The Size at Conception

I become involved in certain books in their opening stages, and that preliminary process can entail teasing out from an author what in fact they have to say. I wish above all to see if the book has enough unique or fresh angles to make it stand out from the pack. I query how the author’s base of information is going to break down into chapters. During that latter process I also am trying to discover if the author has assembled enough information or designed enough plot lines to fill up a book. 

If you have never written a book before, you may be surprised by how many words they eat up. An industry standard for number of words on a double-spaced manuscript page is 250. Simple math then tells you that in order to write 200 pages, you need 50,000 words. That is a common minimum for a nonfiction submission, and a novelist may learn that publishers aren’t interested in what could be considered a novella. You also have to figure that a double-spaced manuscript page will shrink when it is transformed into a book page. A book designer can do wonders with either compressing or inflating a manuscript, but you can assume a ratio of manuscript to book pages as 3:2 for long manuscripts, and 4:3 for slim ones. Now let’s stop and apply that to 200 pages. That means your book is going to be 150 pages. That’s a skinny book, with barely enough width of its spine to be seen on a book shelf. Even if the designer layers the page with white space, making the ratio 1:1, 200 pages is still slim.

You may object that in this day of Kindle Shorts, the spine width of a physical book doesn’t matter. I am a fan of ebooks, so don’t get me wrong, but you have to ask yourself: is all I ever wanted from my dream an electronic book? Every author I have worked with expresses a desire, even if they are going the indie ebook route, to eventually see the book come out in physical form. 

Since nonfiction is the realm in which girth is more often the problem, I’ll address that in this post. (Expanding a novel is an easier task, because you can always layer in another main character or a few more twists.) Publishers and most readers are aware of a phenomenon known informally as the “big magazine article.” We’ve all experienced books that really needed to be only 50 pages long, and we end up reading later chapters filled with rewording of the same points over and over. Those are the ones where I check out by Chapter 5 or so, and then skim the later chapters to see if there actually is anything new. You’d be surprised, incidentally, by how many academic books suffer from this same problem of filler. Not all residents of the ivory tower can astonish us every time out.

This problem can be addressed at the conception. You can judge how long each chapter is going to be by writing a paragraph outline for each topic within the chapter. Let’s say you believe each chapter can be 20 pages long. So you need a minimum of 10 chapters. If you had 15 chapters, though, you’d have a 300-page book. Or, if you increased the length of each chapter to 25 pages, you’d have 250 pages. The numbers don’t lie, so be honest with yourself and ask: Do I need to make the concept larger?

Exercise: Let’s say you have a program for the best way to exercise. You deliver an opening pitch to potential clients that wows them every time. You have to realize, however, that the pitch may only amount to 30-40 pages of text. You better start thinking about the other components in the program. Could you recruit the physical therapist to include the exercises she uses with athletes? That’s a chapter. With aging baby boomers? That’s a chapter. Do you have a diet regimen for overweight clients putting too much pressure on their joints? That’s a chapter  . . . and so on.

“Books are never finished. They are merely abandoned.” —Oscar Wilde

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine

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