How long should your book be?

When you complete a book proposal form for a publisher,  one of the key fields you must complete is ‘extent’: how long will your book be, in thousands of words?

Publishers need this information so they can create a p&l, a profit and loss spreadsheet for your book, to see if they can make a profit from it. But YOU need to know it too, even if you’re not planning to submit a proposal. Why is that? you may ask. Why not just start writing and see where you finish?

1.     Because you may never finish. There’s always more to say, and if you don’t know what you’re aiming for, how are you going to know when you get there?

2.     Because if you end up writing a 100,000-word book, you’ll either have to cut half of it out or end up with a book that’s so expensive to produce that you have to price it too higher and/or limit the number of free copies you can afford to give out.

3.     Because once you know how long you want it to be, you can start breaking that down to get the balance between the different sections right. See hierarchy.

What’s the right length for your book?

Well, there’s no hard and fast rule, but this one is around 50,000 words, and if I’d had more time I’d have trimmed it down to 40,000. If you’re writing over 55,000 words for a business book, it might be time for the blue pencil. Less is more. 

For the standard business book format, 5.5 x 8.5 inches or 216 x 138mm, you’ll get about 250 words per page depending on spacing, subheads and so on. Add 16 pages or so for prelims and endmatter, allow for any illustrations, and you can roughly calculate how many pages that equates to. Under 100 pages and you’ll struggle to be able to print the title on the spine; over 300 pages and you’re demanding a serious commitment from your reader, and if you’re paying the production costs yourself you’ll be sharing the pain.

Less is more.

Bernadette Jiwa writes brilliant books. Books like Difference, Marketing: A Love Story and Hunch. And one of the first things you notice about them is that they’re very short. Beautifully, enticingly, ‘it-would-so-easy-to-read-this’ short. I asked her about it.

‘You know what I noticed? I go into bookshops all of the time, and I watch people buying books, or actually more browsing books and putting them back, and I would encourage you, if you’re a writer, to go and do this. You can see people weighing a book in their hands nowadays… They flick through the first few pages, they look at the cover, and then they think, “I haven’t got time for this.”… I said, “Okay, how can I write books that people will read all the way to the end, they can open at any page and find something interesting or useful or inspiring or actionable, and they’ll come back to it again?” That’s my intention for the books, because the people I write for are busy people.’

We’re all busy.  You’re busy. And guess what: your readers? They’re busy too.