Word count and book length

One of my biggest problems as a publisher is having authors deliver more than was agreed to. However sometimes, like today, the reverse happens. Does this matter? Yes, actually.

There are in fact two issues here: book length and contracted extent. Let’s look at these in turn.

Book Length

A book’s extent depends on the type of work that it is. You are unlikely to encounter a brief Encyclopedia of World History, nor should you meet a 1,000-page Introduction to the Works of Jane Austen (though sadly this sort of thing does happen).

If you analyse the contents of a typical bookshelf in an academic library, you will notice that many of the books are between 272 and 320 pages in length. The golden extent for many publishers is 288 pages (about 90–100,000 words without tables or figures). Why is 288 pages a golden extent? Because this length is sufficient for the author to develop their argument fully. It is also perceived as a full-sized book hence it is quite acceptable for the publisher to charge the full normal price. For the publisher, it is an economic size – 18 printed sheets (books tend to be printed on 16-page sheets) give a nice balance between the costs of cover and inside pages.

(See my later post for a detailed explanation and instructions on how to calculate book length.)

Books falling outside the standard range of 272–320 pages can be problematic. Under-length books are often regarded with suspicion by scholars: perhaps they have not covered their subject properly. On the other hand, over-length books may be tolerated by scholars but are the bane of publishers’ lives. They cost more to produce in almost every area (editing, typesetting, proofing, indexing, printing and binding) but rarely can the price be commensurately higher without losing sales. Because of their greater weight, they also cost more to send (in shipping costs for the publisher and later in delivery charges for the customer).

Keeping to the extent agreed in your contract

For these reasons especially, a key clause in most author contracts specifies the extent that the author should deliver. (Usually, this will be a word count – including notes and references – and perhaps an agreed number of illustrations.) It is on the basis of this agreed length that the publisher costs the book and sets a price. Both length and price are clearly stated when the book is announced, and this information is one of the things that people (especially librarians) take into account when deciding if they will purchase the book.

As such, once the book has been announced, at the very least the publisher will be seriously embarrassed if the author then delivers a final ms that is significantly over- or under-length. What was announced (and maybe ordered) is not what is being delivered on publication. Embarrassment is cheap; money is not. Obviously, over-length mss are especially problematic. Costs will be much higher and normally these cannot be recovered with a price rise (or not immediately, at least). The result may be that a book that promised to be marginally profitable is suddenly a financial burden – hardly something any publisher wants.

Not all publishers accept such nasty surprises. Some throw the ms back to the author, demanding cuts and more cuts. In the increasingly tough economic times that we are going through, you should expect that publishers will be less tolerant of any over- or under-length mss delivered than they were in the past.

So, how important is it to stick to the word count stated in your contract? I think that’s obvious: very.

That said, there is at least one exception. If your contract is for a book that hasn’t yet been announced, then perhaps the change in length won’t be an issue. Perhaps. Don’t assume; ask your editor.

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12 Responses to Word count and book length

  1. Blogs RSS feed don’t work in my browser (google chrome) how can I sort it?

  2. By far the most concise and up to date information I found on this topic. Sure glad that I navigated to your page by accident. I’ll be subscribing to your feed so that I can get the latest updates. Appreciate all the information here

  3. Novotny Ingersol says:

    Word count seems like a left-over from typewrited days. Line count governs length irrespective of whether the line contains one word or ten or twelve.
    $0 lines a page could give 400 words or 40–so why not set standards in terms of lines now that either word or line count is availabe at the press of a button?

    Just curious.

    Thanks for other great useful vital info.

    B wishes!

    • Apologies for the delayed response. I missed your comment. In itself, no measure is perfect but personally I find word count the most useful. Line count varies depending on page size, font size, etc. In contrast, word count is finite and usually I can calculate book length with about 99% accuracy (in part because also included in any calculation is a count of figures, tables, etc.)

  4. I have published three books which have been fairly successful. The three books have sold over $100,000.00. For a self-published book I think thats pretty good. Can’t find a publisher though.
    My question is about my fourth book. I’ve completed a small book (34,000) words. It’s non-fiction and deals with faith (Faith:God Girft). I wanted it to be on the small size to keep the price down. Is this length too small?

    • A 128-page book can be made out of a 34,000-word text. This is not too small for a physical book; you can get away with something even a bit smaller. The question is, what do your intended readers expect?

  5. sherri says:

    Hello
    Just ran across this website while trying out to find how many words are common for a small novel. I have written a 24808 word story. Had submitted a childrens book late last year and have had all “not our kind of publishing” responses. I really want this new story published. Is the right route self publishing? Or should I send this story out? I sent away for a brochure on how to get your childrens story published and they sent me a list of those that accept manuscripts. If anyone could let me know what their opinion is it would be appreciated.

    • I am an academic publisher so not the most qualified to respond to your query. However, some things are the same whatever the field of publishing. The 3-letter word is “fit”. Essentially, a publisher is looking to sell as many copies possible for each of its books. This means that publishers are somewhat conservative; they look at an author’s track record and how well similar books have sold (this is why there’s lots of me-too stuff published). Moreover, they are constrained by what the bookshops are doing. Hence, zombies are selling well this year but won’t be next, more than likely. More to the point, if the market for 5-year-olds is defined by short books (say, 80 pages long) with a bit of simple text aimed precisely at that age group and with quite a few illustrations, then offering a publisher a book that is double the length and without a precise target age group just won’t fly. Essentially, then, what you need to do is immerse yourself in the current literature to understand what sells, and what are its characteristics in terms of format, genre, language, etc. Of course, you could have the New Harry Potter but that won’t do you much good if no one is interested in looking at it. Self-publish instead? That’s a tough road to follow, as you’ll see in my series of posts on that topic. Good luck!

  6. Freelance Proofreading Jobs Online says:

    Excellent website. Plenty of useful information here.
    I am sending it to several buddies ans also sharing in delicious.
    And naturally, thanks on your effort!

  7. “Word count and book length GETTING PUBLISHED” was indeed a good blog post.
    If perhaps it had even more pictures it would be even a lot better.
    Regards ,Ezequiel

  8. […] Comment: The whole issue of book length (and word count) is explored here. […]

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