The idealist says “it should be as long as it takes to cover what you have to say.”
I’m a pragmatist — you may have noticed. I consider a few other factors:
The length and structure of chapters will be covered in another post.
How much will your audience read?
What you are selling your reader is time. Sounds weird? Time is today’s currency. Think of this several ways:
- readers are buying your time and expertise (in print form)
- you’re asking the reader to commit the time it will take to read
- there may be a certain time allotted
- format / platform has a big influence
You probably already do this: a friend says “watch this incredible video.” Will you watch it if it’s 90 minutes long? How about 18? Two? Yeah, I’ll watch 2 minutes at the drop of a hat. But 90 is going on my to do list; for someday, eventually. Maybe.
A Complete and Comprehensive Guide to Publishing* will appeal to some readers. But I bet “5 Tips for Writing Your Book” will appeal to a lot more readers.
This post, for example, is definitely on the TL;DR side for a blog post.
What I want is readers. For you, that may mean sales. And more readers — who actually read it and review it and recommend it to friends — means more sales. Those who buy it and stack it by the bedside forever? Less valuable.
Crass? So what. Don’t follow it then, that’s your prerogative. If you’re writing just to hear the sound of your own voice, more power to you. Keep going. It’s quite rewarding — she said, self-depricatingly.
But if you are writing so that people will read, consider your audience. Who are they? Why are they reading your book? If it’s to escape, they may be willing to read something longer. Think LOTR, maybe War and Peace. If it’s for vital information that can change their health or their income, they probably want something they can digest quickly and get right to the results. Think blog post. Agents have strong thoughts on this.
Think of this in terms of a movie: how long are you willing to sit there? Are kids movies much shorter? Remember Gandhi, the 3 hour 11 minute epic? No, me neither. TL;DR.
Consider what can be covered in the allotted time.
If you are writing course material, consider what can be covered in the allotted time. If the class has 60 hours to cover the material and do all the work, don’t give them a 100,000 words.
If it’s a speech, you’re looking at no more than 100 words a minute.
Saying too much
Today, outside of academia, readers don’t put up with a lot of repetition. You don’t need to say something three different ways to get your point across. And — pad your prose with a lot of fluff, examples, and excess verbiage — you risk reviews that say things like “this could have been a pamphlet.”
The sweet spot is saying just enough. Readers want their money’s worth, and they want a clear understanding. That is the point at which you should stop writing. An editor — who is really excellent, paid beta reader — can help you gauge where that point is. If you find an editor who understands your audience and your purpose, you’re off to a promising start.
Cost relates directly to the length of the work
“It’s an ebook, so length doesn’t matter.”
Editorial costs are the biggest part of your production budget. I will explain this in another post. And because each word has to be edited, a longer work is going to mean a higher cost.
You can get an instant estimate of the per-word cost of each editing stage. That widget will also tell you how long a typical edit takes. Note that it’s just giving a count of hours. Turnaround will be longer, since editors sleep — even the superhuman ones.
Price point affects length
Price point is lingo for how much your book will cost the reader. What price will you have to put on your book to recoup the costs of producing something as long as LOTR? If you’re looking at the $2.99 ebook market, and you only get to keep 40% of that sticker price, you’re going to have to sell 10,000 copies to recoup a $15K production budget on a typical 80,000 word book. Consider that a best-selling book in Canada sells just 2,000 copies, and you may want to reconsider the business plan.
It’s an ebook, so length doesn’t matter.
Jessica at BookEnds Literary Agency put it this way: “Are you prepared to be the most expensive book on the market just because you insist that not one of those 300,000 words can be cut? Trust me, it’s hard enough to sell a book without out-pricing yourself.”
Look, you can fight this. Maybe you will write the next LOTR, three times longer than 99.44% of the other titles in the world. But those industry standards don’t just exist because of the number of pages that can come off a printing press.
Non-fiction: 50,000 words^
Novel: 80,000 words**
Short story: 7,500 words
YA: 16 to 50,000 words
Picture book: 16 pages^^, up to 500 words
Blog post: 300 words°
Magazine articles: 1000 word features, 100 word “items”; count the number of words typical in your target publication
“Are you prepared to be the most expensive book on the market just because you insist that not one of those 300,000 words can be cut?”
— Jessica, BookEnds Literary Agency
Average novel word count, a post from the Writer’s Workshop
Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post, from Writer’s Digest
^The length of non-fiction books varies wildly between thin chapbooks and course-related tomes. Survey the titles in your niche for a sense of the length that readers are responding to. Publishers put considerable research into this, and a survey is a quick way to learn from them. There is some evidence that mass-market bestsellers are about 50,000 words long.
**This average covers mystery, thriller, romance, and literature.
^^A publisher once told me this. But obviously we’ve all read picture books ranging from 8 pages to 32. Or more. The key here is that they are groups of 8 pages. That has to do with printing methods that result in 8-page bundles called signatures.
°Depending on audience tolerance, of course. Articles on a publication’s website do not follow this. I don’t either, on my own blog — since I treat this less like a blog and more like a multi-page website in progress.