How many pages do I need to write?
A question that most writers — especially newer writers — will inevitably ask themselves at some stage in the writing process is this:
How long should my book be?
Whether it’s before you’ve typed out the first word, or right up to one week before publication – is my book too long? Too short?
So, what is the average length of a non-fiction book? And what does this mean for your book? I get asked this a lot, and my answer is always the same:
Not a very satisfying answer, I know, but I say it for a reason.
Non-fiction and fiction are different
Non-fiction, unlike fiction, does not have the same rigorous requirements for structures, pages, sizes and words that you will want to follow to be accepted into a particular category.
So, if you don’t have to follow protocol, why would you put restrictions on yourself and make it harder than it already is?
I believe that the one golden rule for the length of a non-fiction book is this:
Your book must be long enough to teach the reader everything you wish them to know; but short enough to keep their attention so they don’t give up part-way through.
Is that definitive?
Does that give you a definitive answer? No, of course not, because every book is different; everything you want to teach is different.
My best advice is this, don’t waste your time asking yourself,
How long should my non-fiction book be?
The answer will always be the same — as long as it needs to be.
Instead, ask yourself these four questions, and allow your answers to guide your decision.
1. Am I publishing an ebook, or a print book?
A choice about the format of your book will be influenced by the content you are delivering, and the very practical consideration of the cost of producing it.
There’s a certain value expectation with the format of your book that means a reader will make a judgement about your book and the price tag you can place on it.
Ebooks come with a lot of price flexibility because, once the fixed costs (formatting, design, editing etc) are covered, there is (almost) zero ongoing cost per book for the delivery of an ebook.
Print books have to be priced to cover the cost of production, as well as a healthy margin to allow the retailer to discount your book from time to time.
And because price influences a reader’s expectation, you have to take final cost into consideration when you are deciding the length of your book.
A short book, bought online, is usually priced below the print book — often half the price, or even less — which makes it an easier buying decision for a potential customer.
Although page numbers do appear on the Amazon (and other) descriptions, ebooks rarely have page numbers, and any sensible reader will judge the value of their purchase on the content of the book, not its length.
Alternatively, a short, say 20,000 word, hardback or paperback will have to strike a fine balance between a price that covers printing costs and a price that seems like good enough value for your reader to buy it off the shelf.
I own some very short books, and I value them, but I also own some short ebooks that I wouldn’t want to pay upwards of $12 to own in print.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re selling in ebook format only, you have much more flexibility over length and, in fact shorter is often better because your reader is more likely to finish and value the content. Around 40,000-50,000 words is absolutely typical, although a good quality short ebooks can also weigh into at 12,000-20,000 words, a nice range if you are writing in a series (see below).
If you’re going to have a print copy of your book, you probably want a certain ‘heft’ to align with the perceived value a customer might attach when browsing the bookshop shelf or the Amazon online catalogue. This means you’re more likely to be in the 50,000-80,000 word range, perhaps up to 100,000-120,000 words if your book is more technical.
2. How visual is my book?
Does your book make heavy use of non-written content such as graphics, infographics, pictures, cartoons or large tables, charts etc? If so, then you would expect fewer words per page, and therefore fewer words in the book as a whole.
You are delivering your message through the visual, not the verbal. This is especially true if your non-written content is an integral part of experiencing the book, or highly informative.
An author who makes strong use of visuals is Austin Kleon, a self-professed “writer who draws”. Kleon’s books are a highly creative combination of the written word and the graphical and he uses his own infographics, quotes and cartoons throughout the book. His style suits his work and is a fit for his audience, and the actual word count per book is low (little more than a few thousand words in total) compared to the page count (around 200 pages).
However — a word of warning: don’t stuff your book full of irrelevant images and graphs just to fatten up the page count. Readers are smart and they will see through this.
Whatever your medium, the watchword is still value. Otherwise you risk damaging your reputation, your brand and your business.
3. Am I writing a series, or a standalone book?
Fiction writers do this exceptionally well, and it’s a strategy that we non-fiction writers can also make use of: write in a series.
A series is a collection of related books on a single topic, or closely related topics. And you are splitting your content out of what would have been potentially quite a large non-fiction book into several smaller books.
It’s good for you, the author, because you can go deep rather than wide, and you have more books which means you can market them more creatively.
And it’s good for the reader because he or she can pick and choose which part of the series they want to read depending on what is relevant to them.
Let’s say you are writing about social media and, rather than covering everything in one book, you break it into shorter books on the different platforms. Your reader does not have to trawl through ten chapters they won’t make use of just to find instruction on the two they will. (It’s also easier for you to update a single book as the medium changes.)
You have a marketing advantage because a series of books gives you options to create bundles. While each standalone title might seem a little ‘thin’ on its own, three books offer a lot more perceived value and can be sold at, say, one and a half times the cover price of each book, offering great value for the reader.
However, again, value should be your watchword when deciding whether a series is for you. Don’t write a series of books just so that you can create a bundle unless you are confident that each book has enough content to stand alone.
Books in a series can be shorter, but each one still has to meet the standard of ‘complete content’, whether that’s a process, a lesson, or an experience.
Likewise, don’t use ‘filler content’ to pad out the books with repetitive instruction or unimaginative stories, just to up your word count. If the three short books you’ve written should really be one longer non-fiction book, then your reader will spot this and feel cheated.
4. How will a reader consume my book?
Whatever your motivation for writing, you want your reader to consumer your material.
As an expert, teacher, coach or consultant, you are positioning your work so that readers will buy more from you — whether that’s more books, or more of your other products and services. Which is why it’s important that they read the book (or at least some of it!)
If you’re still struggling to decide the word count and overall length of your book, then this may be the decider. Simply ask yourself:
How do I imagine my reader using this book?
- Is your book going to be something they treasure? A prized possession that will sit by a desk or on a centre-shelf? Not necessarily read in full, but valued for being a thing of beauty.
- Or is it a pocket-sized book full of dog-ears and highlighting that is pulled out five times a day for easy referencing?
- Or does it belong on the bookshelf between others in the same category? Something that makes them think, to be pulled out on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a few chapters here and there before being passed on to a friend?
Envisioning how you want your book to be used by your ideal reader will be a good guide for your target word count.
A great example of this is Seth Godin’s 80-page pocket book, The Dip: a little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick). The title says it all – it is a little book; there is one main lesson, and for this, 80 pages is enough.
A book this size is perfect for a flight, a long train ride or even for a weeks’ worth of commuting. It might stay on your bookshelf after that, but it will never be a coffee table book or one you reference frequently.
On the other hand you will find William Zinsser’s book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Non-fiction, to be a four part monolith that would weigh down any pocket it finds itself in.
And quite rightly, as the topic of ‘writing well‘ demands well in excess of 300 pages, and belongs on your bedside table for the weeks it might take you to read, before it is transferred to your desk for ongoing inspiration and reference.
For you, deciding how your audience will most likely read your book is an easy guide to deciding whether to cut those extra 10,000 words (or not).
In the end, it’s up to you
With so much diversity in non-fiction, it’s self-defeating to try to set rules on the length of a book. Nothing is standard, and with the opportunities available for printing, the only ‘right’ answer to “How long should my book be?” is,
How long do you want it to be?
Word count is not the be-all and end-all of your book.
When you write nonfiction, practically anything goes – and this is something to embrace, not to lose sleep over.
As long as you have said everything you want to say, and nothing that you don’t, then your non-fiction book is already the perfect length.
How long are your books? Have you found they get longer, or shorter over time? We’d love to know on social media!