Since we are talking about physical books (as opposed to e-books), your book’s length will be a major factor in how much it costs to print as well as how much you will be able to charge for it. The book’s length will also dictate the scope of the work, what gets included and what gets cut.
If you have unlimited funds, don’t care whether your book sells or are working with a publisher who has written you a blank check, you can let the scope of the material you plan to cover dictate the length. For 99.9% of us, however, that’s not a good approach. It’s how writers end up with unpublishable 200,000 word manuscripts.
It's the author's job to control the material, to shape it into a readable, appropriately sized book. Throwing the kitchen sink at your readers – even in a first draft - is a mistake.
You’ll avoid a lot of headaches, especially during the editing phase, by setting length and scope parameters early.
Finding Your Numbers
Thinking about word and page counts can be daunting and confusing. Not to worry.
If you have a contract with a publishing house, you won’t have to determine the length. Your editor will tell you how long the work needs to be. When she gives you a word count, it’s not a suggestion. It’s a target you need to hit as closely as you can. If the target is 30,000 words and you submit a 75,000 word manuscript, you’ll either be asked to cut it down to size or your work will simply be rejected.
If you’re planning to self-publish, you should still set a word or page limit before you start writing. A good target for a town history, the story of a local attraction or a regional travel guide is 32,000 – 35,000 words. If you include 25 – 30 photos or other illustrations such as maps, and you use the standard dimensions of a trade paperback (six by nine inches), you’ll end up with a 120 – 150 page book.
How do I know that?
I wrote two books for The History Press, a traditional publishing house in Charleston, SC. I’ll talk more about that process in an upcoming post. The History Press is a successful publisher. They know what they’re doing and they publish beautiful books. My recommended word count is based on their guidelines.
Go to the library or a bookstore and browse the local interest section. You’ll likely find several titles from The History Press along with books produced by Arcadia Publishing. Arcadia’s "Images of America" books are illustration intensive, but they are similar in terms of size and number of pages. The History Press and Arcadia are imprints of the same company.
These books retail for about $20, an appealing price for tourists, local people and other members of the general reading public. We’ll talk more about pricing and your potential customers in upcoming posts.
If that size book is not a good fit for your project, find a book that is then estimate its word count. Count the number of words on four or five pages, some with illustrations, some without. Determine a page average then multiply by the total number of pages. Take a rough cut at how many illustrations the book includes. Don’t stress out over this. You’re just trying to get a ballpark figure, something you can use as a guideline.
Your finished book will include a Table of Contents, title pages, maybe a forward, acknowledgements, and possibly an index and/or bibliography. Don’t worry about that at this point. It’s easy to add special material when the main body of the manuscript is completed. These additional elements will not have much of an impact on word or page counts in any case.
Scoping It Out
Now shift your attention to the book’s scope. Sketch a very general outline, just chapter headers or subjects. No Roman numerals required.
For a town history, the outline might look something like this:
- Founding and early families
- Putting down roots
- Tough times and the big flood
- Arrival of Irish immigrants
- Civil War
- Victorian boom town
- The 20th century
- Looking to the future
As I explained above, we’re aiming for 32,000 – 35,000 words. We have eight chapters plus the Intro. That means each chapter should average 4000 words plus a 2000-3000 word Introduction.
Scope problems often become obvious at this point. If your general outline includes 35 chapters, you need to refine your focus. Your subject may be too broad. Or what you have identified as chapter topics might really be subtopics. Cluster similar subjects together then list them in order of importance. Can you combine or eliminate any?
It’s ALWAYS good to have too much material. It gives you the ability to select the best and most interesting elements to include in your book. Before you discard anything, consider the possibility that you may have enough material for more than one book. If that’s the case, sorting through your topics will be much easier.
What if you find yourself in the opposite position? What if you only have four chapters? Each one will have to be around 8000 words to hit the 32,000 – 35,000 word target. Do you really have that much to say on each of your chapter topics? Will everything you plan to include be interesting and relevant to general readers? Be honest with yourself. It’s never a good idea to pad your material to drive up the word count.
Let’s continue with the town history example. Can you expand your topic by adding other elements? Go back to the topic generator exercise in the previous post. Can you come up with a different angle? Could you add some background about what was happening in the state or region at the time? Are there old news stories that might bring the past to life and help flesh out your stories? Could you interview local historians?
Although it can be tough to admit your scope is too broad or too narrow, it’s best to address the issue now. The unhappy alternative is to spend weeks or months writing the wrong book or writing the right book in the wrong way.
In our next post we’ll talk about how to get the manuscript completed in a reasonable timeframe without having a nervous breakdown or alienating your friends and family.