How Long Should Your Book Be?

by Joel Friedlander on October 16, 2009 · 11 comments

Did you ever see the movie Amadeus? There’s a pretty funny scene in which Mozart is playing a piece for one of his noble patrons and a room full of courtiers and ladies. The patron is quite disturbed by Mozart’s rather manic playing and the tsunami of notes erupting from his harpsichord.

The nobleman inquires of Mozart whether he doesn’t “have too many notes” in his composition, at which Mozart looks at the man as if he is insane, and assures him there are “exactly the right number of notes, not an extra one anywhere.”

Questions Authors Ask

I often think of this scene when meeting with authors who are thinking about publishing, because a common question I get at these meetings is, “How long should my book be?”

If you love Mozart the way I do, you can’t imagine him removing even one note from the divine music he’s passed along to us. Not one!

Books are very similar. You need “exactly the right number of words” to tell the story, and not an extra one. But how many is that?

Genre Dictates Length?

It’s true that in certain genres publishers give a lot of weight to book length as a function of their marketing plans. For instance, I’ve had business book publishers tell me that, regardless of how many words are in a book, it has to appear “to be a quick read,” because otherwise busy executives won’t buy it. And we squeeze until we get to their desired page length.

At the other end of the spectrum are some fiction publishers who want their books, again regardless of the length, to appear to be “big fat beach reads” no matter what, on the theory that otherwise book buyers will look for something more “meaty.”

Invariably I advise these authors to tell their story and leave it to the book designer to create a book that will be appropriate for their niche, attractive to read, and deliver their work in the best possible way to their readers.

The Prince and the Potter

As an example, look at the two top-selling “children’s books” on Amazon, although neither of these is, strictly speaking, just a children’s book.

At number 1 is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. This charming parable, which can be read by anyone no matter their age, is 96 pages and weighs a bare 7 ounces.

At number 2 is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a book I certainly enjoyed. It runs 870 pages and weighs in at a hefty 1.5 pounds.

But here’s the thing: each of these books is a completely satisfying reading experience in itself. Each tells a story adeptly, and you are carried along throughout the book to the end.

In fact, when I’m reading a book I really love, I just don’t want it to end, even if it’s 870 pages!

So the only answer to the question of “How long should my book be” is the response, “How long will it take for you to tell your story in the best way you can?” Because that, in the end, is how long your book should be.

Takeaway: As an author your job is to keep your readers reading, anxious to find out “what comes next.” If you can do that, don’t worry or obsess about how long your book is, because it will be the right length.

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    { 9 comments… read them below or add one }

    Rinelle Grey July 1, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. I have yet to be disappointed by a short or long story, so long as it doesn’t drag or skip over bits I want to know! I don’t write to a wordcount, and I don’t read to one either.

    Reply

    Chris Mentzer July 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I agree with you 100% on this! Stories should take as long as they need to in order to be told.

    Reply

    James Gill July 20, 2011 at 8:06 am

    I heartily agree, and I’m often surprised at how frequently that question gets asked. Is it writers looking to do the least amount of work? Afraid of writing something not “long enough”? When a writer moves beyond these sorts of questions, *then* they’re getting somewhere.

    Reply

    Tarney Baldinger February 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Great article. I look forward to reading more. Looks like a fabulous resource. I’m a writer just beginning to look into self-publishing, and I got a great deal from your presentation Saturday at the BAIPA meeting. Thank you!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 14, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Thanks, Tarney, it was a lot of fun to do. Good luck with your publishing project. If you have any questions, you can always leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help out.

    Reply

    Barbara August 22, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    Fabulous topic! Too darn many nonfiction books are too long! 7 Habits comes to mind. I love to read, and even though I have my BA in English, I today read mainly nonfiction. Business books, for example, should not go on forever with long paragraphs and endless repetition. And I see many of these on the shelf at B&N. I’m guessing these authors think the longer the book, the more credibility. As you said above, Joel: the right length is just what it takes to say your piece. I’m reminded of many dinner conversations when I was a kid in Kentucky. My dad was president of our city council and after a business meeting he would complain to my mom, “That so-and-so just loves the sound of his own voice.” Be careful not to be an author who loves the sound of his own voice. I edit for my husband and I keep him on target and eliminate redundancies.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 22, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Barbara, well said. It seems that with the decline of editing over the past ten years and the influence of the internet, writers may have fallen out of the habit of writing concise, to-the-point copy. Thanks for your contribution.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus July 30, 2010 at 8:44 am

    THREE RESPONSES:

    (1) The United Nations’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 49 pages to be the _minimum_ length for a book.

    A publication with fewer pages can be a leaflet, pamphlet, booklet or brochure. Call it a book, and you risk offending nearly 200 nations. (When I was in college, I rented a room from a family that called TV Guide, “the book.”)

    Outskirts Press can make “books” with as few as 18 pages, the minimum from CreateSpace is 24 pages, and Lulu can do 32 pages.

    (2) Self-publishing is one of the rare venues where the writer gets to select the length. Similarly, program producers on NPR are told to “take the right amount of time” to tell the story properly.

    Other fields are _very_ different. Contest operators want entries to have “100 words or less.” Teachers want 10 pages on Abraham Lincoln. A magazine editor will assign a freelance writer to deliver 3,000 words on low-cost vacations. A newspaper editor will tell a reporter to deliver 10 column-inches on the mayoral candidates.

    (3) When I do a book, one challenge is to come up with the right amount of interior text and graphics to avoid blank pages after the back matter. It takes some work, but it’s not really a big deal. I’m surprised that so many “pros” don’t bother formatting interiors to fit the signature requirements. I’ve even seen blank pages ahead of title pages and ahead of half-title pages. If I can avoid it, why can’t the experts?

    Question for the master: Would any designer use a half-title (“bastard title”) page other than to avoid a blank page up front? Is this just an ancient tradition that refuses to die?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander July 30, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Not sure I see any “masters” here so I’ll take that question. I like half-titles and will put them in a book if they don’t disrupt the pagination. With digital books, imposition and signatures are virtually nonexistent, and in some cases we no longer bother trying to even out the pagination at the end of the book, since the printer is going to stick pages in there anyway. But if the book requires it, we can kill the half-title in an offset book to make the pagination work. There are many, many of these situations and the more complex the layout, the more decisions have to be made.

    Unlike your situation, where you are publisher, author and designer, we have to deal with the manuscript as it is. I don’t know why people object to blank pages, frankly. They are restful in an a book dense with type. If you have right-hand chapter openers, about half the chapters will face a blank left-hand page, which also doesn’t seem like any big deal to me.

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