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How Many Words Should a Book Be?

Updated on March 1, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is a self publishing expert, author of 21 (and counting!) business books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.

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"How many words (or pages) should my book be?" That's a common question I hear from budding, even experienced writers, as they work on their books. The short answer is use as many words as it takes, and no more than that, to tell your story or convey your message. The long answer is a bit more complex.

What are common word counts for books? (And why it may not matter)

As noted in a 2012 Writer's Digest blog post, books that are adult novels usually range from 70,000 on the low end, up to 100,000 or more on the high end. Other fiction works can vary in length, depending on the age of the audience and type of book. Children's books may be only a few thousand words. Nonfiction can be all over the word count spectrum!

Remember, more words do not automatically equate into more value for the reader! Word count is not a measure of word worth!

Remember, more words do not automatically equate into more value for the reader! Word count is not a measure of word worth!

— Heidi Thorne

Book Word Count vs. Pages

Because of the wide variety of standard trade book sizes and layout configurations, estimating how long a book should be by the number of pages is generally not helpful. Similarly, the number of pages in raw manuscripts typed into Word can vary widely based on paper size, margins, font and space options.

Here's where authors need to become savvy marketers who are familiar with their competition. Read, read, read in your genre! Not only is reading a professional development activity to make you a better writer, it also gives you a good idea of what are common book lengths in your market. Especially read those that are best sellers in your arena.

Amazon can also be a help in this research. Search for a similar books to yours on Amazon.com and go to the Product Details area on the book's product page. It will tell you how many print pages that book is. In addition to knowing what successful authors in your market are doing, it will also give you a good idea of what volume of material the readers in this market are willing to accept and absorb.

What about eBooks? Page counts are irrelevant since screen size is determined by the reader's device and choice of font size. However, Amazon shows the number of pages a Kindle eBook would equate to in print, as well as the file size of the eBook, so you can make a rough comparison.

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The "War and Peace" Book Word Count Problem

While I may give them credit for comparing their work to others in their genre (as suggested earlier), I think some writers are plagued by what I call the War and Peace problem.

Leo Tolstoy's classic novel clocks in at significantly over 500,000 words, making it an effective doorstop if you get tired of reading the print version of it. Some writers with visions of literary grandeur think that they need to come up with thousands upon thousands of words, just like War and Peace or other super long work, to be seen as legit in the eyes of their readers. But really they might be trying to be seen as legit in their own eyes.

Interestingly, the War and Peace problem is not limited to fiction. I've come across several nonfiction authors who sport a high word count like it's a badge of honor: "My book manuscript is 150,000 words." I hope my indifference to these brags isn't too obvious. Based on my own focused-topic print books (5.5" X 8.5" trim size), approximately 20,000 words has printed up to about 80-100 pages. Even more in-depth business books than mine can weigh in at the 250-300 page range. So 150,000 words could easily rack up around 700 pages or more in print and up to a couple of pounds of paper weight.

These folks may also be suffering from another word count problem we'll discuss next.

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Brain Vomit and Movie Franchises

Unnecessarily high word counts for book manuscripts can also indicate writers' desire to unload or unleash every possible thought or book idea they have ever had into one, all encompassing work.

Maybe they believe that this is their one shot at writing a book and don't want to leave out anything. At the risk of sounding gross, maybe they do this because they think that vomiting the entire knowledge and creative contents of their brains into one book will make them appear talented and all-knowing. Either way, these high word count works can come off as unfocused, amateur messes.

The most commercially successful authors usually write multiple books, even series of books, to keep their fans engaged—and financially supporting their work—for years to come. Think of your books as if they were movie franchises, with one book building interest in the next. Break up super long manuscripts into relevant installments in your own book "franchise."

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Put Your Nonfiction Book on a Word Count Diet

When I get a high volume nonfiction book manuscripts to critique or edit (usually upwards of 80,000), I can almost bet that I'll find a lot of overused examples and stories.

These manuscripts are stuffed with empty word "calories" from stories about famous people (Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Buddha, Steve Jobs, Stephen Covey, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Hill... pick your favorite icon), quotes (usually from the same cast of iconic characters, as well as a host of other thought leaders), and stories they found on the Internet or elsewhere.

Point is, these aren't THEIR stories or material in any way. I even saw one book of this ilk on the market where I guesstimated that only about 10 percent of the content was the author's original ideas and stories. Yikes! Plus, some of this material may NOT be in the public domain and could prompt a copyright infringement lawsuit. Double yikes!

In addition to the War and Peace problem, I've surmised that this bad writing habit for nonfiction stems from these reasons:

Looking for Authority. Newer or less famous authors may feel that their material isn't good enough. So they include familiar stories from these rare and enlightened icons in the hopes that their books will gain some authority. Honor YOUR power and honor your stories! Don't YOU want to be the one people quote?

Don't Really Have Anything to Say. If you don't have anything to say, don't make great leaders of history or other thought leaders unwilling contributors to your book. Wait until YOUR book and YOUR ideas are developed enough to go to market.

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne

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    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 6 months ago from Chicago Area

      Billybuc, I think 70K to 90K is a comfortable length for novels. But I've read some that were way longer or shorter that work, too. I say whatever works for your audience and story. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great weekend!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I hover between 70,000 and 90,000 in my novels...seems to be a comfortable span for me to work with. As always, great points here. Thank you!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 6 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Lawrence! So, so true. Words are precious. Sounds like you've got a good handle on how to leverage your writing into a continuing series. Kudos! Thanks for sharing your experience with us and good luck with your books!

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      Lawrence Hebb 6 months ago

      Heidi

      Could not agree more. I 'cut my writing teeth' writing copy for advertising here on the net.

      One thing I learned there, don't waste words, they're precious, and shouldn't be abused!

      My first Novella was 47,000 words, the second (follow on) stands at 70,000 and ends with a cliffhanger that leads into the third (in the planning stage, but I'll probably finish 'Coyote' first)

      Great advice.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Coffeequeen! True, I think we've all read books that are a bit light on content... and then there are others. I haven't drummed up the energy to fully read War and Peace either. :) Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 7 months ago from Norfolk, England

      Interesting article. I've read books in the past that I thought could have had more pages in it, and some with less storyline. I've not read War and Peace though!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Suhail! I think I'd opt for a shorter book with more punch to it, too. Agreed, teeny fonts in a 250-page book would be exhausting. Thank goodness we can change font size if it's an eBook. :) But I do think that breaking up a super long work into a series is usually the better choice. Appreciate you adding your two cents. Have a terrific week ahead!

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 7 months ago from Mississauga, ON

      Heidi,

      Great advice in this article! Probably my two cents here will become part of analysis on how long a book should be ha-ha.

      I like non-fiction adventure, but will definitely like a shorter book that has more thrill in it and knowledge, rather than a long book dwelling on writer's inner thoughts and philosophical take on the world.

      I don't mind bits and pieces of everything though.

      I think a book with short fonts over 250 pages is an overkill. One might as well have two or three books in a series kind of thing.

      Regards,

      Suhail and my dog K2

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi AliciaC! True, I've found looking at the product details for competing works to be very useful for many reasons. Hope it helps you get info you'll need at some point. Glad you liked "brain vomit." :) I couldn't think of any better way to express it. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Have a great weekend!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi again, MsDora! Glad you found it helpful. Thanks so much for your support! Have a lovely day!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Terrielynn1! Glad you found it useful. Thanks for stopping by and have a great weekend!

    • Terrielynn1 profile image

      Terrie Lynn 7 months ago from Canada

      Thank you. This article is very helpful.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 7 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for sharing your expertise on these facts and explanations. Good articles for reference.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing the interesting and useful advice, Heidi. I like the idea of looking at the product details area for books on Amazon. I love the phrase "brain vomit"!

    • Lynn Voget Weston profile image

      Lynn Weston 7 months ago from Las Pinas Philippines

      when you writing a book, I don't think it's up to how many works because a story could be very long or short for that matter.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Flourish, you're right. Sometimes more is just, well, more. Thanks for adding that exclamation point to the conversation and for your kind words. Have a beautiful day!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Billybuc, sometimes it take well over 100K words to make your point. In others, maybe 10K. It all depends on the material and the market you want to reach. I know you totally understand. Thanks for adding your experience to the conversation! Have a great day!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 months ago from Olympia, WA

      One of mine is 120,000 words...one is 70,000...the smaller one seemed like a ripoff to me, so I now try to aim for 90,000....just a personal preference.

      Happy Thursday, my friend!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 7 months ago from USA

      This was great. More is not always better. Sometimes it's just more. I love your pointed wisdom.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 7 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Deborah! Thanks for the kind words. Appreciate you stopping by. Namaste to you as well!

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 7 months ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Great article. Short, sweet, and to the point.

      Namaste