The most popular article on my website—by far—is How Long Should Your Nonfiction Book Be?. My writerly answer: “Use as many words as you need and no more.” My strategic answer: “Match your book length to your readers’ needs and your brand promise—while paying attention to genre norms.” My practical answer: “Probably 30,000 words for it to feel substantial enough to be a ‘real’ book.”
A reader emailed in reference to that article: “I think I will be able to say everything I want in less than 20,000 words, and I don’t like fluff. The content itself is pretty dense and at times rather technical. Would 20,000 words cut it for this book, or do I need to rack my brain to think of more things to write about?”
Great question. Let’s look at why you might want a shorter book, tips for how to shorten your book, and options for formatting a shorter book.
Why write a shorter book
There are any number of legitimate reasons for writing a shorter book.
Your audience wants it. In general, attention spans—and average book lengths—are shrinking. Analyze your audience to see how applicable the incredible shrinking trend is for your book. Many of my clients write for executives who don’t have time to wade through unnecessary verbiage and are looking for an “East Coast-West Coast” read.
Your topic benefits from it. Dense or introspective topics, such as spirituality, often benefit from being shorter; space allows difficult concepts to breathe. Books that are intended to offer an overview of a subject may benefit from being shorter as well.
Your brand demands it. If your brand is light and agile, your book should be as well.
Traditional publishers might push for longer books, but when you’re publishing independently, you get to choose the strategy that works for you and your business.
Tips for writing a shorter book
You might naturally have a shorter book, or you might decide you want a shorter book. How to trim your book’s physique?
Put yourself on a “word diet.” When I edit clients’ work, it is common for me to reduce the wordcount by 20%. Usually I am not cutting content—I am cutting extra words that make the sentences inefficient. Set yourself a “word-loss goal.” If you have 35,000 words, set a goal to cut 20% and get down to 28,000. Cutting flabby words builds verbal muscle.
Hire an editor. Unlike your personal trainer, who can’t do your workout for you, an editor can cut words for you! But you must let the editor know that’s the type of editing you want. And then you have to be open to their suggestions.
Ask beta readers for feedback. When you have beta readers look at your draft manuscript, ask them to mark anyplace their attention wanders. Check those areas for repetition, overexplaining, and nice-to-know rather than need-to-know information.
For a book of any length, I can guarantee tightening the language will strengthen the book.
Ways to format a shorter book
You’ve got several options for a shorter book, with a few extra considerations.
Stick with print. There’s no reason you can’t print a short book. To give your book slightly more heft, consider a smaller trim size to generate more pages. Also make design choices that fill more space, such as a larger font, larger margins, or the use of graphic elements. However, don’t overdo it—jumbo fonts and excessive margins tell a reader you lack confidence that you have enough to say.
Note: Fewer pages means a narrower book spine; at some point, the spine isn’t thick enough to display text. On KDP, the minimum for spine text on a paperback is 100 pages; on IngramSpark, it’s 48. If you go very short, your book may not be thick enough for a perfect bound spine; instead you might have to use saddle-stitching.
Go e-book only. Shorter books can be great for Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers. You avoid the hassle of print layout and, if it’s appropriate for your strategy, you can price your book very low to attract new readers who might be risk-averse.
Note: In your online book description, make the book length clear so readers aren’t surprised. If the book is fewer than 15,000–20,000 words, I’d consider the next option.
Go for graphic design. Rather than giving your book a typical black-and-white text interior, make it a beautiful, full-color, graphically designed “book.” Offer a free PDF download on your website—in exchange for readers’ email addresses. Consider printing a limited number of full-color copies to share with prospects and clients in person.
Note: At some point (under 15,000 words perhaps) you have to make the call whether your “book” is really a white paper or a report. Those formats are incredibly valuable as well, so give them the appropriate label and leverage them for what they are.
Back to our original question…
“With a dense, sometimes technical topic, is 20,000 words enough?”
Back to our typical consultant answer: “It depends.” If you’ve said what you need to say, you’ve eliminated fluff, and your beta readers (who reflect your audience) say it’s enough, it’s enough. But if you leave your readers confused or with critical questions due to gaps in content, it’s not enough.
Assuming it is enough, at 20,000 words, you have a choice of print and/or e-book, depending on your audience, brand, and strategy. With strategic formatting, a print book can rightfully reach 100 pages—a slender volume for sure, but in this case, a shorter book may be exactly what’s needed.
Not sure if you’ve got fluff, or need to fill gaps? A manuscript critique and strategy intensive may be beneficial. Know you’ve got filler but don’t know how to eliminate it? Let’s talk editing. To set up a conversation, get in touch at 919.609.2817 or email@example.com.