Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How long should a book be?

The United Nations's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared 49 pages to be the minimum length for a book.

A publication with fewer pages can be a leaflet, pamphlet, booklet or brochure. Call it a book, and you risk offending nearly 200 nations. (When I was in college, I rented a room from a family that called TV Guide, "the book.")

The maximum page number is determined by printing equipment and what people are willing to pay, carry and read.

Despite the UNESCO decree, no book has 49 pages. Books have an even number of pages--even if some of the pages don’t have numbers printed on them ("blind folios"). An individual piece of paper in a book is called a "leaf." Each leaf has two sides, called pages. A 100-page book contains 50 leaves. Or leafs.
Although I'll attack Outskirts Press for claiming that its books contain 161, 163 or 225 pages, publishers probably won't be attacked by United Nations soldiers for breaking UNESCO rules.

Outskirts Press can make “books” with as few as 18 pages, the minimum from CreateSpace is 24 pages, and Lulu can do 32 pages. Most printers can produce books with as many as 800 to 1,000 pages, but books with more than 500 pages are unusual. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is about 1300 pages long, and some of Rowling’s Harry Potter books have over 700 pages.

Publishers Weekly recently analyzed stats from Amazon.com and declared that the median average word count for books is 64,531 words, which translates to about 290 pages. While a mean average might be more useful than the median (half of the books have more words, half have fewer), the number from PW is still useful. It's probably best for new writers not to stray too far from the average.

It's normal for writers to love their words -- but others may not share the love. Some writers who love their words recognize that there are just too many words. I voluntarily cut a book I wrote from 518 pages to 432 pages, and it's better because of the cuts. It may have been even better at 396.

When I wrote for my college newspaper, I became copyeditor to prevent others from chopping my work. I liked the control, but being in control may have let some sub-prime work get printed.

I later became an advertising copywriter, and learned that most people glanced at an illustration and a headline, and then turned the page without ever reading the body copy. Only a small percentage of people would read all of my carefully chosen words, so I modified my previous self-protective attitude and became willing to shorten my text to improve the appearance of the ad.

Now, as a self-publisher, I frequently cut out words, lines, paragraphs, sections and chapters to make the book look better and have an appropriate length for its price and its market.

Like it or not, attention spans seem to be shrinking, and media bundles shrink with them. Although some editions of Tolstoy's War and Peace have over 1,500 pages, it would probably be very tough to convince an agent to try to sell a book that big to a publisher in 2012.

Writing to a specific length is just another discipline that professional writers have to master -- like grammar and spelling.

Writers who freelance for magazines know not to submit 3,000 words when an editor wants 1,200. Lots of amateurs enter contests where they have to describe something "in 100 words or less." Twitter and Google AdWords have rigid limitations that people meet with little trouble. Text messaging also pushes people to be efficient with their words.
Some venues and formats are looser than others. An NPR producer may be told to "take the right amount of time," but Andy Rooney's commentary on "60 Minutes" had to fit into a rigid time slot.

A self-publisher who is more concerned about art than about sales can publish almost anything, but a writer who needs to convince someone else to pay for words has to be flexible, realistic and responsive. If a book seems "too short" -- especially a nonfiction book that is much shorter than its competition -- it may not be considered complete or worthwhile. If it's "too long," it may seem like an unnecessary burden, and seem too expensive.

There was a recent query on LinkedIn from someone who was self-publishing his first book -- with 700 oversize pages -- about symbolism and poetry in Genesis. I realize that this writer probably devoted years to this project, but the end result will be a huge and expensive book that few people will want to read. I pointed out that he might be more successful with a 250-page printed book, or a $4.99 or $9.99 ebook. 


(soldier photo from Life.com)


  1. Interesting article - didn't know about the average length of a book. Thanks for sharing this link!

  2. Out of the 85 thousand books in our Book Genome database we came up with this graph regarding average book length (in words): http://storytime.booklamp.org/2012/03/19/how-long-is-the-average-book-a-concrete-answer-to-a-longstanding-writing-faq/

    More than just an average though, we went ahead and averaged a number of genres as well. Hope you find this helpful. The bit about 49 page books gave me a chuckle. :)