How Long Should a Fantasy Book Be?

It’s a question often asked by aspiring authors wondering if their manuscript is several thousand words too long or short, but it’s also an intriguing one for readers to consider: is there an ideal length for a fantasy novel?

Every book is different and for any suggested word or page count you see, you are likely to encounter several popular fantasy books that are outside of it. Nonetheless, as someone who reads a lot in the genre and has also submitted work to competitions, agents and publishers, I thought I’d tackle this topic from three different perspectives:

  • how long popular published fantasy novels are,
  • how long the industry (agents, publishers, competitions) prefers them to be,
  • how long readers prefer them to be.

How Long Are Popular Fantasy Books?

Fantasies are known for their long word counts and tendency to stretch into series of epic proportions (If you want examples, this post over at Bookwraiths lists some of the longest fantasy series out there).

To see what this means in actual figures, I’ve created some charts below that show the word counts and page numbers of popular fantasy novels in different sub-genres. I’ve tried to include mostly first-in-series books, since sequels can often grow to larger proportions, and the first book gives a better idea of the length of the story that first ‘hooked’ readers and the publisher/agent:

Word counts are from Accelerated Reader Bookfinder or other online sources and have been rounded to the nearest 1000 (counts can vary depending on parameters so these are not hard and fast figures). Page counts are from paperbacks on my shelf or Goodreads. Page numbers can vary from edition to edition due to text, layout and paper sizing.

Epic High Fantasy

For more epic fantasy word counts, check out this list on Fantasy Faction.

Paranormal and Urban Fantasy

YA and Children’s Fantasy

NOTE: The Hunger Games is more of a YA dystopia than a YA fantasy but I included it for interest’s sake. For more YA examples, including more dystopias, check out this list on Brett Orr’s Site.

You can see there is a lot of variation in word length, especially in epic high fantasy, where books can stretch beyond 200,000 words or sink as low as 50,000. However, paranormal and YA fantasy books appear to remain largely in the 80-120,000 range, with books targeted at children or younger teenagers sometimes dipping to 50-70,000.

It’s worth noting that YA fantasy books often appear to be longer than general fiction YA books – so the fantasy element still seems to result in increased word count.

How Long Does the Industry Prefer Fantasy To Be?

Publishers

Here are some word count guidelines major fantasy and science fiction publishers have given during open submission rounds:

TOR UK: “For direct submissions we only consider complete and unpublished science fiction, fantasy and horror novels, written in English of between 95,000 – 150,000 words.”

Gollancz: “We will only consider SF, Fantasy, Horror or YA Crossover novels. They must be complete and more than 80,000 words.”

Angry Robot: “The ideal novel length depends on the genre in which you’re writing, as well as what is the right length for the specific book you’re writing. In general terms, we’re looking for (approximately) 70-110,000 for SF, or 95-140,000 for fantasy.”

DAW: “The average length of the novels we publish varies, but is almost never fewer than 80,000 words.”

Agents

While many agents say they won’t reject a book solely based on length, many also say they take word count into consideration. I’ve heard and read several reasons for this, including:

  • printing longer books is more expensive (over 100 or 110K can get expensive to print) so less appealing to publishers
  • they worry the book may be unnecessarily long (i.e. not well edited, lacking pace, containing extraneous detail)
  • there are ‘sweet spots’ for book length in which successful books tend to fall for certain genres
  • they receive many submissions and have limited reading time

Word count suggestions will vary from agent to agent, for example Janet Reid (a literary agent with a fantastic blog) suggests 150K minimum for sweeping epic fantasy, saying “you can’t do it right in less” and 65-100K for YA, whereas Nathan Bransford thinks your odds of attracting an agent with a debut novel over 150K are probably lower (though he’s not speaking about fantasy specifically). Former agent Colleen Lindsay wrote a good post on Fantasy word lengths that suggests a more cautious 120K, pointing out that:

“most of those ‘big fat fantasy’ books you see on the shelf actually only have a word count of about 100k to 120k. The exceptions are usually authors who’ve already had an established track record of sales with previous – shorter – books, like George R.R. Martin. And, yes, once in a great while you will see an incredibly long debut novel. But the writing has to be absolutely stellar; knock-down, drag-out, kick-you-in-the-teeth amazing.”

This article on Writer’s Digest also suggests a length of around 100-115,000, and takes a good look at desirable word count ranges for different genres.

Competitions

I once entered a competition that set a maximum word limit of 80,000 for young adult novels and 100,000 for adult novels. My manuscript was a 140,000-word YA fantasy. They only wanted sample chapters, so I ignored the limit, thinking I might not even get shortlisted. Happily, I did, but then I had to figure out how to cut my manuscript by nearly half. I threw out whole subplots and characters until I had it somewhat close to 80,000 words.

The pain was worth it, because I got selected, met some other great aspiring writers, and received valuable editorial feedback from a publisher. But I later realised I had perhaps fretted too much about following the rules: a 100K manuscript would’ve probably still been accepted. Sure, some things were improved by all that cutting, but others weren’t, and many of the publisher’s suggestions involved adding words, so my book went back up to 120K. However, for some agents and publishers I subsequently submitted it to this was still too long, and I received feedback that it could be shorter.

When entering other competitions, I regularly saw suggested word ranges of 60-100,000 words (50-80 being more the range for YA) for manuscripts, sometimes with higher limits of 120 or 150,000 words for fantasy, especially epic fantasy. For example, the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award guidelines in 2012 said they were looking for:

“a complete and previously unpublished work of fiction of not less than 80,000 words and not more than 150,000 words aimed at adult readers and written in the English language”.

What all of this taught me is that if you’re going the traditional publishing route and submitting work as a debut author, you may not have the luxury of ignoring your word count. Your 200K or 50K fantasy could indeed catch an agent’s eye, but its length might exclude it from opportunities that a 100K novel could take advantage of.

How Long Do Readers Think Books Should Be?

Without extensive sales statistics it’s hard to say how the size of a book does or doesn’t affect its popularity. This post on Fantasy Author’s Handbook does point out that many of the bestselling books of all time (of which many are fantasy novels) are not the 200,000 word epics many associate with the genre.

I know fantasy readers who like epic tomes and are drawn to a nice fat book on the shelf, just as I know others who may be put off by that same book. Here are some arguments I’ve heard from both camps:

Reasons From Fantasy Readers Who Prefer Shorter Books:

  • Less intimidating to pick up, especially if the reader is a ‘must-finish-whatever-I-start’ type reader. I don’t hesitate to give up on a book if I’m not enjoying it after a certain number of pages, but I used to be more obsessive about finishing every book I started and I know other readers who are this way.
  • Makes it easier to achieve reading goals or Goodreads challenges.
  • Less ‘padding’ or ‘filler’, i.e. unnecessary asides, descriptions or scenes/sub plots.
  • Easier to listen to as audiobooks. For me personally a 10-15hour book is a nice easy listen, over 30hours can be a slog and I avoid it.
  • Easier to get fatigued when reading a long book. I am more likely to give up on a long book if it’s not riveting, whereas I might still finish a lacklustre shorter book since it reaches the climax more quickly.
  • Long books may have slow beginnings that take a while to warm up.

Reasons From Fantasy Readers Who Prefer Longer Books:

  • Enjoyment of immersion in a larger story. Length provides space for more characters, details, sub plots, and narrative ups and downs.
  • Extensive world building. You can discover more about the world and its characters and become more lost in it.
  • Perceived value for money. If two books cost the same but one is three times as long, the longer one is giving you more entertainment for your money.
  • No ‘shrinking to fit’ or rushing of the story, i.e. there’s no sense an editor has ruthlessly chopped it down to size.
  • It’s part of a beloved series/fantasy world that you want to spend as much time in as possible.
  • Looks more impressive on your book shelf or in your pages-read-this-year count (okay, no one has ever said this to me but I can’t help but feel it must play a role in some small way!)

For me personally, length does influence my reading choices to some degree, and I’m more likely to pick up a book that is shorter. I would label a book “long” once it’s over 500 pages, which I guess would be roughly 140,000 words or more depending on the printing. I certainly won’t exclude a book of this size if it comes highly recommended, but I may delay reading it.

However, many fantasy readers would feel differently – for example, the author of this article: Does Size Matter in Epic Fantasy, clearly prefers her epic fantasies to be longer.

In Summary

Ultimately, the ‘ideal book length’ for a fantasy could vary from reader to reader, sub genre to sub genre, agent to agent, and publisher to publisher… but looking at it from all angles, I personally think a fantasy book in roughly the 90-120,000 word range would be well placed on all fronts… perhaps with allowance for up to 150,000 for an epic fantasy, and down to 60,000 for YA or paranormal fantasy.

________

How long do you think a fantasy book should be? Do you prefer shorter or longer books? And if you’re a writer, do you tend to end up with modest or epic word counts?

Advertisements

31 thoughts on “How Long Should a Fantasy Book Be?

  1. I’m surprised to see such high allowances for epic fantasy! I’m an epic writer myself, and I often get discouraged by word count limits that consider anything over 100k to be too risky for a debut author. I understand my 200k first drafts have to be cut down, but I wonder how I can possibly get to 90k (for example) without gutting the life out of it.

    Anyway. I’m usually hesitant to pick up long books, too, unless the premise hooks me and the story/worldbuilding promises to be worth the time. (Like the Stormlight Archives… as long as those books are, I’m in despair when I hit the last page.) That’s the main thing–however long it is, the story must be well told, or it gets abandoned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think epic fantasy writers often get the wrong impression because we see general book length limits based on other genres (genres where agents would be wary of over 100K). I know I thought a debut fantasy had to be 100K or under for a long time too (I can totally relate to having a 200K first draft and wondering how on earth to get it to 90K without ruining it!) – it wasn’t until looking at some suggested lengths from fantasy publishers that I realised debut epic fantasy can be longer.

      And I agree, if a book is really well told and grabbing then the word count isn’t important. There are many series I love so much I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if a 1000-page sequel came out! I still need to read the Stormlight Archives though (I LOVED Mistborn).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a really great compilation of info here. Thanks! I think a lot of publishers look for those long word counts because they a too focused on epic fantasy. This is probably due to the serial nature of such works, which seemed to be better money makers. It seems to be a flawed way of thinking though. If you look at the Discworld books, they are short, but it allowed Pratchett to write 40 of them! I imagine that was a much better way to make money. Now TOR UK says they wouldn’t even accept the Colour of Magic because of it’s low word count? Ha! It’s funny, the fantasy book I am working on is looking to be around 60K words, maybe more. But I’m doing something with structure that warrants a shorter length.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the Discworld books are a good example of how epic fantasy doesn’t need to be massive – I like the fact that each story is short, but shows a different aspect of the world, or a different character. The Gunslinger is also a good example – I had no idea it was only 55K when I read it! I knew it wasn’t massive (that’s one of the reasons I decided to give the audiobook a go actually) but I certainly didn’t worry about the length. In the end it wasn’t really my cup of tea so I didn’t continue, but I can see how its structure allowed it to be short, and I hear the actual series gets very long with multiple books. So if you’re structure works at 60K then I don’t think anyone would care about its length.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well I’m not trying to write an epic either. 🙂 I don’t know if I would call Discworld epic fantasy either. Sure it has a lot of world building, but I feel like epics are collections where all that building is focused on a singualr plot line. So in Tolkien’s world, all the background, as beautiful as it is, is just there to set up Frodo’s quest. But maybe that’s just me.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes true Discworld is more comic fantasy and isn’t really your traditional ‘epic’ fantasy (I just tend to just use ‘epic fantasy’ generally to refer to non-real-world type fantasy… ‘high fantasy’ would probably more accurately reflect what I mean), so if you’re not attempting a Tolkien-style epic then word count matters even less!

          Liked by 1 person

        • I wasn’t thinking so much about the comedic style of Discworld so much as thr structure and how the books fit together. I imagine you could have a comedy epic. Hitchhiker’s Guide might be a close example. With Discworld you can read the books out of order if not separately. I feel like any book in a in an epic series requires you to read all the preceeding books.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yes true, though I also tend to associate epic fantasy with massive worlds where you can jump around to different time periods or characters and read them out of order… but I guess it just depends what your personal take on the “epic” in epic fantasy is.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow this post is truly amazing!! I love the level of detail!! I’m actually really surprised by the lengths of some of these books- some of which I like and some of which I don’t (eg Daughter of Smoke and Bone and even Name of the Wind- cos they just didn’t feel that long- and like Twilight- cos I can’t believe they didn’t cut that down). I have to admit I am surprised publishers say that they want longer novels, given that as you said, agents prefer shorter ones so that they are less expensive to print. And well done on getting selected- that’s incredible!! I actually can be a bit torn on this- cos personally I can look at something like Name of the Wind and be happy that it was a tome, because it gave me something to sink my teeth into, but then I can look at something like Eye of the World and feel like I’m dying inside cos it just won’t get to the point… And on the other end of the spectrum I love a nice short Pratchett- especially cos those are the kind of book I can enjoy in just one sitting- which is a huge bonus- cos then I really feel like I saw the story arc evolve! So really for me it just depends on quality. And as for when I write… I’m gonna be a bit controversial/blunt and say I ignore the rules- because to be totally cliché “how long is a piece of string”- if the story ends before I get to 80000 words then the story ends… and if it goes over 150k… ok it’s never gonna go over 150k- that’s really not my style 😉 Plus, like you said, it also depends on the type of fantasy (ie whether it’s YA or epic etc) Anyway- this was such a comprehensive piece and really well researched!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!! I was also surprised to see some of the lengths when I looked them up. Particularly with Mists of Avalon – I saw 416K and thought “surely that can’t be right?” then went and grabbed my copy… and yeah, it’s pretty huge. I was also surprised by the publishers listing up to 150K, or no upper limit at all, because as you said it would add to cost… but then I guess if they see how successful massive books like Name of the Wind are maybe they don’t want to get too restrictive. Also with ebooks gaining ground I guess length doesn’t always add to cost.

      I totally understand being torn on the lengths. I read Eye of the World and considered continuing, but the series is HUGE, and I didn’t love it enough to invest that much time. With the Cinder or Throne of Glass series though I really don’t care that each book seems to get longer and longer – more immersion time!

      And I think that’s a very healthy attitude with your own writing – I have a similar policy for my first drafts (it’ll be as long as it needs to be!) because I once made the mistake of rushing the end of a draft due to fretting over the length, then later realised it would have been better to write it properly and then edit it down. But I’m afraid with later drafts I have to be more ruthless – I have a tendency to overwrite and my last one was 240K! (fortunately I’ve since realised 100K of it is fairly useless so cutting hasn’t been hard).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Phew- that is huge!!! Ah that’s very true- and it does make sense!! it seems like a smart move! And I’m definitely not complaining about it- more books like Name of the Wind would be very welcome 😉
        haha very true- when I’m already invested in a series, I feel totally fine with them going on longer- like you said, more immersion time!
        Ahh that makes a lot of sense!! Wow- that’s very impressive!! And like you said, you can always cut it down later 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Fantastic post – absolutely fascinating insight into the industry. I have to admit, while I don’t mind the odd doorstopper (I just finished a 900-page epic) they can be a little tiresome…it would be nice to have a few shorter fantasy novels and novellas in the market, especially by established authors. One-off novels rather than series would be appreciated too – it can be hard to finish long fantasy series because of “book creep”; I don’t only read fantasy so I simply don’t have the time or willpower to slog through multiple epics quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I also really appreciate one-off novels – it’s nice to know you’ll get a resolution within the one story, and not feel you’re signing yourself up for multiple books. A few of my favourite fantasy and sci-fis are stand-alones. To be honest I am also often hesitant to start series that are too massive… even though I largely just read fantasy, I like to jump between a variety of stories and authors and am reluctant to dive into one if it’s going to tie me up for more than 3 books… unless it looks like something I’ll really love of course!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My kibitz on your High Fantasy category: Leguin’s Wizare of Earthsea was originally intended for a YA audience.

    That said, I suspect there’s a correlation between publication dates and length. The shorter books at the top of your graphs seem like they mostly were published earlier. Dragonflight and Wizard of Earthsea both were first published in the 1960s or ’70s.

    With the success of Tolkein’s epic series, I think that book lengths started growing, and there was more detail of the world building expected (or at least accepted) in fantasy than in other categories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True, I did um and ah about whether to put Earthsea in YA chart as I know it is YA… but because it’s such a classic high fantasy and so often read by adults, I ended up putting it in the high fantasy one. There are probably others there that could also be construed as YA, but because so many epics start with young characters it was hard to draw the line… so I just tried to put ones more obviously aimed at young audiences in the YA chart. (I always have trouble dividing books into exclusive sub-genres for charts and things because it’s so hard to decide where to put them!)

      Now you mention it, that’s true that the publication dates on those shorter ones are earlier – maybe fantasies have indeed gotten longer over time. That would be an interesting topic to look into further… though to survey enough books to prove it definitively would take a lot of time!

      Like

    • Thanks 🙂 I also like seeing actual numbers, even if they are just guidelines. It’s all very well to say “as long as you feel it should be” but if you are trying to attract agents or readers with something way shorter or longer than what people expect, I think you could be shooting yourself in the foot a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. If I’ve got about 250,000 words in my story, I’d be thinking it’s three 80-110k books. That lets me add some extraneous backstory without being too pedestrian while following the familiar three-act trilogy. I’ve never completely enjoyed books crossing over into epic (150k+) reads.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I tend to prefer books to be 150K or under too. I actually recently wrote a long first draft that I ended up rethinking and splitting into two books for the second draft, and I think it’s working much better now (structurally as well as length wise) – so I’ve found splitting to be a good approach!

      Like

  7. I am 250k into my epic and am also thinking of splitting into three parts. It does leave scope for further world building and a less challenging look on the shelf, however having said that I have never been put off by large works and actually seek them out rather than smaller works, depending on my reading needs at the time. (I read The Return Of The King, cover to cover, without break.) The whole of Lord of the Rings in about four days. Epic fantasy junkie.
    I write because I enjoy it and don’t allow any external pressures to dictate how the story runs, my world and characters decide how long the work will need to be.
    Once my book is finished to my satisfaction I will then talk to an editor about content and such, I am only human though some may suggest otherwise. This is my debut novel, as I had only ever written poetry before, and short excerpts for my own purpose. It was gratifying to see some of those works held up as an example of, high standard. I had thought about a novel before and now am really enjoying the journey, even learning about a thing called grammar.
    My mindset is to write well enough that large word count is not a handicap, that is the standard I hope to achieve.
    Great article, very useful, another tool in my writing kit.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found it useful – and yes I know people who aren’t intimidated by giant books and will even seek them out. I think fantasy readers, especially epic fantasy readers, are used to longer works in general – I just personally tend to more readily pick up shorter reads. But the main thing of course is that the story is holding my attention and told well, regardless of length.
      Certainly while writing I don’t think writers should be fretting about the word count – it’s the kind of thing to think about when editing, if it needs thinking about. Anyway, best of luck with your novel!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s