3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter than 80,000 Words

Kill your darlings. It’s a phrase you’ve all heard, but how many of you have been brave enough to be truly ruthless with your own writing, to cut in a big and bold ways when needed? How many of you have written a too-long manuscript and allowed an editor to go in and hack huge swaths of work that represented weeks, maybe months, of effort and tenacity to get on the page? Courageous writers do, but so do writers who understand the business of writing, and why too-long books are more difficult to sell. There are in fact readership, publisher, and cost considerations that factor into why the industry standard for the length of a book is 80,000 words, and I would argue that in today’s publishing climate, less is more. Here’s why:

 

1. Attention spans are shorter. People are reading more than ever, but there’s more competition than ever for those readers’ attention—and not just with other books. As an author you’re competing against online content like blogs and news sites, and against anything readers read. If you can, aim for under 80,000 words. I’ve been working with novelists and memoirists who are writing 60,000-word books, something I would have discouraged ten years ago. Writers will argue with me on this point, I know, reminding me of crazy-long bestsellers (Goldfinch, anyone?) and pointing to authors’ success with long books (J.K. Rowling, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ken Follett), but these authors are the exception, and most readers simply don’t have the attention span for long narratives. So if you’re just starting, aim short; if you’re running long and are pre-publication (and you can stomach it), work with an editor to cut cut cut.

 

2. Overly long books are a red flag to agents and editors. While there will always be space in the literary landscape for authors’ magnum opuses, you shouldn’t feel that your first book needs to be one. In fact, you’re better off if it’s not. Putting yourself on the map with something more modest and reasonable is a good strategy. Long books are a big risk, and they’re difficult to sell because of agents’ and editors’ bandwidth. Publishers, for the most part, do not want to grapple with the higher costs of publishing a long book (see point 3), and most authors could use an aggressive edit. Someone recently told me that she thought Jodi Picoult’s editor was getting a little soft. I thought this was an interesting observation, but it led me to think about the fact that most editors probably err toward being soft because they’re not given the mandate to be aggressive. It’s easy to get very precious about your work, and much more difficult to trust that an objective eye (coupled with your hard follow-up work) may be just what your baby needs to truly thrive in the world. 

 

3. The longer the book, the more expensive it is to produce. Most writers aren’t thinking about the length of their book and its correlation to various expenses, but it’s all publishers are thinking about. And if you’re self-publishing, or footing your own production or printing bill, you need to be thinking about it too. The longer the book, the more expensive the copyedit, design, and printing. If you have a 400-page book, you’re cutting into your profits to keep your price point low. And yet you want to keep the price point competitive to, well, compete. You’ll discover if you end up printing your book print on demand (the way of the future) that a single book is expensive, and it behooves you to keep your page count low. The difference in cost between a 60,000- and 100,000-word edit is about 20 hours of work, and about $1.50/unit on printing. So it’s a big deal—no matter who’s footing the bill.

Do you have a story about having pared down your manuscript that you want to share? Or maybe you have a success story with your long book and you have another angle from which to approach this topic? Either way, I'd love to hear from you.

Image courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.

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Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on June 27, 2015 at 10:59pm

Lloyd, those are great suggestions!  I was actually quoting Brooke in my comment.

Brooke, what about adding photos?  How do publishers generally feel about that?

Comment by Sue Y Wang on June 27, 2015 at 2:50pm

I'm actually relieved to hear this, because my manuscript pre-copy edit is only 53K words. And I honestly can't squeeze more from my head. I admire writers who can write great, interesting long books -I'd certainly read them. Thank you Brooke.

Comment by Lloyd Lofthouse on June 27, 2015 at 7:11am

Kelly is right. It is very easy to add pages by just going from 10 pt type to 12 pt and even different fonts add pages by their style and size. And more pages can be added by creating more space between the lines---and I'm not talking about double spacing.  There are space selections between basic and double that are difficult to detect.

Then there is book size. With the same word count, a 5 x 8 paperback has a lot more pages in it than a 6 x 9 size trade paperback. I think even creme colored paper is thicker than white colored paper.

There's also another trick that adds pages.  Always start your chapters on a page that appears on the right side---that will leave some left side pages blank and increase the page count sometimes by more than 30 pages or more.  Some authors swear this is the only proper way to format a book but if you take time to look at books in a library or bookstore, you will quickly discover that this is not a set-and-fast rule that every publisher follows, and even many of the big 6 publishers don't do it.

Comment by Brooke Warner on June 27, 2015 at 5:40am

Exactly, Kelly. Too funny.

Comment by Kelly Hayes-Raitt on June 26, 2015 at 7:23pm

But there are lots of creative ways to use white space and big margins and illustrations to make a book appear longer than it actually is.>>

Haha, just like when I was in high school trying to make my term papers look longer!  Thanks, Brooke!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!  ...And a pre-publication discount!
Comment by Brooke Warner on June 26, 2015 at 10:40am

Great list, Lloyd! I'm putting this on Facebook too.

Comment by Lloyd Lofthouse on June 26, 2015 at 8:42am

My suggestion is to just write the story and not worry about word count. Then put the story on a shelf of a few weeks or month to get some distance from it before revising. During revisions, the story might grow or shrink.  As we have heard from others in this thread, there are readers for longer, meatier stories but there is also an audience for shorter work.

What's important? I think finishing a rough draft without worrying about word count, commas, sentence structure, spelling, etc. is more important.  Leave the headaches for the revision process, that is arguably for most of us, where we spend more time structuring our work.  And if that means cutting words, then slash and burn when needed without hurting the story.

Comment by M.F. Webb on June 26, 2015 at 8:32am

Lloyd, great list, and good ideas from the blog post too. I agree that worrying too much about word count (and all those other distractions) can get between me and the writing.

Comment by M.F. Webb on June 26, 2015 at 8:28am

Cate, I'll admit that after I commented yesterday I went into my manuscript and cut 850 words! (That's what the sequel is for, right?) Mine is partly a historical, which I hear gives me some leeway in length--but I'm also a believer in "defend every word." That's the one thing I learned from a brief foray into journalism that still stands me well--clean prose developed from cutting to fit.

Comment by Lloyd Lofthouse on June 26, 2015 at 8:18am

Word counts from classics---printed food for thought:

"The Old Man and the Sea" by Hemingway ran 27,000 words

"A Christmas Carol" by Dickens ran 28k

"Animal Farm" by Orwell ran 29k

"Of Mice and Men" by Steinbeck ran 30k

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis ran 36k

"Fahrenheit 451" by Bradbury ran 46k

To see the longer list, just click the link.

http://griffinpauljackson.com/2013/07/25/book-word-counts/

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