A couple of years ago I ordered the bundled ebook of A Game of Thrones. It weighed in at 3936 pages! I’m just thankful I don’t have to lift the book in order to read it. We all hear about mega books and mini books. One of my favorite novels of all time is Helen Hooven Santmyer’s And Ladies of the Club. It has 1176 pages. And of course, who can forget the raised eyebrows when a 350 page debut YA novel was released by an unknown J.K. Rowling? Or even when a blockbuster nonfiction book, The Prayer of Jabez, took the world by storm despite it’s petite postcard size at just 96 pages long.
Looking at those bestsellers it makes sense to conclude that book length hardly matters, right? It’s what’s inside that counts. I recently heard a writer ask a panel of experts a question about book length. One of the panelists smiled and said, “Your book should be as long as it takes to cover your subject or tell the story. Not a word more or a word less.”
That makes for an clever little answer but it’s wrong. Utterly and completely wrong if you are writing for publication
Each genre, each kind of book has an expected size. We expect a children’s picture book to be 32 pages long. If I pick up an historical novel, I expect it to be around 400 to 500 pages long. A skinny historical novel just doesn’t promise the read we’re anticipating. And a hundred-page picture book would overwhelm the average child.
So how long should a book be? There’s a simple answer to this: Look on the shelves of your library or bookstore. Take a stack of books in your genre and record the page length of each one. You’ll get a feel for the average size book in your own particular category or genre.
Here are a few more things to know:
- A quick rule of thumb for estimating printed pages from manuscript word count is that a printed page is usually about 250 words. So a 50,000 word manuscript would net about 200 pages.
- When you sign a contract with a publisher the target word count is usually specified along with the variation allowed. For instance your contract might say 80,000 words plus or minus 15%.
- There is a direct correlation between number of pages and the list price of a book. This is the reason publishers are careful about word count. If you are a debut author would you want your unknown book to be $14.99 when all the other books on the shelf from well-known authors are $12.99? Readers are notoriously price conscious.
- It’s easy to make a case for your book being longer than most in your field and you can certainly point to some of the examples I used in the first paragraph but, trust me, a book outside the normal parameters will have one strike against it when you submit it to a potential agent, a second strike against it when being considered at a publishing house and the third strike at the cash register. Is it worth it to keep trying to peddle that 150,000 word novel?
- By the same token, a 75 page book is more like a pamphlet. It won’t have a wide enough spine to even carry the name of the book. And buyers will expect it to be ninety-nine cents or even free.
- As you continue to write in your category or in your genre you’ll come to sense the rhythm and movement of your book and the word count will almost come naturally.
- Sometimes a certain subject will necessitate a shorter length. For instance books on grief tend to be shorter because a person walking through loss finds it difficult to concentrate for long periods. Books on caregiving are short because there’s precious little time left in a day for a full time caregiver. But you’ll observe these unique trends by doing your shelf research. Always point out the reason in your proposal– it will show a real grasp of your readers’ needs.
I could create a rough list of expected word counts for you but I’m not going to do it because it is important for you to do the work of analyzing the books in your field, in your category or in your genre. Until you begin to understand what the reader has come to expect, it’s very difficult for you to create a commercially viable book.
And here’s an insider secret: We professionals can judge if you’ve done your homework and know your market by your word count. When someone comes to us with woman’s fiction at 60,000 words, we know they have a steep learning curve ahead of them.
So now it’s your turn. Does it bother you to hear the words “commercially viable?” Does it stifle creativity to have to conform to a word count expectation? Should you worry about word count on your first draft? If your book is too long, how do you cut? How about paragraph lengths?
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How long should a book be anyway? Click to Tweet
So what’s wrong with writing a 650-page novel? Click to Tweet