Word count vs. page count

A reader writes to ask:

I've been speaking with an agent who has expressed keen interest in my sci-fi/humor novel, and what she's telling me is that while she really digs it, the manuscript is simply coming in too long for most publishers to take a look at. Unbeknowst to me (rookie mistake), I need to reformat the mansucript using Courier 12 point, which is blowing my page count sky-high (I wrote in Times Roman).

The agent is also telling me that I need to get it down below 480 pages Courier for publishers to be willing to look at it. My mansucript is 120,000 words and change, but is coming in at 730 pages Courier 12 point. Any thoughts about anything I might be doing wrong, if anything?

Is she on point? Is the page count more significant than the word count?

I hate being so close and yet feeling like I might be so far.

I'd appreciate any feedback you can offer me.

A lot of points to address here in this message! As far as your mechanical problem goes, without looking at your manuscript I can't be sure what you're doing wrong in your word-processing program that's making your page count so high. Check your margins carefully to be sure they are 1 inch all the way around. Check to be sure you're double-spacing your text and not triple-spacing it, because that alone would explain why your page count is about 50% higher than it should be.

480 pages in Courier 12 is going to yield a manuscript of between 120,000 and 140,000 words, depending on your margins, so your novel should be fine as-is, without any cuts, if you can just get your formatting problems ironed out.

For the record, 120,000 words sounds about right as a cap for an average first novel, although longer ones certainly do sell and get published. Assuming for a moment that your word count is wrong and the book really is longer than your agent wants it to be, you have to weigh her advice in relation to your own instincts as a writer. Cutting a manuscript down to size is often a very effective exercise for improving a book, but it's not right for every book. Try to get your agent to offer more specific suggestions for why this book should be shorter, and for plot elements or other specifics that could be trimmed. Try to assess whether she is trying to make the book better or just trying to get you down to a target word count on general principle. She very well might be right to ask you to cut the book, but you have to make that decision yourself.

For the record, any editor worth his or her salt, especially at a major house, is going to understand that word count is what's important to the size of the published book, not the page count of your manuscript. Just a glance at the height of the stack and the size of the font will be enough for most editors to estimate a ballpark word count, which tells them how long a book they're really dealing with.

One last point. It's not necessarily a mistake to print your manuscript in Times Roman. Courier has traditionally been the accepted default, but times have changed and the editor who would reject a manuscript out of hand these days because it's printed in Times Roman is rare indeed. The best guide is still to use Courier unless an agent or editor explicitly requests a different font in his guidelines, but it's certainly not a dealbreaker to use something attractive and readable like Times Roman or Georgia. (You should definitely avoid sans-serif fonts like Arial and Helvetica, though.)  

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