A few years ago, when I first seriously turned my attention to writing, I was enthralled by a project carried out by Christine Frazier called The Better Novel Project. Christine took a research-based approach to all sorts of novel-related questions, including the question “how long should each chapter be?”
I always wished someone would make the same sort of calculation with books written for adults (Christine’s project focused on YA novels). Sadly, The Better Novel Project is no longer online, and The Bestseller Code, which does look at bestselling books for adults, doesn’t tackle such basic problems.
So I realised I would have to take matters into my own hands.
Armed with the bestseller lists from 2022 and 2021, I searched my local library for books that hit that most coveted #1 NYT bestseller spot over the last 12 months, and came up with a list of seventeen.
Many of the authors were on the list back when The Bestseller Code was written, like Jodi Picoult and Stephen King and Paula Hawkins. David Baldacci appears twice, with Mercy and Dream Town. There are two Childs (Lee and his son Andrew wrote a book together). And there are two Clintons – Bill Clinton (writing “with” James Patterson”) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (“with” Louise Penny).
The longest book in the set is Diana Gabaldon’s Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone (a colossal 229,500 words at an estimate), the shortest, Janet Evanovich’s Game On at around 73,500. Unsurprisingly, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone has the most chapters (155!) but Game On has the fourth fewest chapters – the prize for the least chapters goes to Jodi Picoult (18) in Wish You Were Here, which has around 75,000 words.
Average number of pages
The average number of pages in the 17 bestsellers examined was 462, though the single most popular number of pages was 400. Most (12/17) of the books were in the 301-500 page range: as you can see from the graph below, which is skewed to the right, a few outliers like Go Tell The Bees, The House of Sky and Breath, and The President’s Daughter pulled the average up substantially.
Assuming an average of 250 words per page, and discounting around 10 pages for front/back matter, a 304 page book like Evanovich’s Game On is roughly equivalent to 73,500 words, which is approximately the length of novel first-time authors are generally encouraged to aim for. A 480 page book like Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall is roughly equivalent to 117,500 words, or around the upper limit of most recommendations for mainstream novels. But around a third of the novels on the list exceed this limit – often by significant amounts. In fact, the average book examined contained approximately 113,000 words.
Average number of chapters
Unlike page number/word count, which showed a clear clustering around the lower 301-500 page end of the scale with a long tail of outliers, the bestsellers surveyed showed much more variation in terms of how many chapters they were split into.
Ignoring the outliers on the right-hand side of the chart for the moment, we see that the data is fairly normally distributed other than a peak of 3 books in the 71-80 chapters category. (David Baldacci’s Mercy with 81 chapters *just* falls into the next group). Aside from this peak, the most common number of chapters seems to be between 21-40 chapters, but even so, only around a third of books (6/17) fall into these groups.
Choosing slightly bigger groupings, we obtain a slightly simpler, yet still strange shape, with most of the books clustered towards the low end of the scale, and just a couple (Go Tell The Bees and The President’s Daughter) at the upper end.
The “low” end of the scale still exhibits a lot of variation though: a book with 81 chapters, like Mercy has almost five times as many chapters as a book with 18, like Wish You Were Here. Overall, the average number of chapters was 60. But a statistic like that makes little sense on its own.
What we’re really interested in here, though, is the average length of the chapters. After all, it makes sense for a long book to have many chapters, and a short book to have fewer. But is that what is going on?
The average number of words per chapter was 2,400, which is around the figure I’ve seen bandied about online (though infrequently with any sort of evidence to back it up). The shortest chapters in this set were, unsurprisingly, those penned by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, at approximately 1,100 words/chapter (Patterson is famous for his distinctively brief chapters). Although their book was only two-thirds the length of the longest book in the set (Go Tell The Bees), it had almost as many chapters (approximately 90% of Go Tell The Bees’ chapter count).
The longest chapters, were, surprisingly to me, those by Stephen King, at around 5,400 words/chapter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised though: King has had a phenomenal career as a writer, and presumably, is not anxious about sustaining his readers’ interest. Despite being more than 200 pages longer than Hillary Rodham Clinton & Louise Penny’s State of Terror, King’s novel had fewer chapters. (Clearly, the Clintons and their coauthors do not share chapter length preferences: the female writing duo penned chapters almost 2.5 times longer than the male duo).
Plotted in a graph, the trend couldn’t be clearer: most (14/17) of the novels surveyed contain 1001-3000 words per chapter, and almost half (8/17) contained fewer than 2,000 words per chapter. Once again, it is a few outliers bringing up the average: Stephen King, Jodi Picoult and Tessa Bailey. King and Picoult are long-time NYT stalwarts. Meanwhile, Bailey’s average chapter length of 3,900 words is only just out of the typical zone, but even so – it is perhaps telling that even though romance books are commonly derided as “less serious”, Bailey’s Hook, Line and Sinker apparently need not “sink” to to bite-sized chapters to keep readers hooked on the line.
Let’s break down these groupings a little further and see what patterns we can observe:
Around a third of the books analysed had short chapters of 1001-1500 words on average. All except Diana Gabaldson’s Go Tell The Bees were by male authors writing mass market thrillers: Patterson, Thor, Baldacci and Child. Gabaldson’s book is more than double the length of the other books in this section: it is possible that she uses short chapters to keep her readers going in a very long work.
Just two had an average chapter length between 1501-2000 words. These two books were also thrillers, but written by female authors: Apples Never Fall, by Liane Moriarty, which features a missing person, and A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins, which features a murder. As the authors of The Bestseller Code observed through their meticulous analysis, on the whole, female authors tend to write in a slightly more literary/scholarly style, and this may impact chapter length, too: that thrillers in a more populist style fit the 1001-1500 range, and thrillers in a more literary style the 1501-2000 words/chapter range.
A further two books had an average chapter length between 2001-2500 words, Michael Connelly’s The Dark Hours just scraped in at 2100, not much longer than Paula Hawkin’s 2000, and Sarah J Maas’ House of Sky and Breath just scraped in at the other end with 2400. Interestingly, Maas’ Crescent City series is exactly the sort of book – full of fantasy – that The Bestseller Code would predict not to chart. I’d be fascinated to see an analysis of this book’s “fingerprint”.
Then we have the peak of four books in the 2501-3000 words category, all of which are written by women: It Ends With Us, State of Terror, Game On, and The Paper Palace. With the exception of Michael Connelly (who occupies the middle place on the chart), and the exceptional Stephen King (who is a outlier far above any other – his chapters are a whole Patterson or Thor chapter longer than the next closest contender, Picoult’s), all of the male authors are clustered towards the low end, and all of the female authors towards the top. Even more tellingly, the three books by women with the longest chapters all deal primarily with the typically “feminine” theme of relationships (The Paper Palace, Hook, Line, and Sinker, and Wish You Were Here), while the three by either men or women with the shortest chapters are those which deal with traditionally “masculine” topics of crime and war. It seems that literary style and content, unsurprisingly, have more to do with a chapter’s length than the author’s gender presentation.
Of this small sample, the average #1 bestseller had around 400-450 pages, though 300-500 was not uncommon, and anything in the range of 11-90 chapters. There does not seem to be any really hard-and-fast rules to follow here, though less than 10 chapters is probably too few for most typical-length books, and more than 100 too many. These guidelines are broadly in line with what you’re likely to come across in most writing guides and online discussions.
Chapter lengths ranging from 1,000-2,000 words were by far the most popular though up to 3,000 was not uncommon, with the average across all books 2,400. This is perhaps the most useful outcome of our findings.
Of course, there is no “magic number”. How long you make a chapter comes down to a lot more than just counting up to a certain number of words. And having a mixture of longer and shorter chapters may make pacing more interesting for readers – that’s a research question for another day!
It is also the case that New York Times bestsellers may not be the best model for your work.