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.

32 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?

      • Taran hughes says:

        Gerald, really helpful comments thanks so much. I was am in similar situation for my book, its like to end up between 40k and 60k words, depending on what I include in the first book ( non fiction – mindset and awareness for salespeople ) I hadn’t really considered approaching a publisher, given the popularity of self publishing, do you think it short sighted not to even consider a publisher? Many thanks.

      • Hi Taran. I am an academic publisher not a trade (general) one. My impression, however, is that the self-improvement market is a difficult one to get heard in. As such, going the agent-publisher route may mean your book reaches a wider audience. But let’s be honest, very few book ideas are even considered by agents let alone are sold onto a publisher. The self-publishing route might thus be better. First up, then, you should look coldly at your book and assess its commercial qualities – not least simple things like assessing its readership, pinpointing competing works, assessing its merits and defects against the competition, etc. If it looks stunning, you may be in with a chance with an agent but if so make sure you approach the right one. From memory, Literary Marketplace is where you need to look. Good luck!

  5. sherri says:

    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. […]

  9. jabobizz says:

    dear gerald; thank you for your useful info. May i ask if one had about 150 pages of msword document with large font of 16, can one get a small sized pocket book from that? and how many pages would it be? thanks am new to writing but i want to start with a small pocket book to see how it goes. Thanks once again.

    • Hi. Sorry about the delayed reply to your query (buried in spam). Use Word’s word-count utility then calculate the book length from that. A small pocket book could be about 20,000 words.

  10. Does word count / page count matter if you’re publishing an e-book?

  11. Michael S says:

    Thank you for your work here. Found it helpful. Just completed my first book a fiction and I wondered if 37000 words was enough.

    • Everything depends on the genre and format. For a printed book, 37,000 words is definitely on the short side (less than 150 pages) so publishers may not be interested as pricing will be low and volumes needing to be correspondingly high. Mind you that great classic, The Little Prince, was such a work. Ebooks are another matter. The ultra-short story selling for a dollar is now common on Amazon though generally self-published. (Apologies for missing your query back in July.)

  12. Lamya says:

    I am on the verge of submitting a first draft of an academic work that has 130,000+ words. The proposal was accepted earlier this year. Am I risking being rejected or will the editor suggest what to cut out? I am concerned now.

  13. Bhargav Dave says:

    Hello, I am almost done writing my first book on academic topic. Perhaps, something student can utilize during their undergraduate and postgraduate level in health science field. So far the manuscript is 35000 words long. If I aim for any university press how likely would they be in 35,000 words book? and can you please suggest rough turn around time from any university press and how long it takes to copy edit and actually publish the book at university press?

    Thank you

    • 35,000 words is on the short side for an academic monograph, more the length of something like an “Oxford short“, something like 100 pages or so. This will be quite hard to sell to a publisher. As for timing, this varies from press to press. For instance, NIAS Press works to have peer review completed within two months but it frequently takes three months; 6-9 months isn’t unusual for some presses (though this is much quicker than many journals take to review articles submitted). NIAS Press is able to decide almost immediately on approving a new title but editorial boards at some presses only meet every few months. Editing a book usually takes 1-2 months depending on the material/subject and about the same for typesetting these days. Indexing can take forever, it can feel. But in between these steps the author has much to do (checking proofs, for instance); not all authors are equally speedy. The upshot is that setting a publication date is a bit of a gamble, a guess and a bargain between author and publisher.

  14. Caro says:

    Hello, I’ve just received a contract for an academic book at 110,000 words (with what looks like a 5 per cent capacity to go over), which is supposed to include the index. However, as I understand it, the index isn’t done until the final proofs are in place so as to get the page numbers right, and so I’m not sure how much buffer to leave to not max out the cap. My manuscript without the index is sitting at 111,000 right now but there’s not much more I can cut and every word counts. Is there a rule of thumb I can use about index length so I can understand how many words to leave spare? Publisher won’t say…..
    Thank you!

    • The key issue is, what is the page extent that your book has been announced at? Indeed, has the book been announced? You could have a little wriggle room here.

      You can see an overview of indexing issues at https://gettingpublished.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/indexing-overview/ (the pointer to index length is on this page).

      However, I am a little surprised that the index is included in your word count. Yes, it should be part of the calculation of the final extent (just like the first part of the prelims are) but I would expect the publisher to bear this in mind when setting your word limit.

      Frankly, unless you have ambitions to produce a lengthy index, I would suggest that you deliver your ms at the length it is. Otherwise, have a serious chat with your editor.

      • caro says:

        Thank you, I appreciate your quick response. No the book has not been announced, I’m just at the contract negotiation stage. And I was at 120k words, the publisher wanted 100k, so they compromised on 110k. The contract does show it’s inclusive of the index and when I asked the publisher they said that sometimes they do count it and sometimes not. It’s been very difficult to get answers out of them – I’m on the other side of the world and not at all important.

  15. As a New Zealander living on the other side of the world in Denmark I can only comment that you are very important. Indeed, seriously, without their authors, publishers would be unemployed. However, I take your point. It sounds to me as if they have a 288-page book in mind. What you (and they) need to calculate is not just the word count but also the number and size of illustrations, tables, maps, etc. For fuller details, see my follow-up post (How to calculate book length – https://gettingpublished.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/how-to-calculate-book-length/).

    • Caro says:

      Thanks again Gerald, will do. And thanks for your help.
      I’m in Australia and it’s difficult to get the UK publisher to respond; I don’t hold out much hope for editorial assistance and may even pay someone to help me before I submit. Maybe I can pull a few words out that way! 🙂

  16. Very true. The dirty secret of academic publishing today is that editorial standards have slipped. There is very little substantive editing done, even though shaping the text is very important (not to mention having a compelling start to the book). As for copy editing, it is shocking that certain well-known publishers are now leaving that to the author so as to cut costs.

  17. H. Brown says:

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  18. Thank you. This article has been very helpful to me.

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