by Naomi Dunford

Today, we’re talking about how long your book needs to be.

The short answer is “not nearly as long as you might imagine”, and the longer answer involves math and industry trends.

Shall we discuss?

Book lengths have been trending downwards for a long time. Scribe Media did a survey of the average length of a NYT bestseller over the past several years. Check it out:

  • In 2011, the average was 467 pages.
  • In 2012, it was 410. That’s a nearly 60 page drop.
  • In 2013, it was 367. Nearly a 50 page drop.
  • In 2014, it was up a bit to 382. (There were three 600-page beasts that year, which skewed the average.)
  • In 2015, it was back down to 345.
  • In 2016, it was down again to 342.
  • In 2017, it was down to… are you ready?… 273.

I’ve read Harlequins that are longer than that.

In seven years, the average length of a NYT bestseller dropped by just shy of 200 pages, or 42%.

Your book doesn’t have to be as long as you think.

Shall we?

Managing reader expectations: What’s standard in your industry?

Every industry or genre is different, and reader expectations follow the trends that exist in that slice of the book-publishing world.

So to get your answer to “How long should my book be?”, we’ll need to look at what’s going on in your particular slice.

Let’s use the book I’m writing for Write A Book With Me as an example. My book is in the self-esteem / self-love genre. So I went to Amazon and pulled up 11 books in that genre that seem to be doing well with readers.

Here’s my list:

  • Love Yourself First!: Boost your self-esteem in 30 Days, by Marc Reklau – 150 pages
  • Freedom From Your Inner Critic: A Self-Therapy Approach – 160 pages
  • The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor – 168 pages
  • Why Do I Feel Like An Impostor? How to Understand and Cope with Imposter Syndrome by Sandi Mann – 185 pages
  • What To Say When You Talk To Yourself by Shad Helmstetter- 224 pages
  • The Self-Esteem Workbook for Women: 5 Steps to Gaining Confidence and Inner Strength by Megan MacCutcheon – 228 pages
  • I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love by David Hamilton – 265 pages
  • A Year of Positive Thinking: Daily Inspiration, Wisdom and Courage by Cyndie Spiegel – 266 pages
  • Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff – 320 pages
  • Banish Your Inner Critic by Denise Jacobs – 352 pages
  • Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach – 352 pages

Bear in mind, this is not a random sample. Each of these books came up high in Amazon search, and each has a better than 4* rating.

It is a decidedly, deliberately NON-random sample. It’s a sample of books that are popular enough that Amazon’s robots think I will want to read them. That is the point of this exercise. You don’t want a list of Books In Your Industry. You want a list of books lots of people buy, and appear to like.

What to do with your list once you have it

The general maxim among authorly folks is that a book should be “as long as it needs to be, and no longer”. If you have enough of an intuition to know what that means for your book, then more power to you. Make your book as long as it needs to be and no longer. You’re done.

Most of us do not have that level of intuition, especially in the beginning of our careers. So how long should your book be?

Let’s figure it out.

Put your list in order of page count. Put the shortest at the top and the longest at the bottom. The one in the middle – it will be the sixth book on your list – is the median. For me, that would be The Self-Esteem Workbook for Women, coming in at 228 pages.

All things being equal, for your first book, shoot for a little shorter than the median. It’s short enough that you won’t completely overwhelm yourself, but not so short that savvy readers will be surprised or disappointed.

So if I go back to my list, the next shortest book is What To Say When You Talk To Yourself, which is 224 pages. That’s practically the same, so we’ll ignore it. The next book up from that is Why Do I Feel Like An Impostor? at 185 pages. Perfect.

(Note: For this exercise, you need to use the median, not the average. Averages are useful to see general trends, but when it comes to specifics – like how many pages YOU want in YOUR book – you want the median.)

So now you have a page length. What about word count?

Alright, you know about how many pages you’re shooting for. What does that mean for the actual number of words you need to write?

The general guideline in publishing is that there are 250 words to a page. This is based on the assumption that your book is almost entirely text-based. If you’re making a workbook, journal or devotional, your words-per-page will be different.

So… you just take the page count and multiply it by 250?

Not quite.

Books have a ton of pages that aren’t really pages – blank pages, copyright pages, tables of contents, and dedication pages that say long, profound stuff like, “For Mike, who believed in me”. When you add it all up, it’s usually about 20 pages of not-really-writing.

To find your word count, subtract 20 pages from the actual page count before you do your math.

So if I’m shooting for around 185 pages, like Why Do I Feel Like An Impostor?, here’s how the math works.

  • 185 – 20 pages of fluff = 165 pages
  • 165 pages x 250 words per page = 41,250 words

Therefore, I’m shooting for a total word count of about 41,000 words, give or take.

Do this with your example book, and you’ll have your own number.

Next up…

Monday, we’ll talk about how in the hell you’re supposed to write 41,250 without giving up and moving to a treehouse in Nebraska.


P.S. As a reminder, registration for Write A Book With Me 2021 is now open – get in before the doors close!