A common question I get is “How long should my book be?” There are different answers for different genres, of course, but for my clients, we’re usually talking about business, thought-leadership, self-help, or professional-development books.
To answer the immediate question, let’s look at some numbers. Then, more importantly, let’s talk strategy and consider some case studies. How long should your book be?
Book Length by the Numbers
When talking about book length, it’s common to talk about word count rather than page count. A typical manuscript page (8.5×11 paper, 1-inch margins, standard 11- or 12-point font, doublespaced—like you would type in Word) is considered to be 250 words.
So a 25,000-word manuscript is about 100 pages. A 50,000-word manuscript is 200 pages. The arithmetic is straightforward. (Of course, your page count in the final book can vary greatly depending on formatting choices: margins, fonts, linespacing, graphics, white space, and so on.)
While there is no one right answer to “How long should my book be?” here are a few guidelines.
Short Book Length
One client tells a story of the time she agreed to swap books with another author. The other person handed her a very slender volume, almost a booklet. When my client offered her copy, the other author held it and said, “Oh, you have a real book.”
In my opinion, if your nonfiction book is fewer than about 30,000 words (120 pages), it does not feel substantial enough to be “real” book.
Long Book Length
At the other end of the spectrum a book of 80,000 to 100,000 words has significant heft, 320-400 pages. This is not an uncommon length in traditional publishing, especially (in my observation) for nonfiction books that are heavy on research. But the modern attention span is shrinking and, in my opinion, 300 pages starts to test the limits of many readers (there are always exceptions). I infrequently see self-published authors attempt this length.
Book Lengths in the Sweet Spot
For my client base, which includes experienced consultants, coaches, and speakers who self-publish, I find a nice book length is somewhere in the 40,000- to 70,000-word range, which is 160-280 pages. Long enough to feel substantial, short enough not to intimidate potential readers.
When in doubt, I suggest people target 50,000 words to start; then we can assess and see whether there are gaps, too much fluff, etc., and adjust accordingly.
Strategy for Deciding Book Length
Now you have a feel for acceptable book length, but that’s not all there is to it. Choosing an effective book length depends not only on your content but on your goals, your audience, your publishing route, and your book format.
Once you start looking at what content you have relative to suggested word counts (above), you may realize you don’t have enough for a full-length book. Perhaps you need to develop more content over time.
But assuming you do have enough content, if are you trying to write a comprehensive guide, your book will be on the longer side. If you want to transfer the most critical information to get the reader started, your book may be on the shorter side. And most of us, I imagine, fall somewhere in between, offering a robust yet boundaried discussion.
If you’re writing a book simply to say you’ve got a book, the length doesn’t matter. But most of us have another goal in mind. What’s yours? Here are some common ones my clients have. I want to…
- Position myself as a thought leader so I can influence more people.
- Increase my credibility in order to raise my professional fees and attract clients.
- Use my book as a marketing tool to more easily get consulting, coaching, and speaking engagements.
While these goals are not mutually exclusive, in my opinion, thought leadership goals may require a book with more heft; a credibility goal looks more like the sweet-spot range; and a pure marketing play may be able to go shorter.
Book Audience (and Business Audience)
Your audience begins with the people who will read your book. Depending on your goals though—for example, if you are using your book to sell other services—your audience may also include decision makers who view the book (remember it’s a marketing tool) but don’t necessarily read it.
- What are the demographics (e.g., age, gender, profession) and psychographics (e.g., favors quality over price, enjoys challenging assumptions) of your audience?
- What is their attention span?
- Are they high-level delegators, or detailed doers?
- Is their focus on tasks, or relationships?
- How often do they read, and do they like to read?
Consider the differences you might find between an executive and an academic. Or a professional in between jobs and a salesperson trying to hit a quota. How might those differences influence your choice of book length?
If you are seeking a traditional publisher, you may need to pay attention to industry norms and what’s happening in the specific genre you’re targeting. (And in nonfiction you’ll probably want to sell the concept before you write the book, so book length may be a moot point until then.)
With self-publishing, you can choose whatever book length you want. Note however, there’s a reason certain norms exist; going far outside of them may work for you—or it may not.
What format book are you developing? As I work, my primary consideration tends to be with the print book (my own bias), which I want to feel substantial. I almost always suggest an ebook (e.g., for Kindle or Nook) as well. The sweet spot range I suggested (40k-70k words) seems to work well for both formats.
If you are only interested in developing an ebook, you can comfortably go to the lower end of the wordcount range. Note: If your ebook is short, best practice is to indicate the word count or page count in your online description so readers don’t feel misled.
If you are developing an online giveaway, such as a PDF for readers to download from your website, my recommendation is to go for a booklet rather than a full book. In my opinion, PDFs are great for shorter documents like white papers, but are still not as reader-friendly for book length works. (Others may disagree.)
Here are three real-life examples that take into account strategy with respect to book length.
Crisis and Resilience Book
When Becky Sansbury wrote After the Shock, she wanted to help people in crisis build resilience. She knew her audience would be facing time constraints, difficulty focusing, and emotional extremes. Readers would need to get in and out of the book quickly and easily for short periods of time.
As a result, we chunked the information into small pieces—short paragraphs, bulleted lists, clear headings. We provided an overview of the concepts at the beginning of the book, and we offered summaries at the end of each chapter as well as a compilation of the chapter summaries at the end of the book. People with extremely limited time can read the 14-page overview at the beginning and the six pages of chapter summaries at the end and still walk away with useful new perspective.
The overview and summary information led to some redundancy in the book, which increased the word count to around 60k words, but that intentionally designed structure offered readers more options for getting the information they needed.
You can hear more about the strategy for Becky’s book in the 5-minute video on my speaking page.
Sales Leadership Book
One of my clients is writing a book about sales leadership. As we talked through the strategy questions, we noted the following:
- He wants to use the book as a tool in sales training classes as well as to generate new training business.
- He wants to offer information that sales leaders don’t often hear, ideas that can shift their perspective of what their role really is.
- The sales leaders he works with tend to be fast moving and focused on relationships rather than tasks. A few are armchair psychologists who want to understand the intricacies of the human psyche, but more often they want to understand the practical implications. They want to know how to have an impact on the sales team and on sales.
Based on our assessment, my advice was to keep the book on the shorter side, maybe 30,000-50,000 words. This audience seems unlikely to wade through dense text, so I recommended breaking the information into short segments with the most important points clearly called out. (Read more about using emphasis effectively.) Additionally, using plenty of white space in the formatting will help readers keep turning the pages so they feel like they are progressing quickly.
In transformational self-help or spiritual books, even if the words are simple, the concepts can be complex. Sometimes a shorter book is preferred because it allows space for absorbing and processing deep concepts.
Maryann Patalano’s book The Peephole Effect teaches people to use the power of perception to create the life they want. It may sound simple, but it’s not easy. It requires self-awareness, acknowledgement of responsibility for our own lives, and acceptance of our power to change.
Maryann’s book is about 35,000 words. To me, this shorter length feels just right for the weight of a transformational concept. More words would not enhance the book; they would only make it cumbersome. Additionally, Maryann creates mental and physical space in her book by offering self-reflection questions for the reader.
If you’re just starting your book, consider your strategy upfront. It will save you time and energy by clarifying what you’re really trying to accomplish, which leads to an easier decision about the right book length.
If you’ve already drafted your book, a good editor can guide you on what needs to be cut and what needs to be expanded to meet your book goals and to get your readers the information they need, the way they need it.
Ultimately, your book needs to be as long as it needs to be to say what you need to say—and not a word longer. And that’s the trick, right?
Got a manuscript you’re not sure about? I offer manuscript intensives that assess not only book length, but structure, content, and craft. We’ll look at what’s working, what adjustments could improve your book, and how your book supports your strategic goals. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.