How long should your book be?

How long is a business book?

Of course, the answer is, “It depends.” But it’s a good idea to keep your eye on the length, because the bulk of the book makes an instant impression on the reader.

A short book communicates a simple, possibly powerful idea, but is unlikely to be well-researched and authoritative. A long book implies intellectual heft, but can seem intimidating.

Enough with the generalities. Let’s look at exactly how long your book should be and what that means.

The relationship between word count and page count

First off, as you work on your manuscript you should count words, not pages. Every writing tool has a word count feature; Microsoft Word conveniently shows it at the bottom left of the writing window. You can track word counts of chapters and add them together as you write. And word count doesn’t vary based on the fonts and spacing you use in your writing tool.

(If you write in the template I use for my downloadable book proposal, the page count for your manuscript will very roughly match the page count for your final book.)

Unless your book is design-heavy with lots of diagrams, there’s a predictable relationship between words and pages. The average business book page contains 250 to 300 words, and a typical business book also includes 10 to 20 pages of front- and back-matter (title pages, tables of contents, notes, index, etc.). Short books have less back matter. You can use this formula to make a rough estimate of your final page count:

Page Count = (Word Count/275) + 20 (approximately)

But you’re still better off counting words.

The significance of different word counts

Here’s a guide to what your word and page counts are communicating:

  • 25,000 words (~100 pages). This isn’t a book, it’s a pamphlet or a manifesto. People who write books this short usually just dash them off, off the cuff. Some books of this length make an impact, but for the most part, people who read them will consume them and forget them, like potato chips. You won’t make much from selling a book like this, because it’s hard to charge more than $15 for a book this skinny.
  • 35,000 words (~140 pages). This is generally the shortest a book can be and be taken seriously. At this length, you can make a case for an idea, but don’t have much space to back it up with case studies or research. There’s no room to go into detail about elements of the solution. On the other hand, books this short are easier to write quickly. If your manuscript is this short, consider carefully whether adding detail will add credibility, or just bulk up the simple idea without really improving it. Consider adding a chapter or two about the consequences of your idea.
  • 45,000 words (~180 pages). Business books have become shorter lately; books of this length are now popular. At this length, a book can describe a problem, identify the solution, explore dimensions of the solution, include case study stories, and back things up with research. If your book naturally comes out to this length, you probably don’t need to change it.
  • 55,000 words (~220 pages). Ten years ago this would have been considered a little short; now, it’s typical. Even so, edit what you’ve written, eliminating repetition and streamlining structure. Cutting 2,000 extraneous words from a book of this length will improve readability without reducing your impact.
  • 65,000 words (~256 pages). Typical for business books of the 90’s and 00’s. If you need this many words to express all the important elements of your idea, this length is fine. If there are pieces you can cut without reducing the impact of your content, consider cutting them. If you have extra pages taken up by, for example, appendices, consider publishing them online instead.
  • 80,000 words (~310 pages). This is hefty for a business book, unless it’s a textbook. Remember that increased word counts increase the cost of everything: they cost more to edit, more to lay out, and more to print. You’ll have to price the book higher, too. What do you get for all that bulk? A book that seems difficult and intimidating for the average reader. Take a good look at yourself and our manuscript and ask, do I really need everything in here? Consider hiring an editor and instructing them to find at least 10,000 words to cut.
  • 100,000 words (~390 pages). This is a great length for a novel or an economics textbook, but not for a business book. If a book this long becomes fashionable, people may buy it, but they won’t read it to the end. Hiring an editor to do liposuction on this monster won’t be cheap, but it’s probably necessary.

There are design tricks you can do to change your page count without addressing your word count. My book Writing Without Bullshit was about 55,000 words, but came it at 284 pages because the publisher chose to release it with a smaller trim size (page dimensions). You can bulk up page sizes for short manuscripts with more leading (spacing between lines of type), wider margins, and whitespace around headings and chapter titles. You can also make long manuscripts fit into manageable page counts by reducing font size — at the cost of readability.

Track and manage your word count

Based on the list above, you should have a word count target. And you should track it as you go along, just as a runner keeps track of the timing of her splits on the way to the finish line.

As you write chapters, keep track of the word count for each one in a spreadsheet. Add them up and, assuming similar length for the chapters not yet written, estimate what your final word count will be. Add 10-15%, because books always seem to get a little longer in second and subsequent drafts as you add stories, research, and new ideas. Now you know what word count you’re on track to hit.

An editor can help. For example, yesterday I talked to two authors: one has a manuscript that’s a lot longer than he wanted, and the other is wondering why his chapters are too short. Each needs help, but my advice for each is of course going to be very different.

A professional author always knows where they are relative to the ideal word count to make the impression they’re seeking. If they’re short, they’re considering what might be added; if they’re long, they’re thinking about what to cut. Making adjustments is part of the job.

And it’s a lot smarter than getting to the end of the draft and saying “Hmm, why the heck is the size of this manuscript so different from what it should be?”

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