Authors: Wondering How Long Your Book Should Be?

by Joel Friedlander on February 1, 2011 · 8 comments

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Almost by definition, authors who decide to self-publish a book are new amateurs in the book world. Because of that, they often have expectations and reactions to books that aren’t conditioned by long-term exposure to “how the sausage is made.”

For instance, I just completed a large project that had to go back to editorial after the book had been laid out. Why let yourself in for that kind of added expense, you ask? Because the author considered the book too long. His perception was that people would not buy a book over 400 pages.

Where does this expectation come from? Most likely from the author’s own preferences, don’t you think? If you won’t buy a book over 400 pages because it puts you to sleep to think of reading the whole thing, then you might naturally assume that others feel the same way.

I’ve had the same request—to reduce the size or page count of a book after its been laid out—from people publishing business books. There, the perception is that busy business people will not buy books over 250 pages because, after all, they don’t have time for that. They’re busy, you’ve got to give them the message and get moving.

In fact, 9 of the top 10 best selling business books on Amazon are between 192 and 240 pages, considered the “sweet spot” for business books. Long enough to be taken seriously, short enough to appear to be a quick read, regardless of how many actual words are in the manuscript.

The Other Side of the Dilemma

Even more common is the author who is dismayed when she finds out the manuscript she’s labored over will set up very nicely to create a 160-page book.

What’s the matter with a 160-page book, you ask? Here are some of the things authors have said to me over the years:

  • It’s not thick enough.
  • The spine is very thin.
  • It has no “heft” and doesn’t feel like a book.
  • It won’t be taken seriously.
  • It won’t be seen as being worth the price.

Of course, all the authors who said these things were really telling me about their own expectations about books. Since they have no experience publishing, marketing or selling books, these opinions are almost completely based on “gut feelings,” “instincts” or “what my friends said.”

Another Take on the Whole Matter

While there may be niches in which book length is a critical factor in the success of a book, they must be rare.

The length of the book and the way it’s presented, the entire “package” that makes up the book including the title, the cover graphics, the backstory used to sell the book, all should come from the work itself. The length of the book is not that important. What you want is a really good book that’s exactly as long as it needs to be.

One of the books that changed my life was Healing Back Pain by John Sarno, MD. In it, Dr. Sarno lays out his case for the cause of most of the back pain his patients experience. It’s a brilliant, focused, diagnostic piece of writing.

I mean diagnostic because, as Dr. Sarno says, there’s only one way to determine whether you can be helped by his method: if you believe his diagnosis. His book brilliantly creates the condition for this diagnosis in reading the book. In fact, the book is most effective as a tool if it’s given to people who are in pain when they are reading it.

But that’s beside the point. What I’m getting at is this: the whole exposition in the book takes 84 pages. Now, you can’t publish an 84-page paperback if you’re a major publisher, so it appears to an outsider that the editor on the project in concert with the author “fleshed out” the rest of the book with random essays on the mind-body problem in medicine and other material.

But it’s completely unnecessary, and the book would have been as good—better, in my mind—if it had been left with the simple, straightforward 84 pages that are the heart of the book.

On the other hand, a book can “go long” as far as it wants, as long as it keeps providing useful information, or keeps us interested. Long novels can be glorious, involving, don’t-want-it-to-end experiences. And nonfiction that’s compelling, interesting, informative can captivate for hundreds of pages. This requires some skill at writing, understanding your audience and having a good editor.

So why put our prejudices in charge of book production? Although we want to be guided by what others are doing in our genre, these guidelines are a lot looser than you might think. A quality book sets its own rules.

Let that book live its life. It deserves it.

Photo by Horia Varlan

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    { 7 comments… read them below or add one }

    Jen Estes October 31, 2011 at 6:21 am

    Great read! You know, as an avid reader, I never once refused to buy a book because it was too short or too long. The length never even came into my mind until I started writing. My first book teetered around 80K and it came with a contract from my publisher for two more in the series with the stipulation they are each the length of 80-85K. I hate having that over my head while I try to tell a story. I wish publishers understood that readers look at good books like good movies. Some are short, some are long, as long as it’s enjoyable, who cares?

    Reply

    Marla Markman February 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Excellent topic, Joel. I completely agree. I just wish publishers and reviewers felt the same way. When I worked at a business publishing house, we were always told we had to hit the magic page-count number for bookstore buyers, even at the expense of padding the book to the extent that it was no longer a good book.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 1, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    This may be one of the bright spots for ebooks of all kinds, Marla. And it’s already happening. But soon I think these conventions will start to fall away. Ebooks have given short fiction, novellas and many other incidental pieces a way to get to market they have never had before.

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    Richard F. Sterling February 1, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Book length has been an irritating issue for me from the beginning. I write science fiction. For 10 years I submitted my manuscript to traditional literary agents and print publishers. The number 1 complaint by all of them was it is too long at about 300 pages. Why too long? Only because I’d never before had a novel published. Why should my experience and track record limit the length of my novel? The 300 pages for a science fiction novel really isn’t long compared to most hard covers and paperbacks I’ve bought. I’d consider 300 pages to be about average or slightly below average. And they wanted me to cut it down to about 250 pages! Ridiculous! The novel should be as long as the story needs to be to tell it! Even after I gave up on the traditional route, and went to a POD – Print On Demand publisher, again the complaint about length. I won that argument, with, “As long as I am paying for this, it will be as long as I want it to be.” It got published. All 300 pages. A year later, it became an ebook. Length should not matter at all for ebooks. Now it is an experiment in “web fiction” free at http://planetnovel.blogspot.com/ and again length is not an issue.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 1, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Richard, thanks for telling your story. I’m sure the objections you were getting were entirely based on the “genre” argument. Although there’s some validity to these expectations, there isn’t any real objective reason for them. I’m glad to hear you persevered with your vision and I’m sure your readers are glad also.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus February 1, 2011 at 1:11 am

    One great advantage of Public Radio, is that segment producers can take as much time as is needed to tell a story, without the restrictions of commerical broadcasting.

    One great advantage of modern self-publishing with POD by Lightning Source is the freedom to have books of almost any length. Previously, LS wanted page counts divisible by six, and then by either six or four. Now any even number is acceptable (up to a huge maximum). I’ve heard that with offset printers (and you can verify or deny this), the signatures can require page multiples of 8, 16 or even 32.

    Page Count Trivia: The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 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.

    Despite the UNESCO decree, no book has 49 pages. Books have an even number of pages even if some pages don’t have numbers on them.

    Publishers and printers don’t have to obey the United Nations. Outskirts Press says it can make “books” with as few as 18 pages, the minimum for CreateSpace is 24 pages, the minimum for LS is 48, and Lulu can do 32.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    http://www.Self-Pub.info
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander February 1, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Michael, I’m still looking for that 49 page book, haven’t found it yet. Unlike digital printing, offset printing is done most economically on large presses printing sheets of paper big enough to hold at least 4 pages per side, or 8 pages total. Sixteens are the most common, with 8 pages per side. In this scenario the most efficient production calls for an even number of signatures—the sheets once they’ve been folded to the final size of the book. Although you can bind an 8 page half-signature in with the others, it’s less efficient and a bit less structurally sound.

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