Quick, which one of these books has more words in it?
Have a guess? The book on the left has 516 pages, which at about 330 words per page means it probably has about 170,000 words, give or take. That’s long for an industry that doesn’t like to go too much over 100,000.
But the book on the right is a New Testament, and while translations vary, the New Testament has about 180,000 words, more than the big novel. In this case, those 180,000 words are squeezed onto 384 pages less than a quarter the size.
How do publishers fit so many words in such a small space? Everything about it is compressed: thinner paper, much smaller print (appears to be 6-point), less space between lines, and smaller margins. The same thing happens to a lesser degree with paperback novels. The hardcover and paperback editions of the same novel will be very different in size, but will often have the same number of pages (and of course words).
If you want to be mindful of publishing while you’re writing (but don’t let it distract you!), word counts are important to pay attention to for pacing. After all, if your novel has 300,000 words, it’ll be hard to get it published as anything but a trilogy. Looking at the word counts for your favorite novels is a good point of reference, but you have to do a little more homework than just looking at the size of the book or the number of pages.
For most novels, 330 words per page is a pretty good estimate, since the formatting is pretty standard across publishers. There are exceptions, though. For example, US editions of the Harry Potter books average about 260 words per page. You can kind of tell by looking if the formatting is standard or not, but if you’re not sure, try counting the words on an average page and multiplying by the number of pages.
Of course, the important thing is to write the story you want to tell first…even if your 30,000 word novella awkwardly morphs into a 70,000 word novel. You can always clean it up on the second draft.