Almost by definition, authors who decide to self-publish a book are new amateurs in the book world. So, they often have expectations and reactions to books that aren’t conditioned by long-term exposure to “how the sausage is made.” Book length is one of these.
Best Book Length is Highly Subjective
For instance, I just completed a large project that had to go back to editorial after the book had been laid out. Why let yourself in for that kind of added expense, you ask? Because the author considered the book too long. His perception was that people would not buy a book over 400 pages.
Where does this expectation come from? Most likely from the author’s own preferences. If you won’t buy a book over 400 pages because it puts you to sleep, then you might naturally assume that others feel the same way.
I’ve had the same request—to reduce the size or page count of a book after its been laid out—from people publishing business books. There, the perception is that busy business people will not buy books over 250 pages because, after all, they don’t have time for that. You’ve got to give them the message and get moving.
In fact, 9 of the top 10 best-selling business books on Amazon are between 192 and 240 pages, considered the “sweet spot” for business books. Long enough to be taken seriously, short enough to appear to be a quick read, regardless of how many actual words are in the manuscript.
The Other Side of the Dilemma
Even more common is the author who is dismayed when she finds out the manuscript she’s labored over will set up very nicely to create a 160-page book.
What’s the matter with a 160-page book, you ask? Here are some of the things authors have said to me over the years:
- It’s not thick enough.
- The spine is very thin.
- It has no “heft” and doesn’t feel like a book.
- It won’t be taken seriously.
- People will think it’s not worth the price.
Of course, all the authors who said these things were really telling me about their own expectations about books. Since they have no experience publishing, marketing, or selling books, their opinions were almost completely based on “gut feelings,” “instincts” or “what my friends said.”
New authors often feel like they have to justify themselves when, in fact, their best justification is the excellence of the book they produce—which has nothing to do with page count.
Another Way to Look at Book Length
While there may be niches in which book length is a critical factor in the success of a book, they are rare.
The length of the book and the way it’s presented, the entire “package” that makes up the book including the title, the cover graphics, the backstory used to sell the book, all should come from the work itself. The book length is not that important. What you want is a really good book that’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story or explain your subject.
Short and to the Point
One of the books that changed my life was Healing Back Pain by John Sarno, MD. In it, Dr. Sarno lays out his case for the cause of most of the back pain his patients experience. It’s a brilliant, focused, diagnostic piece of writing.
I mean diagnostic because, as Dr. Sarno says, there’s only one way to determine whether you can be helped by his method: if you believe his diagnosis. His book brilliantly creates the condition for this diagnosis in the reading of it. In fact, the book is most effective as a tool if it’s given to people who are in pain when they are reading it.
But that’s beside the point. What I’m getting at is this: the whole exposition in the book takes 84 pages. Now, you can’t publish an 84-page paperback if you’re a major publisher. Looking at the book, it appears that the editor had the author “flesh out” the book with random essays on the mind-body problem in medicine and other material.
But this material is completely unnecessary, and the book would have been as good—better, in my mind—if it had been left with the simple, straightforward 84 pages that are the heart of the book.
The Case for Organic Book Length
On the other hand, a book can “go long” as far as it wants, as long as it keeps providing useful information, or keeps us interested. Long novels can be glorious, involving, don’t-want-it-to-end experiences. And nonfiction that’s compelling, interesting, and informative can captivate for hundreds of pages. This requires some skill at writing, understanding your audience and having a good editor.
So why allow our prejudices to influence our book's production? Although we want to be guided by what others are doing in our genre, these guidelines are a lot looser than you might think. Quality writing sets its own rules including book length.
Let that book live its life. It deserves it.
Catch up on all of Joel's posts on book design and production in our archives. And If you haven't seen the new version of BookWorks, please check us out for more great content like this and join our community of indie authors, editors, coaches, designers, marketers, bloggers and other self-publishing pros.