Authors: Wondering How Long Your Book Should Be?

POSTED ON Feb 1, 2011

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Design, Book Production, Marketing, Self-Publishing > Authors: Wondering How Long Your Book Should Be?

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

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

Liked this post? Share it with friends!

More Helpful Articles