Word count is a major discussion when it comes to the publishing industry. There’s hundreds, if not thousands of opinions on it, from amateurs like myself to editors with twenty plus years of experience. You’ll find dozens, hundreds of other blogs who have talked about this. For specifics, I’m going to discuss mostly first novels, given my own experiences in editing, revising, and how each novel has different needs, but how a writer must also consider the pragmatic and business side of the profession as well.
My general experience, based on research, changing trends, and similar debut novels I’ve studied and observed, is most first novels should range between 90,000-120,000 pre-agent stage. The reason is simple for the following reasons. Economically, these books range between 330-450 pages, depending on how you format your manuscript. My current novel is a snug 415 words, after an additional voice upgrade. But font changes, scene cuts, etc, will often lead to varying changes in the editorial/publisher stage, when you reach that point. These aren’t things to worry about in the querying stage, but the important thing to remember is this: Those 90,000-120,000 words are the essential foundation of your novel. It also shows you can write a story without bloat. It’s the difference between a 130k novel vs a 115k novel with a similar query to yours getting a request.
It’s also a safer investment. Tighter books can be expanded upon later. Often, it’s easier to cut subplots and add them back in during the editorial process. Many books are sold to a publisher with a hard word count, at least initially. Take for example my favorite book of 2017, Kings of the Wyld. Nick Eames finished the story at a meatier 114k when he sold it. His agent asked him to whittle it down to 102k, and when it finally hit the shelf, it ballooned to almost 140-150k. It goes to show, the process is often wonky and each novel has different trajectories.
That said, don’t think it’s an excuse to bloat, an at best 120k epic fantasy, your manuscript to 200k. Often, I find novels that reach this range either show too much (I’ve done this with a monsterish 170k novel I need to condense/tighten to 125k-130k at some point), or they become pace killers. You don’t need to show off every worldbuilding bit, sidestory, or diversionary scene. Summarize, hell, cut it out and imply it in loose narration/dialogue, not every bit of info is going to make the final product.
Word count is somewhat loose, there are exceptions, but don’t think you are the one. Understanding general ranges and agent preferences can give you an edge over your competition.