• Brooke Warner
  • 3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter than 80,000 Words
This blog was featured on 08/29/2016
3 Good Reasons to Keep Your Book Shorter than 80,000 Words
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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.

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Comments
  • 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?

  • Sue Y Wang

    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.

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    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.

  • Exactly, Kelly. Too funny.

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

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    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.

  • M.F. Webb

    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.

  • M.F. Webb

    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.

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    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/

  • @Kelly—that's a good practice, actually, to defend every word. I like it. The minimum today is lower than it used to be. When I was at Seal a 60K book was our unofficial minimum. Different publishers have different ways of packaging their books, and more publishers are getting creative about how they'll package books. Lately—again I think because readers are overwhelmed and people seem to have less time than ever—there is a trend toward little books. Anne Lamott's Help, Thanks, Wow, for instance, is 112 pages. I would guess that it's about 30,000 words. The only thing a publisher is concerned about when it comes to a short short book is that the book be big enough to have a bound spine. 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.

  • Good article and valuable advice, Brook. Right now I'm going through what Marshal-Smith is; that is, revising my memoir, after laying it aside for a year. I' m getting pretty good at slashing now. I think a hiatus does help to get some new perspective and possibly enough distance so the slashing doesn't hurt so much.

  • Brooke, great blog and interesting discussion. I think my book will end up at ~ 52,000 words. Is that considered too short? Is there a minimum point where a publisher feels a book isn't worth the cost? (...Like what Adrienne Ross Scanlan is dealing with?)

    I write a newspaper column, so I'm forced to be a tyrannical word counter! One of my standard edits for each chapter of my book is to challenge myself to cut 10% of the words. It's a great exercise -- forces me to "defend" every word.

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt
    www.LivingLargeInLimbo.com
    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!

  • M.F. Webb

    I'm right there with you, Cate. I've in a phase lately where I'm reading 800-page books, and right now I'm likely to pass over a short book completely because I feel that I'll barely be into the story before it's over. There are exceptions, of course. 

    One thing that helps me is realizing that the books I'm reading now were published a decade ago. Publishing and readers' tastes are both subject to trends, and interest will wax and wane accordingly. By the time your book (or mine!) is ready to hit the stores, or the internet, we might be back to a long book trend.  Remember, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a very successful doorstop  not so long ago, and it's just been made into a BBC television series. No one can say what will happen in the future. I take comfort there.

  • I have the opposite problem. A publisher is interested in my 33,000 word non-fiction book but considers it too "short." She wants me to increase the word count closer to 40,000 largely for some word count / page count financial break-even point. So, I need to increase the word count but in a way that doesn't artificially pad the pages. I'm focusing on small places where I can insert more of a personal story without distracting from the book's larger issues.

  • Thanks for your insights, Lloyd, and good luck!

  • Mary Ellen, I think this is a very valid point about sci-fi. Thanks for bringing it up. Too often genre fiction gets left out of the conversation when we're making broad generalizations in the industry and I think it plays by its own set of rules a lot of the time.

  • Just a thought: It wasn't that long ago that we were being told to pare to 100,000 words. So 80,000 is the new 100,000. What's next? Flash fiction is the new novel?

  • I'm in the middle of revision. I found putting the novel away for almost a year allowed me to gain objectivity. It becomes much easier to slash through work when it is no longer darling.

  • Kathy Purc

    This is good news for introverts! We tend to be people of few words anyway. Writing "fill" to achieve a word count is against our very nature, loathsome, even.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this! After I did a writer's conference I came home and did a bold move of cutting my manuscript into book one and the sequel. That set it from 85,000 to 56,000. I still have an Epilogue to write. Each time I did edits I got stressed when my word count went down. Now I will not worry at all. All my research had come up with 70,000 to 80,000 minimum. So this is a whole new perspective and big relief. Now I will keep my eye on content not word count. Thanks!

  • MK Meredith

    Great article! During the edits of my first book they were really wanting to cut it down even though it is single title. Your article helps me understand the reasoning behind this more. 

    Thank you!

  • Lloyd Lofthouse

    Great advice and it makes total sense. For instance, my first novel came out in two parts, the prequel in December 2007, and then a sequel in 2010 (about 125k words each), and after sales took off in  2011 (it took about three years of relentless promotion to prime-the-pump and get sales moving), the monthly average ran between 346 - 387 copies sold at the full price until I made the horrible mistake in early 2013 to combine the two together in a third edition and get rid of the prequel and sequel---and at more than 600 pages with about a quarter million words, sales literally dropped off a cliff.  What is that modern day saying---"My bad!" (or something like that)?  I have no excuse unless I can claim temporary insanity.

    The only way to revive sales has been to drop the price to $0.99 for a brief few day sale in conjunction with a BookBub ad, and that worked twice (in 2013 & 2014) with this year running a free offer through BookBub, but it usually doesn't take long once the price is back up for sales to return to an average of 30 - 50 a month. That 250k word count is like an anchor dragging the book down to the bottom of the ocean.

    And now that I've read your post, I feel a need to thank my editor, who cut the word count of my fourth novel from 89k to 72.5k, before it was released.  I take it that the sweet spot is now between 60k - 80k.

    My plans for my current project were to aim for 100,000 words for each novel in a five book series, but now I'm going to downsize to 80k per book, and that means I'm almost half way there with the first one.  Thanks.  :o)

  • Mary Ellen Wall

    Every book in my SF adventure series is 90-100K, they work out that way. I have read in more than one place that science fiction is allowed more room for world-building, and when submitting to Baen (years ago when I began the series) they wanted at least 100K. I ended up self publishing and sell virtually no print books, not at over $14 a pop. I sell e-books for the same price as the short books. As a previous commenter noted, short books hold little interest to me and worst of all is a novella. I want to get into the story and often buy series with each book 90K+. All that said, I am tempted to make my next series 20% shorter to answer the cited trend. Or at least try.

  • Good luck, Jean!