How Many Pages in a Book?

In yesterday’s email, Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers discussed this question. Here are the excerpts of what he said.

“The length of your manuscript matters. Partly, there’s just a crude commercial standard, varying somewhat by genre, as to how long a book needs to be. Subject to one major qualification (more on that later), the crude commercial standard is a thing of iron. You need to live within its constraints, or not be published.

“Let’s start with the Crude Commercial Standard. Every market for books has a set of largely standard prices. In the US, for example, a standard hardcover novel will retain at about $25. The same book with paper covers will sell at about $16-17. The cost of manufacturing a 200-page book is very largely the same as manufacturing a 400-page one. Most of the actual cost of the book lies in things like the author’s advance, the editorial process, the publicity and marketing, and so on, most of which are largely independent of length. That’s the main reason why price doesn’t vary much with quantity.

“But customers don’t think like that. If a customer notices that Someone Dies on a Train by Chris Agather is 400 pages long and selling for $25, they’ll resent paying the same price for the 200-page Someone Dies on a River by Aggie Christopher. Readers will buy the first book and ignore the second, while the latter’s publisher will learn not to put out a 200-page book.

“At this point, most actual readers will want to scream at me that some of their favourite books are very short. And OK, they are. But the customer hesitating between Someone Dies on a Train and Someone Dies on a River doesn’t know much about the quality of either book. The one certain piece of data is that the longer book will deliver more hours of reading than the shorter one – and for the same price. So (subject to the big qualification we’ll come to later) very short books don’t sell. They, mostly, aren’t even published.

“Following this logic, the Crude Commercial Standard therefore says that commercial novels need to be a minimum of 70 or 75,000 words to sell. Literary novels might start a bit smaller – say, 60,000 words or even 50,000. Nevertheless, the damn things need enough heft to satisfy the reader’s demand for value. The CCS doesn’t really have a firm upper end. There are sites on the internet which will tell you that 120,000 words is a hard upper limit, but it really, truly isn’t. My first book was more than 180,000 words long when it was published. The entire editorial process with HarperCollins didn’t shave more than a few thousand words from the original manuscript – and that shaving came mostly from me, not them.

“Likewise, epic fantasy fiction is meant to run long. Plenty of big historical fiction runs long. Plenty of thrillers run long. And of course, children’s and YA books run short. In every case, you just need to figure out how the CCS affects your particular market. OK. So much for the basics.

“The more Zen point is this. A professional reader – a Jericho editor, a skilled mentor, or a literary agent – will be able to read a synopsis and feel how long the book should be. Some stories feel like 80,000 words ones. Others feel like they need 120,000 words or more. I don’t pretend that this is an exact science, but it’s a real one all the same. I remember once reading a manuscript which was really good. A love story, with some extra trimmings, set in a great location, with good characters and some strong writing. That story should have been easy to sell. But it was 120,000 words long and the (fairly simple) story called for 80,000 words, or 90,000 tops. I told the author to delete text without removing content. That feels like a puzzling instruction – but I meant it literally. If you have five sentences of description about (say) a Victorian horse-market, you will almost certainly find that you can convey all the relevant atmosphere in three. If you have four paragraphs describing a rail journey from Vienna to Trieste, you can probably handle that in one or two. Authors who tend towards the prolix will also find that an eighteen-word sentence can be reduced to twelve without actually saying anything materially different. The mantra has to be, “Reduce length, maintain content”. If you do that, you’ll find you actually enhance your content, because you’ll be deleting the least effective words / sentences / paragraphs, so the impact of what’s left will be all the greater.

“(I should also say that although it’s much more common for people to need to cut their work, it can operate the other way round as well. Sometimes a writer delivers a book that’s fine – just too short. Journalists in particular, trained in being sparing and factual, can be guilty of this. The trick here, once you’ve recognised the issue, is to figure out where the book is missing. It’s often textural stuff: descriptions of place, of feeling, of character nuance.)

“The author of that 120,000 word book struggled at first to do what I’d asked. The manuscript came back with maybe 2,000 words shaved off it, then – after I’d yelled at her again – another 5,000 words. It was only after the book went out to agents (and secured plenty of interest, but no firm offers of representation) that the writer sat down and really properly addressed what I’d asked her to do originally. The book came down to well below 100,000 words, and it wasn’t just shorter. It was denser, it was better, it was richer, it was more alive. That book secured an agent and, subsequently, a book deal. It deserved to. The book had found its proper weight and, at its proper weight, sold easily. Oh yes, and the one big qualification when it comes to the Crude Commercial Standard? Simple. The better the book, the less the CCS matters. If you are an author of genius, then write whatever the heck you want. The market will find a way to sell it. “

This seems to me a very useful discussion of how long a manuscript should be.

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