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