How Much Is Enough?

The world of nonfiction books is filled with good intentions. An author has a desire to impart knowledge, and once the process gets under way, it takes on a life of its own. You start to realize that each topic you are covering has complexities that need to be covered. Pretty soon what started as a gleam in your eye has expanded into a manuscript that is hundreds of pages long. You’ve written so much, you don’t remember what you were writing when you started off.

At a certain point you need to stop and look around you. More exactly, you need to go to a bookstore or library and check the other books in your field. If you are writing about the evolution of barns, for instance, you should seek out all those books. You’ll find an array of approaches. Some books consist only of text: they’re pure histories. Others, particularly regional and how-to books, may mix text and drawings. A coffee table book is oversized, filled with stunning color photos and not much text. Who needs text for a Vermont barn at the height of autumn?

Beyond type, you need to examine the average length of the book. If you are writing a book on how to stop a baby from crying at night, you don’t want to write a 400-page tome. Think of the poor, suffering parents that are your main audience. Do they want to spend all that time reading through every possible permutation, from common colic to weird disorders suffered by only one in a million babies? If most of the books on that shelf are 200 pages long, you have to be smart. Write a 200-page book. If they see your big, fat monster, they are likely to think: I don’t have time to read all that.

The same consideration works on the converse side. If you have written only 100 pages, you need to consider adding either more text or more pictures. Yes, in this day of electronic books (think: Kindle Short), you don’t have to worry that your printed book will look like a pamphlet. Yet you do need to think of your reader’s consideration of value. A book is like any other piece of merchandise. If other books are offering 200 pages, the reader may feel that reading 100 pages is taking the cheap route. If you are or you know a wonderful illustrator (not your sister, please), you might commission her to create 20 drawings related to, say, babies and parents.

“A great man is always willing to be little.”  
―Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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