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One of the vexing questions many authors face is how long their book should be. They know they have to produce more words than a college essay, but exactly how long is a book? Many authors will, of course, scout out the books they consider their competitors, and then try to imitate their page counts. However, even doing this, they may still be confused about how to translate the
page count in their Microsoft Word document into printed book pages. If they typed 300 double spaced pages, is that enough to match their competition? Is 120 MS Word pages too short?

Here are some useful guidelines to help you assess how long your book should be. These are not hard and fast rules, but you will find they probably go a long way to clarify your questions.

Step 1 is to begin by asking yourself what vision you have for your book? What image appears in your mind when you see yourself as an author? This is because the physical appearance of your book—its design and trim size—impacts your word count. What most authors don’t realize is that your design and trim size play key roles in determining your ideal book length, so you need to decide what look and feel your book will have. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do you want a small, intimate book? If you are writing personal reflection, spiritual or life coaching, or perennial wisdom, and you want your readers to have a very personal, intimate reading experience with you, the most appropriate trim size is 5” X 8”. This means that you cannot fit many words on a printed page and keep it readable. You don’t want to overwrite and be forced to use a teeny font. This trim size is good for only 200 to 250 words per printed book page. This translates into just 20,000 to 25,000 words for a 100 page book, 30,000 to 42,500 words for a 150-page book, perhaps just 40,000 words for a 200-page book.

A good example is the wonderful little personal/spiritual guide, The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, which averages about 10 words per line X 20 lines per page = 200 words per page. This book has 144 pages, so it contains about 28,800 words. This type of book should not go more than 200 pages, so 40,000 words is probably your max. This is a fairly short book, but it packs a spiritual punch—and the 5” X 8” trim size is perfect to read this book sitting on the beach or on park bench.

  • Do you want to write a standard non-fiction book? This includes business, self-help, political science, history, science, psychology, and so on. If so, the common trim size for these books is 6” X 9”. This format generally averages about 300 words per page, thus about 30,000 words per 100 pages. So let’s say you want your book to match your competitors at 240 pages; you’d therefore aim for about 70,000 words. Indeed, most traditional publishers limit non-fiction authors to 80,000 words for standard 6” X 9” books, between 240 and 280 pages. This is about the length readers want for general non-fiction, and it keeps publishers happy given the high cost of paper.

A good example of this is The Click Moment, by Frans Johansson, an excellent book on the influence of randomness in determining success. Each page contains about 34 lines, with an average word count of 11 words per line, thus 375 words per page. Excluding endnotes and index, the book has about 200 pages of text, which means its total word count is about 74,000 words.

  • Do you want to publish a wide format book—with inspiring quotes down the side margins? If so, these books need to be the 7” X 9” trim size, and the slightly larger pages can hold 400 to 450 words per page. Thus, 100 pages = 40,000 to 45,000 words and 200 pages yields 80,000 to 90,000 words for the main body of the text (this excludes the words used in the quotations down the sides of the book’s margins).

The bestselling creativity guide which I edited, The Artist’s Way, is one of the shining examples of this wide format book. It contains 38 lines per page, with an average of 12 words per line, thus 456 words per book page. The total page count (excluding Appendices and Index) is 204 pages, thus about 93,000 words.

Once you have a vision for your book—small, standard, or wide format—you can move on to the second step in deciding how many words you should write.

Step 2 is to compare your book vision to your content and be sure they are compatible. If you are writing a self-help book containing 10 steps to life improvement (and each step = 1 chapter), and you think you manuscript is going to be 10 to 15 pages per chapter, but you want to create an intimate reading experience, your book might be way too long for the 5” X 8” trim size. You either need to scale back your content with shorter chapters or making your concept include only 7 steps to a better life, or you need to change your trim size. Perhaps the wide format is good for you, allowing you to go up to 80,000 or 90,000 words.

Step 3 is to ask yourself how much do you really have to say? For many new authors, your goal may be to publish your book to use a “calling card” to boost your marketplace credibility and enhance your reputation as a thought leader, executive, coach, or entrepreneur. Perhaps you don’t have enough content to create the standard non-fiction book at 80,000 words. If so, you might give yourself a goal of writing a 96- to 128-page book in the 6” X 9” format, thus only about 30,000 to 40,000 words. This is still respectable, if your content feels new and your writing is impressive.

Step 4 is measure your manuscript in word count, not pages. As you can see, you need to know your word count, not the number of pages your word processor produces. If I were to ask you how long your book is, and you answer that it is 225 manuscript pages, I am still not clear. I don’t know what type font you used, nor if you used single, 1.5, or double spacing. Use your word processor to figure out your average word count per manuscript page and your total word count.

Step 5 is to target your writing so you will be on track for your book’s vision. If you can decide on the right vision for your book, and you therefore know your trim size, you can tailor your writing to your target. If you know you need to write 40,000 words and your content calls for 10 chapters, then you should be aiming for 4,000 words per chapter. Don’t overwrite. I’ve had authors send me 25 page chapters containing 12,000 words, making it clear that their 10 chapter book is going to end up at 120,000 words—way too long for most publishing houses and even for self-publishing. But I’ve also had authors send me 8 pages with just 2400 words, without realizing that, at this rate, their 7 chapters will amount to less than 20,000 words. If they want a 6 X 9 book, this is only about 66 pages—almost not a book