More #GUTGAA–with analysis this time

I have entered yet another pitch contest in #GUTGAA, this time the small press pitch contest. The only difference is that instead of agents being the ultimate judges (as in the agent pitch contest earlier), this time it’s small press… people. Editors? Talent scouts? I don’t actually know their titles. (But I’m sure they’re awesome. One of them has even voted for my entry so far!)

I decided to enter Blackout this time instead of City of Magi for a lot of the reasons I mentioned in earlier posts. Though I think City of Magi is my best work, Blackout is “pitchier.” I know I sound like a TV Singing show judge, but what I mean by that is that it’s an easier pitch to an agent. Blackout is Urban Fantasy with a religious mythological theme. It’s short (kind of—more on that later). It’s more modern, and it’s a lot more like stuff that’s getting a lot of press today.

Before I go further, I’d like to try and absolve myself: I don’t intend anything I say as an insult, though if you read it with the right voice in your head, it certainly can sound that way. You see, one thing this contest has taught me is that I understand very, very little about the modern female mass-lit consumer. And there are so, so many of them. I pitched Blackout in this contest because I specifically think it appeals more to women—not in its actual content (the female characters are much better developed and stronger overall in City of Magi), but in its pitch, and that’s largely because I hit all the checkboxes. Urban Fantsasy. Under a hundred thousand words. Protagonist is a mid-to-low income teacher. Part of the struggle is how the events of the plot affect his love life.

Now, my analysis here (pitch to women, because they’re the consumers) is not based simply on a hunch. In fact, I did a little compiling of the data. There were thirty-two entries in the adult literature category. One of them was a nonfiction analysis of humor essay that really didn’t fit in, so for the below data, consider that one as having been set aside. Hence, there were thirty-one entries.

Of those thirty-one, no fewer than 20 were what I would call (and again, not as an insult) “chick lit.” I mean this in the same vein as “chick flicks,” which, to my knowledge is not used in a derogatory manner except by people who hate romcoms. Chick flicks tend to do very well in the cinema, and I have no doubt (particularly now) that chick lit does just as well at the bookstore. I classified an entry as chick lit if it met one of the following categories:

  1. Its stated genre was “Romance,” “Romantic Comedy,” “Paranormal Romance,” or “Women’s Fiction” (and if you don’t want your book to be called chick lit, but you market it as women’s fiction… c’mon… really?)
  2. The first two sentences established the protagonist as a plucky, determined woman trying to right her life when everything gets complicated, and she has to deal with the sullen but handsome detective snooping around her… you get the picture. If it took me all of five seconds to say “Ahhh… this book is aimed at women,” then I lumped it in there. If I had any hesitation, I didn’t include it.

Of the entries mentioned, 12 were assigned to chick lit by their self-professed genres, and 8 were my own intuition. You’re welcome to do your own analysis (or try to guess which 8 that were not automatically assigned I thought were clearly for women) by seeing the whole list at Tara Tyler’s blog. Two thirds of the entries sounds a bit high for just chance. There’s a lot of it out there. By comparison, just 8 of the others were fantasy or urban fantasy, so if you add the three paranormal romances you’d be up to 11 out of 31 entries as fantasy. Six were mainstream or literary fiction (one of which I counted as chick lit), two were genuine hard science fiction, two were thrillers, and two were historical fiction. There is some double counting in there, so the numbers don’t add up to 31, but that gives you a sense of the breakdown. There’s some fantasy going on, but holy Mary mother of Jesus is there a metric ton of chick lit.

Now, I suspect some of this is just the nature of the contest I entered, the people who knew Deanna Barnhart (who I can’t thank enough for putting this together) or followed her blog, and in that way it may be skewed toward this audience. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s less skewed than it looks. Maybe that’s the shape of the modern reading market, and because I’m not a part of that audience, I didn’t know how significant it was.

Something else that really blew my mind was the length of the entries. Now, there was one monster at 240K, which is actually shorter than the non-split version of City of Magi, but if you throw out that entry and the essay, the average length of all entries was 82,456 words. That puts me on the long end with what I felt was my “short” book at approximately 99,000 words. Pouring through comments from the agent competition and the small press competition, there appears to be consensus that books should only ever be up to 90K or so in length. 100K was just excessive, and the absolute max publishable length (from one comment) was 150K.

I have to admit, this all leaves me speechless. I had researched this before, and I thought the target was 120K on submission (to hit something like 400 pages). This is particularly true given that the first thing any good editor is going to do is look for what she can cut out of the book. They want to trim the fat and they don’t do that by asking for longer descriptions. A 120K manuscript can easily become a 95K published book in the hands of a particularly vicious (and I mean that in a good way) editor. How long does a submitted 80K manuscript end up? I can’t imagine paying for a 70K book. I have literally never read a book that short, and I would assume something of that size was intended for a younger audience. Is this the face of chick lit? Am I missing the audience or am I looking at a completely different crowd from where I usually am, at least in fiction today?

In reverse order, the last books I have read are:

  1. The entire Game of Thrones series (these are all massive)
  2. The entire Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (~600 pages each)
  3. The Hunger Games (~100K words, the rest of the series was a little shorter)
  4. Spell Bound by Kelley Armstrong (350ish pages, so approximately 100K)
  5. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (333 pages, so approximately 95K)


I never read books that are shorter than 90K, it would seem. It isn’t at all the case that I think you need that kind of length to be complete or to be interesting. I don’t doubt that great stories can be told in 50,000 words or less. I’m just stunned by the view that you can’t be longer than 90K if you want to get published as a first time author, or that books longer than 150K are “out of style” as one commenter in the agent contest mentioned. Out of style? Did people never pick up any of the Harry Potter books? The first Harry Potter was 77K, but the last four were all close to 200K, and I enjoyed them all. Is Game of Thrones (first book, 284K, and that was the shortest one) not the most popular work of fantasy in the world right now? If I go back further in my reading queue, you’ll find Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind (259,000) and A Wise Man’s Fear (399,000), both of which are insanely awesome and very long.

Again, I don’t think you need length, but I have a hard time seeing people get turned off by it.

UPDATE: With three out of four judges voting for Blackout, I moved on to the finalist round! Thanks to all the judges and congratulations to all the other finalists.

About the Author

Written by MRM

I'm a speculative fiction writer that spent lots of time trying out new places to live before finally settling in NC. I love code, craft beer, football, and fiction - in no particular order. My currently running works of serial fiction can be found on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. If you're comfortable moving files around to your ereader of choice, always pick Smashwords as your e-bookstore of choice - they give authors a much bigger slice of the pie!

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