How Many Words Should a Book Be?
"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.
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.
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."
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.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
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© 2017 Heidi Thorne