”

7 responses to “letters from the query wars 4.15.2011

  1. Steve Rodgers

    Thanks for this very helpful and detailed response. Also thanks for not rejecting longer manuscripts out of hand. My hope is that the writing and plot will make or break the book, with wordcount playing a secondary role. But I definitely understand the economic considerations you mentioned, and I’m struggling to see if there’s anything else I can remove (I’ve already reduced by 25K words…)

  2. Thank you for explaining this. As I am editing my book, I find the word count reducing considerably, going under 90K mark. But there are a few more scenes to add, and possibly sub-plots to expand, so no idea how many words it will be eventually. I know it won’t be as much as 125K. But for now, I’m just focusing on the product, and once the final version is ready, I will see if word count will become a problem.

  3. I feel like typing “THE END” never really happens. The world you create seems to play on despite the words ending on paper. I guess the talent comes in knowing when to stop typing and allow the imagination to fill in what follows sans type.

  4. Thanks for the insight. I’m 9 chapters into a first draft of a narrative non-fiction and have been working on the assumption that I’ll know how long it is when it’s finished through final edits. It’s good to know that the subject matter and genre are taken into consideration.

  5. Another insightful post. Thanks!

    Unrelated question regarding conferences: On your website, you list upcoming conferences but the Backspace Writer’s Conference in NYC (May 26-28) is not listed. I know your fellow agent Donald Maass will be there, especially since he’s generously holding an all-day workshop on Saturday. Just curious: are you planning to attend this conference, even just for a quick pop-in?

    Hope all’s well & congrats on the newest book release.

  6. Michael S. Newell

    Thank you for your advice and insight. I have looked up this topic frequently and previously only found the range but no insight on why the range is important to publishers. Very helpful.

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