Word Counts in YA: Why Your 150K Monstrosity is Not Entirely Doomed

August 19, 2009 at 11:40 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

I got a comment on my blog the other day (yes, I actually got COMMENTS) and one commenter mentioned 50K being on the long side for teen readers nowadays. It got me thinking.

When we write YA novels, who are we writing for?

Young adults, of course, but what sort of readers are they? What sort of attention span do they have? I think there are really three options.

1) The Reluctant ADD Reader

This reader is reading your book for a book report/class project/because they are stuck in some confined space without internet access and they have nothing better to do. They don’t really want to be reading your book.

But! There is some hope!

If they’re reading because they’re stuck on a 12-hour plane flight without their laptop, you have the chance to hook them and make them change their minds. You can make them fall in love with your characters, make them wait with baited breath to find out what happens next, make them adore your book. They might even finish it later if they aren’t done by the time the plane lands.

For these people, in my opinion, 40-50 K is an appropriate length. It’s long enough to get them through the plane ride, and short enough that they have a chance of finishing it.

For those readers who are reading your book for a book report, however, the outlook is drearier. If they get a choice in which book to read, they will look for the thinnest paperback in the library. So it’s really not a matter of word count, but how few pages the publisher can manage to print your MS on.

If the English teacher has ordered them to read your book specifically, 50K is much too long. 10K is too long. 10 words is too long. Because THEY DON’T WANT TO READ IT. In all likelihood, they won’t read it. They’ll look it up on SparkNotes and that will be that.

Of course if they do read it, you have that same chance to hook them as you had with the bored traveler.

2) The Regular Reader

These people enjoy reading a good book from time to time, but it’s a casual pastime, not an obsession with the written word. 40-70K is probably a comfortable length, with 50K being a sweet spot. The trouble these people have with longer books is that they usually only read for a half hour at a time. They don’t want a book that’s going to take them six months to read. They’ll have to keep reminding themselves what happened at the beginning.

The good news is these readers are much easier to hook. They read with the expectation that they will be entertained. They’re not the cynical mopers seen in Option 1. As such, these people might still pick up a book that is 100K, or 150K, or even 200K, if these books come highly recommended.

The Regular Reader will read books like HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, even if one of these books is around 256K.

3) The Avid Reader

This is me. I am an Avid Reader. I started reading HP when I was in the third grade. I read LOTR when I was 10.

The Avid Reader does not balk at the sight of a 200K book. If someone tells them it’s a good book, or even if the blurb on the back looks mildly intriguing, they’ll pick it up along with the 50K book, the 63K book, and the 120K book. They will read books of any length. As long as they’re good.

And so, I have come to the following conclusion:

It doesn’t matter how long or how short your book is. It just has to be effing amazing.

As long as the reader opens the book, whether they be a Reluctant Reader, a Regular Reader, or an Avid Reader, you have a chance to capture their interest.

How do you get them to open your book?

In some cases, the reader may make a decision about whether or not to read your book based on thickness (and therefore the word count). But even a Reluctant Reader might pick up a 150K book if they heard it was OMGSOTOTALLYAWESOME.

How do you get them to hear it was OMGSOTOTALLYAWESOME?

Write the world’s most awesome book, and get crazy amounts of publicity and huge mobs of fans to run through the streets screaming about it.

How do you write the world’s most awesome book?

Well, that one I don’t know the answer to.

If anyone does, please leave detailed instructions in the comment section. :)

– Becca (AKA Elusive)

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8 Comments »

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  1. You certainly have a point about people reading hella long books off a recommendation. Look how many people ate Twilight books for breakfast.

    As a kid, I used to pick up books in the library just because they looked ridiculously long. I don’t know how that habit formed. I probably thought that meant good fantasy reading.

    All that matters is the story. Admittedly, I don’t know how to write a guaranteed THISISISOAWESOME book, but I’m pretty sure it starts with the writer getting an idea and thinking THISISSOAWESOME. :D

  2. I think the only thing in the way of a huge book being published is if the writer has not been published before; it means the agent is not sure whether the book really is filled with good stuff, or whether the writer in question just has a serious phobia of getting the chainsaw out to chop out all the infodumping.
    Cool post, Elusive!

  3. I read LOTR when I was ten too! haha definitley an avid reader :) Great post Elu!

  4. You have a good point. I also read LOTR when I was tiny, haha. But, sadly, it all comes down to actually getting that thing published… publishers like shorter books because they’re cheaper to print. Oftentimes a 100k+ book is bloated due to extra words and backstory and whatnot… but like you said, if it’s 120k of pure gold, you can’t count it out.

  5. The problem is that agents and editors will usually axe the hypothetical 150k monstrosity before it ever gets published. You need to get past the gatekeepers before you have a chance with the readers.

  6. Oh yes, for sure. If we think realistically, a debut author will probably have to sneak past the gatekeepers with a nice 50K book, and then, once that book is successful, show them the 150K book that is OHMYGODSOTOTALLYAWESOME. =D

  7. There’s a website called Renaissance Learning that gives the word counts of every book. Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen was a whopper at 92K–and I sailed right through it in two hours.
    Like A Thorn, in comparison, was only 14K, and written by a debut novelist at that (I think. It’s the only one in English that I found by the author). It was around 110 pages, so I guess book lengths mostly depend on the formatting and typography.

  8. This site rocks! Excellent, keep up the good work.


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