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How Long Should My Book Be?

How Long Should My Book Be?

graffiti-style picture of Wile E. Coyote holding a question mark sign

Can you help me with my book? CC image “questions” courtesy of Daniel Novta on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the twenty million dollar question. Everyone has an opinion. Perhaps you’ve seen what someone else called a “book” that you thought fell short of that title—so short, in fact, “pamphlet” might have been a better term. I’ve had clients roll their eyes at such publications (and in all fairness, I sometimes have, as well). Perhaps you are a goal-oriented writer, and a firm target tickles your fancy. And perhaps you’re a reader who is simply curious. How long should books be?

Write what needs to be written

The true answer, and the annoying one, is that books should be as long as they need to be. Sorry, objective rule-based folks.

With certain exceptions, figuring out how many words you want to write before you write them puts the cart before the horse. A more constructive approach is to ask yourself what the story needs.

How do you need to set the stage? What characters do you need to introduce, and how much back story do we need to have right away? Is there research? Do you need to include setting details? What style are you writing in? Does being concise get you where you want, or should you add more description?

What best serves the story?

In order to drill down to the answer, we need to answer other questions. Who is reading your book? Why did they pick it up? What do they want/need/expect out of it?

Book length and genre: close relatives

When we ask these questions, we are necessarily asking ourselves what genre we’re writing.

Readers of different genres have different expectations and desires. Readers of history and readers of fantasy series, for example, expect a certain weight of information. They want more information, and their story needs more information. These books tend to be longer.

Readers of business and leadership books, especially if you are talking to CEOs or other very busy people with little time on their hands, often prefer shorter texts. Children’s literature is also shorter.

Memoirs and novels are often similar lengths, more so than business books but less than epic fantasy—most of the time (unless you are Donna Tartt).

Book length by the numbers

In publishing, we measure book length in word count, not pages. Think about what an amorphous concept “pages” are: if you’ve gone to school during the age of the computer, I’m willing to bet that for at least one research paper that wasn’t QUITE long enough, you played with the font, font sizes, line spacing, and margins to make it look as though it was.

Printed books have even more variables. Whether you print a 5.5” x 8.5” trim size or a 9” x 11” instantly changes how many printed pages you have. If you insert a lot of images and graphs, you’ll change the number of pages. Your Table of Contents, dedication page, and so on, all take up space—but you’re usually not counting these as part of your book length.

The industry rule of thumb is 250 words to a page. This means that a 25,000-word manuscript makes approximately a 100-page book, and so on.

I don’t recommend publishing a book less than 20,000-25,000 words. You risk running into the pamphlet comparison. Additionally, if your book is too skinny, the printer won’t be able to print the title on the spine. Since most books are displayed on shelves—including at retail outlets, if you go this route—spine-outward, you want to have your name and title visible.

On the flip side, traditional publishing considers books over 110,000 words to be “epic” or “saga” range—and at this length, they are much more expensive to print. You won’t have the print issue in ebook form, though your setup costs may be higher…but a 110,000-word ebook is one helluva long ebook. Will your audience read it?

A nice range for many narrative books, whether fiction or nonfiction, is between 250 and 340 pages. Memoir fits nicely here, too. Business books can be shorter and still successful; again, be careful of diving below the 100-page mark for credibility.

Of course, these are guidelines…and you can choose to break all the rules—once you know what they are.

The bottom line

Avoid driving yourself too crazy about your book’s total word count while you are writing your first draft. Do keep your audience in mind, as well as your genre, to give you outside guardrails, but don’t fixate on the numbers this early in the process. Trust me, they’ll change as you revise and as you go through edits. Do think about your story, and the words you need to tell it well. This is always your best bet.

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