In my spare time I like to critique queries, and one of the curious things I’ve noticed is that the most concrete parts of the query are often the most contentious. Chief among these is length. Nobody wants to hear that their manuscript isn’t a publishable length, and there’s no definitive resource on the question. There are all kinds of blog posts on the matter, but they’re fuzzy on where the numbers came from and some of the ranges, especially for YA, seem suspect. Many seem too low (as low as 40,000 words minimum, or 160 pages), a few seem too high (up to 150,000), and the most common range cited (50,000-80,000) seems too narrow. After all, I queried Among the Red Stars at 82,000 words and I never received any feedback saying it was too long.
A couple of problems might be at work here. First, many of these word counts are based on published books, not queries. Published books may have changed length since being queried or they may not have been queried at all. Older books might not reflect the current market. And since word count information isn’t easily available, some of these numbers may have been estimated based on page counts and may not be all that accurate. Other times, the suggested word count seems to be based only on common wisdom with no reference to real books at all.
I crunched the numbers in Carissa Taylor’s excellent query database to find the word counts of real YA books that were successfully queried. Yes, I am adding one more entry to the giant pile of blog posts about word count written by people with no special qualifications, but I’m wielding the power of statistics and being transparent about my source and methods. I’ll be limiting myself to YA since that’s been the usual point of contention; you can use the same database to analyze other age categories if you’re curious.
This database contains 205 YA books. The highest word count was 115,000, the lowest was 47,000, and the average was 75,000. The standard deviation was 14,000 words. That gives us a rough range of 61,000-89,000 words, with about 3 out of 4 queried YA books falling into that range. We immediately see that the commonly-cited range of 50,000-80,000 is about 10,000 words too low. It’s also too narrow, since a respectable number of queries fall outside that range.
For more information, I made a histogram. (See, kids? You will use this in real life!) This graph shows that the most common word count is 76,000-80,000, at the very upper end of the range usually cited. On the lower end, anything above 56,000 words is golden. Higher word counts are a bit less common, but values up to 100,000 are still well represented. The lower bound is indeed around 50,000, but that’s the extreme low (bear in mind, three of the five books in the 46,000-50,000 range were 50,000 words even). One piece of common wisdom is true: It’s virtually impossible to sell a YA book over 100,000 words. There’s a sharp cutoff there, with only a few fantasy and historical-fiction stragglers weighing in longer.
What about genres? YA contemporary averages 69,000 words, whereas fantasy averages 83,000. Other genres, taken together, are about the same length as YA overall (there aren’t enough data points to break down genres like thriller, sci-fi, and historical fiction individually). The commonly cited range, then, seems to be based specifically on contemporary YA. YA fantasy runs significantly longer. It also has an especially broad distribution, so overall, a YA fantasy author shouldn’t be too concerned if their book falls outside a certain range, especially on the upper end.
In summary, the commonly-cited range of 50,000 to 80,000 words does not accurately represent the actual YA books being queried and sold. (In comparison, the database gives an average length of 89,000 words for adult fiction excluding fantasy, smack in the middle of the commonly-cited range of 80,000-100,000.) While 50,000 words is a fairly firm minimum, plenty of YA books reach up to 100,000 words, with a sweet spot at 75,000-80,000.
Don’t rely on common wisdom when it comes to querying. Look at what’s actually selling. You may be surprised.